3 stars out of 4.
Batman Begins is an unexpectedly interesting origin story. Yes, we are treated to yet another origin story of the Batman, but this time around, there is never a reveal of the character we expect. See, there is no true Batman in the Christopher Nolan universe. Begins strips everything bare so that only the fundamental elements of Bruce Wayne and Gotham City are left to delve into. Then everything else is layered on before our eyes in a promise that there will be a dark knight rising. (Whoops, did I make a pun there?)
The only problem is that that promise is never fulfilled. The fundamentals and elements of the Batman character are slowly built up in this 140 minute film and never actually completed. You may argue that this is a clever way of introducing and setting up the sequel, but it l;eaves the audience with a decidedly empty feeling when exiting the theater. And stealing the ending shot to Mask of the Phantasm doesn’t help matters.
This may come as a surprise from reading what I have just written above, but I like this movie. I like the design schemes and the risks they tried to take with the characters. I like the performances, I like the look with all the dark browns and copper reds and I even like Katie Holmes in the film. (One of those supposed black sheep performances that never does anything to deserve the criticism.) What I do not enjoy is the fact that at nearly every plot point, the story takes an abrupt left turn away from the natural completion of the arc. There’s no fleshing out of the storylines or the characters. We understand their motivations and the plot, but must always stop to ask why.
I thought this was just me originally, maybe I was just expecting too much from a new Batman movie. It had taken eight long years to get off the ground, emerging like a phoenix from the ashes of all the Batman projects that langui9shed in development hell during that time period. I stuck with this mindset for some time and still enjoy the movie for what it is; a decent attempt to re-imagine the Bat in a post-modern context with a psychological skew on Gotham’s humanity.
I was wrong. Actually, I’m pretty glad I was wrong. This would have been an easy 3.5 star review before I read the novelization. Yes, I can hear the cries of “foul!” already. Film tie-in novelizations are little more than an earlier draft transcribed to book form by some hack writer in another attempt to wring the last dollar out of a merchandising run, and these are usually only read by the most desperate of airport business traveler. This would be true if not for one little fact: the tie-in was written by legendary Batman scribe Dennis O’Neil. For those who do not know, O’Neil is one of the few responsible for returning Batman to his dark roots in the 1970’s. He served as editor for many of the great storylines, so if there is one person who could write a heck of a Batman story it would be he.
The novelization honestly plays better than the film. All of those little touches I had craved are here, with fuller character development. For example, we see Bruce sitting around Wayne mansion before the Batman is created, just simply soaking in life and his wealth while realizing the fact that he has never truly lived at all. That is something so decidedly simple yet so completely profound that adds an incomparable amount to Bruce’s background. It only increases our sympathies for him and in turn increases our admiration for the Batman. I don’t know if this is merely bits form an earlier shooting draft that were jettisoned for the final edit, but it feels complete in a way. Yes, there are differences between the novel and film format, but the novel fleshes out the film to such a degree that it enhances the experience. I enjoy the film more now because I can actually envision the characters speaking the dialogue form the novel.
Of course the film is about Batman and how Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) came to take up his mantle. We get the obligatory origin of young Bruce losing his parents outside a theater in the dark alleyway of Gotham. But this time around it is all rooted in Bruce’s fear. His fear of bats causes his parents to exit an opera (What happened to The Mark of Zorro?) and be gunned down in a failed mugging. Thus fear becomes the root of all of his unending grief. The pain his grief is built upon is a manifestation of his own guilt for inadvertently causing his parents death and leads to his desire for vengeance. He kicks aimlessly about schools for years until returning for the trial of his parent’s killer. He intends to kill the man and when this goes awry, he throws in the towel and loses himself amongst the world in a search for the strength and knowledge to do what he desires and possibly discover himself. He eventually is found by Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) who trains him to be a member of the League of Shadows. This shadowy origination is led by the mysterious Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) and is revealed to be little more than a grand terrorist group hell bent of destroying Gotham.
Bruce barely escapes with his life and in the process saves Ducard. He returns to Gotham and takes up his old life much to the surprise of all. Quickly he remembers his fear of bats and uses that fear to create The Batman. While taking down the Carmine Falcone mob, he encounters the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) who happens to be working for a certain someone believed to be dead…all this while the world at large including childhood friend turned assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) think him a disgustingly rich buffoon too full of himself.
So, I highly recommend the novelization of Batman Begins which if it were a film would get a 3.5 from me if not higher. The film itself is not bad, just not fully able to achieve its set goals. It is a slight disappointment in that regard only. In any case it is a massive improvement over its unbelievably confused, empty and over-complicated sequel. Begins is the fifth best of the film series overall. Not bad for a gutsy reboot.
EDITIONS: Warner did an initial transfer back in the early days of HD-DVD versus Blu-ray, with the DVD being merely a standard definition version of the same.
The DVD looks fine for the format, if a bit muted on color, 16:9 anamorphic 2.35:1, with a expectedly thumping 5.1 Dolby track. The Special features disc has one of the worst DVD menus ever though. The Blu-ray is the exact same transfer as the old HD-DVD and is thus limited in it’s overall impact. The colors are much richer and very much like the theatrical experience on 35mm. Still there isn’t quite as much depth as I would like to see and this I think comes from the recycling of transfers. Audio is increased over the DVD in a lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track, which is great but could have been improved using a DTS-HDMA track with a higher bitrate.
The Blu-ray is regularly had for less than $10 and is a steal for this film. Hopefully they strike a newer transfer sometime, but that isn’t likely with Warner for several years.