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June 18, 2005

Rebooting the Bat

I'm not sure just how to express this. I haven't been this ambivalent about a movie in some time. But I'm just back from Batman Begins and I'm really not sure what I thought of it.

(Very limited spoiling in what follows, but I'll put it behind a fold anyway.)

Is it the first film version of the Batman to really have a coherent theme that fits the main character? No... I think Mask of the Phantasm achieved that, as did Mystery of the Batwoman. Maybe the first live-action movie to manage that feat, but I don't discriminate against animation. So it isn't unique there, and it doesn't even succeed quite as well as its cartoon predecessors, if only because it tries too hard and so drops a few of the many subplots it tries to juggle.

Does it do the best job of the live-action Batman films at keeping the focus on Batman/Bruce Wayne and not on the villains? Sure. But that's saying it's good because it doesn't make the mistakes that trapped others, not because it's actually good itself. Now, it does manage an impressive feat by having an all-star cast but still keep its focus mostly on its main characters, most of whom are lesser names. (And big props to the director for bringing along one of the lesser-known actors from his amazing Memento to give another fantastic supporting performance.) And it does so without forcing the big names into the background, because everyone gets a chance to shine. It's hard to fault the acting of anyone, except perhaps Katie Holmes, but that's more because she has no coherent role in the plot than any glaring problems with her performance.

As many reviews suggest, this film tries to "bring realism to the Batman story" Well, yes, it tries... but in many ways it goes too far with this effort, setting us up with a long prelude (it's easily an hour in before we even glimpse the Batman) of martial arts training sequences; repeated discussions on the nature of Justice, Vigilanteism, Right, etc; demonstrations of military prototype equipment; etc. But then, once the mask goes on, the film lets itself change gears and then action-movie rules apply. Both halves are reasonably well done, but the last sixty minutes of this movie takes place in a very different world from the first sixty, and the twenty in the middle don't manage to explain the changes.

It has very many good points, but it also is too ambitious, trying to be a movie with at least a half-dozen villains. We have two major, name supervillains (both excellently done), one named henchman of unusual skill (with countless unnamed henchfolk), a mob boss (built up too much for how easily he falls down), one name corrupt cop (with countless other unnamed), and the street thug who killed Bruce's parents (thankfully restored to his correct identity from the mistaken merger with the Joker in the Tim Burton Batman). They all have to get built up, they all have to get knocked down... and that's just too much for the film to manage. None of them quite get built up high enough to perform the role of a villain (that is, to make the hero look good when they are beaten). Meanwhile, it also wants to re-tell the Batman origin story (exceptionally well, and including many details often skimmed over, though with a few changes I could do without; the traditionalist in me really wants the Waynes to be leaving a Zorro movie, not the opera), establish its supporting cast (Alfred, Gordon, and a surprisingly good take on Lucius Fox, all of which manage to work because of the talented actors who establish their roles with expert craft even when given only limited screen time), and develop a love story (the most skimped-on subplot, painfully under-developed to the point where it is more distraction than anything else). This is just way too much to do.

And maybe that's why I came away feeling like nothing was quite complete, like there was a lot of good starts put there, but far fewer good ends. It's hard to dislike a film that does so many things as well as this film does, but it has to be admitted that it fails in around a third of what it tries, and some of those failure are painful to sit through, especially when there's so much done so well.

Am I glad this team wants to do another film (in fact, rumor says they want to do two more)? Yes, because I think they have the basics down better than anyone not working for WB's animation division, and because they could probably bring some of their dangled threads to completion with more time. Plus, I like superhero movies that are done well, and this one is done well (or, at least, isn't done poorly like I'm very worried this one will be). Still, this is no Incredibles or Spiderman (I or II).

So, a limited recommendation from me. You may find it too slow, too convoluted, too serious or too silly (and it can be both, depending on which half you're in), but if you like superhero movies, you could do far worse.

Posted by ghoul at June 18, 2005 06:28 PM

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