Six game changing movies of the last 15 years – Number 2: Batman Begins by Phil Bowers
It’s not the most famous Batman movie of the Nolan Trilogy, in that it was arguably overshadowed by it’s sequel, but in 2005, Batman Begins played a huge part in paving the way for a superhero renaissance.
Marvel hadn’t yet begun building to the Avengers crescendo, but it’s characters were arguably more well known on the big screen at the point. Blade, X-Men, Spider-Man and The Hulk had all seen at least one big screen outing by the mid point in the decade. DC meanwhile, were still trying to work out what to do with their super heavyweight, the Man of Steel, but it would be a character sullied by neon lights and awful puns that would end up being their golden ticket. It would also kick start Marvel into getting their studio properly organised and self-produce Iron Man three years later.
Christopher Nolan hadn’t yet cracked the big time. Aside from a couple of smaller projects, his main hits had been psychological thrillers Memento and Insomnia. Cerebral and intelligent, but hardly movies that would write his name in Hollywood folklore. That was until he and screenwriter David S. Goyer convinced Warner Brothers to let them reinvent one of their previously guaranteed cash cows, which had fallen into self parody.
Up until Nolan was handed the reigns of the Batman franchise, most of you will undoubtedly remember the cringe inducing hamming of George Clooney, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Uma Thurman in Batman and Robin. Many people don’t want to remember, but the scars ran deep. Batman’s credibility looked to have been irreparably damaged, to the extent that he carried a “Bat Credit Card”.
Nolan though, had a grand plan. Remove the fantastical, enhance the physical. Weaken the parody, strengthen the drama. Change Batman from a quipping, bat nipple wearing Caped Crusader, into a slightly unbalanced, gravel voiced Dark Knight. Nolan and Goyer were determined to bring Batman back to what he was – a man. Before he became the guardian of the night, Bruce Wayne was a frightened child, a confused young man, and then a directionless drifter, without a path.
Leaning heavily on Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, Nolan sought to turn Batman into the symbol of serious superheroes. This man didn’t have claws shooting out his fists, webs firing out of his wrists, or turn into a big green rage monster. This man had a lot of money, a brilliant scientific mind and access to a playground of gadgets. Rather than a credit card though, Batman here has razor sharp cutting tools, smoke bombs and grapnel guns. He becomes an armoured vigilante, meting out his own brand of justice on the corrupt streets of Gotham.
Gotham itself is a major part of the movie. Gotham here becomes a real city. It no longer looks like it did in the Burton or Schumacher movies, where you imagine a studio backlot or hand built set. Gotham looks like a lived in, modern city. It wouldn’t mature into a breathing, alive by day, metropolis until the movie’s two successors, but here, the docks, the Narrows, Arkham and the city’s streets all have a sense of grandeur missing from the previous on screen movies. That makes the appearance of Batman all the more relevant to what Nolan was trying to achieve with his reimagined Dark Knight.
Before Bruce Wayne becomes Batman, Gotham is a city that is rooted in the real world, with the possible exception of the climatic monorail train. Cops, gangsters, District Attorneys, reporters, the citizens of Gotham – they’re real people. They don’t just make up the numbers and fill in the background while Nolan’s armoured protagonist dukes it out with Ra’s al Ghul. They are believable characters, inhabiting a city we can all identify with. People coming and going, going through their working day, sitting in offices, sitting down to meals, buying fast food. Corruption reigns supreme though, and the fact that Bruce Wayne dons the cowl to mete out justice on the mob and drug dealers shows this is a completely different set up than the Tim Burton movies.
There is also a heavyweight cast. While the charismatic Hugh Jackman carried the X-Men franchise on the other side of the fence, Tobey Maguire wasn’t exactly exuding gravitas as Spidey, and Eric Bana wasn’t a big enough tent pole name to carry Hulk on his own. Wesley Snipes added Kudos as Blade, but the real headliners were shying away from comic book adaptations.
Step forward Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Rutger Hauer, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman and Christian Bale. These are A-Listers, and made people look at a Batman movie and say: “Hold on a minute, this isn’t a kids film”. Caine’s dutiful yet fatherly Alfred Pennyworth redefined the character as a wise old sage rather than a prissy manservant. Freeman’s dry wit lent itself well to master engineer Lucius Fox, who hadn’t previously made it to the big screen. Hauer’s sly, manipulative CEO William Earle could easily exist in real life, while Neeson’s mentor turned manipulator is a star turn, and proved that even the most fantastical characters on the page could still have a place in Nolan’s continuity.
But two actors make the movie. Gary Oldman made Lieutenant James Gordon world-weary, vulnerable and unsure of how to react to the presence of vigilantes. Uncannily, he looks exactly like David Mazzucchelli’s interpretation of the character on the pages of Batman: Year One. Oldman bridges the gap between the more comic book elements of the script and the real world that Nolan seeks to base his story in. He’s a police officer, works long hours, has a family, does things by the book and believes in the right thing, rather than going along with the corruption that infests the rest of the Gotham Police. By the end of the movie he’s working with Batman and drives the Tumbler. He becomes the Dark Knight’s link to law enforcement and by extension, his link to normality, providing Batman with the antithesis of his methods, but still aimed at achieving the same goal.
At the forefront of all of this though, is the growling, snarling, masked face of Christian Bale. He hadn’t featured in any of Nolan’s movies beforehand, and at the time of casting, was a 130lbs weakling thanks to his role as an emaciated insomniac in The Machinist. He wasn’t exactly the force of nature that Nolan required. The director though, had faith in his charge’s skills as an actor, and in his ability to change his appearance sufficiently. Bale bulked up, and even though he admitted feeling self conscious in the Batsuit, went back and read the earlier Batman comics, and Miller’s Year One. His performance is animalistic, translating the pure rage that drives Bruce Wayne into the brutality that defines Batman. The central theme of the movie – fear – is embodied by Bale, who rather than the ridiculous hamming of Clooney, turns Batman into a silent, hulking borderline psychotic, who not only inspires fear into those he opposes, but also those who he claims to fight for. This Batman has no sympathy, no remorse, and no compunction about bringing those who would ruin his city to justice. He has only one rule, and Bale said that this how he managed to keep Batman grounded in Nolan’s depiction of Gotham. If Batman gave in and killed, it would have distanced himself so far from the source material that any credibility as a Batman story would have been dashed.
Batman Begins would ultimately be eclipsed by it’s sequel, The Dark Knight, one of the finest movies ever made, and it’s saga ending third installment, The Dark Knight Rises. Batman Begins though brought Bruce Wayne back from the comedy brink, making the character believable and putting him in a real lived in world, and surrounding him with top class acting talent embodying deep and insightful personas. It would also jolt Marvel into upping their game and crafting their superhero universe in a way that would have to compete with Nolan’s creation. Can the director do the same in his role as a producer for Man of Steel? If that impact is anything like the one he had on Batman, then Clark Kent can expect to reach the same heights as Bruce Wayne did.
For the next, and final installment of this series, we’re going to look at arguably the most influential and popular superhero movie ever made, where an ensemble cast, interweaved back stories and the weight of expectation were to come together, creating a spectacle that would stand head and shoulders above anything that had come before.
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