Sunday, June 19, 2005

And so it begins

Christopher Nolan may not be a household name yet, but if his latest movie "Batman: Begins" is any indication, he is well on his way. The 35-year-old Nolan first received widespread attention with his film "Memento" which earned him rave reviews from critics, two Academy Award nominations and around $24 million from the box office. He followed that effort with the Al Pacino thriller "Insomnia" which made $26 million in its opening weekend but didn't quite have the same critical impact as "Memento".

I never sat through all of "Memento" but I had seen "Insomnia" and thought it was good enough. Certainly not memorable enough that I could tell you much about the plot other than a couple of scenes where Al Pacino took an inordinately long amount of time to close some blinds in his Alaskan hotel room. And so it was that June 18th found me standing in line for the 3pm IMAX showing of "Batman: Begins" with some apprehension. After all, Batman is one of my favorite comic book characters and I still have not been able to sit through "Batman and Robin" the last film starring the caped crusader, a disastrous work by Joel Schumacher who seemed bent on running the series firmly into the ground.

Thankfully, there were other avenues through which one could get a Batman fix, the original animated series, which explored the complexities of Batman's character with the noir atmosphere that Bob Kane probably intended. That may sound like high praise for a cartoon, but it is not undeserved. Apparently, Mr. Nolan watched at least a few of those episodes, because "Batman: Begins" is a fantastic hit, better than any Batman movie before it. While the original "Batman" by Tim Burton is a great film, it does not capture the transformation of Bruce Wayne into Batman in the way Nolan's film does and Burton's film had a less imaginative script and plot. While both Burton and Nolan created a dark atmosphere for Gotham, there is something more compelling in Nolan's version of it, perhaps driven by his extensive use of the Chicago cityscape in creating Gotham. Of course, that may come from having a $150 million budget, but the money was well spent.

Christian Bale's portrayal of Bruce Wayne/Batman is also convincing, and his physical presence is also more compelling than Michael Keaton's ever was. And who can argue with the choice of Michael Caine as Alfred or Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox? Liam Neeson was excellent as Ducard and even Gary Oldman surprised me as Gordon (I almost didn't recognize Oldman). The only disappointing choice in casting was Katie Holmes whose crooked smile is almost as annoying as her total lack of talent...oh well, at least she has Tom...

The dynamic between the Bruce Wayne and Ducard characters gives a lot of energy to the plot and the special effects were great (I even grew to like the Batmobile, which is a little too SUV in its styling for my taste).

An interesting question the movie seems to raise for me is the question of vigilantism. Batman works outside the law to bring justice while the archvillain in the movie works outside the law to bring about his own evil and disturbing conception of justice. Which seems to me to be the big problem with vigilantism in the first place, it opens the door for anyone to mete out their own version of "justice". As Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes' character) suggests, it's wrong to work outside the law in the first place though by the end of the movie, she seems resigned to accepting Batman's role as a necessary contingency for the city of Gotham, though, motivated in part for personal reasons, she waits for the day that the city won't need him.

Of course, that day won't be anytime soon in coming, otherwise we wouldn't have any sequels to look forward to. Whatever one's issue with vigilantism, it's hard to not enjoy Batman's style of it, as he does what only he can do to save Gotham. And given the opening week success of Batman (over $70 milllion in five days) we can expect to see Mr. Nolan bringing us more of the Dark Knight's quests in the years to come...

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