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Batman Begins

I saw Batman Begins a couple of days ago and since then, in an off and on casual way, I've been trying to figure out why my response was, "Who cares?"

By itself, Batman Begins is not a bad film. I've read people who have called it fantastic, the best Batman ever, a dark and gritty thing and ohmygod Christian Bale is the American Psycho Batman, but I've not heard anyone say, "You know what, it was like the two hour season premier of a television series." A good movie, yes, but still the start of an installment as none of the subplots are tied up with the exception of Bruce Wayne's money and company. Beyond that, Batman never deals with the conflict rising from the Wayne heritage and demands of the costume, the Batman/Gordan relationship never progresses beyond the initial meet and greet (though we are meant to somehow believe that the two have bonded by blowing shit up) and the relationship involving Katie Holmes--though it's not really that--never actually begins, goes anywhere, or establishes itself, though we are given a kiss so we know something has ended or begun. Neither does anyone appear to care where Bruce Wayne has been for seven years, and now that he's back from the dead and a masked vigilante is appearing on the streets... well, come on? These sub plots don't need to be solved, but in Batman Begins, they are merely placed in the opening act, and nothing is done with them. In short: it's TV narration, which is fine for television, but rather less than fulfilling if you want to feel complete at the end of your two and a bit hours in the dark.

But the real problem for me is that Batman Begins just doesn't bring anything new to the character and, after half an hour into it, I started wondering why they were making the film. Burton's Batman bought a new vision of the character to the screen, complete with body armour, gothic surroundings, and Jack Nicholson. Granted, the inclusion of Nicholson as the Joker doesn't justify the film, but Burton's film at least bought a new image to the screen. Of course, after that film, he repeated it with less success, and then the franchise ended up in the hands of Joel Schumacher, who tried to tie the old Adam West camp glory and the Burton gothic together, which was represented in casting Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey together as villains in Batman Forever. Nolan's Batman Begins, however, isn't a departure from the look and film of Batman that was established in Burton's first film, and Bale's Batman owes more to Val Kilmer than any of the other actors, as far as I'm concerned.

Batman Begins is, ultimately, a better made film than all but Burton's first film, which I think has more life in it than this. But is that really a reason for it to exist?

About half way during the film I started trying to figure out why Batman keeps appearing in films. Since 1989, Hollywood has managed to kick out five live versions, a couple of animated movies, and a long running animated series or two (and I believe they've started a third). Batman was even part of The Justice League cartoon, where he acted as the Batman Plot Device, which basically meant that whenever the Justice League couldn't solve a problem by hitting it, or needed a mystery explained so the story could continue, Batman would appear. He would solve it. He was the man. Anyhow, when you add to this the numerous Batman comics and novels (do they even still do the novels?) and whatever else is out there, you end up with a pretty healthy franchise and fan base, and in the two and a bit hours I was in the movie and for a few hours afterwards, I tried to figure out what the attraction was.

A while ago, someone--I think it was Grant Watson--tried to convince me that Batman was one of the new myths of our time. But what exactly is the myth? On the surface, it is focused around a lack of justice, of a piece of personal violence that rips a family apart, and results in a good man using that trauma to fight injustice. He's not a vigilante, mind you, because the myths of today demand that every life be held as a sacred thing and that criminals be rehabilitated. The first of these is the influence of our Christian dominated society, and the second is the influence of the principles that the Western justice system is built upon. There's nothing that demands that he dress up as a bat and leap from building to building, but myths have to have some sort of characteristic, and since Batman himself is so traditionally one note ("My parents died and now I fight the scum who did it") the costume serves to flesh out the myth in its own, visual way. Now, on the surface, this is all connecting into the Batman myth and I can see how it works. It taps into our society with its frustration at the reality of justice system while upholding the ideals, and connects the individual's desire to have a personal sense of satisfaction in their justice and feel that they are not falling to the level of the criminals while doing so. Right there Batman is connecting to something that is part of our current lifestyle. I can see that.

But when you dig behind that surface, things become slightly distasteful. To start with, Bruce Wayne is cast as one of the upper members of society, a social better for all of us to admire. He has money, he's handsome, intelligent, and at night he falls into Junkie Town parts of Gotham (called the Narrows in this film and cut off from all affluences and brightness by bridges, which I thought was convenient) and fights the crime that exists in poor areas. Wayne makes the sacrifice and leaves his gated community of butlers and cute girls and enters the dirt of lower middle class. It is only the Police and Government who question the place of Batman in this part of the city, because everyone living in these squalid little apartments (such as the little blonde boy in Batman Begins) knows that the guy dressed up like a bat is there to help them. In a way, they have been transformed into his subjects, and Wayne becomes their Prince, and later their King when he brings in Robin. He occupies the same place as royalty in a monarchy, in that he has been chosen by a higher power and placed in a position of power where his natural skills will be used to their best advantage. He does this, naturally, because the the lower middle class is unable to defend themselves. They are lost in their own squalor and poor education and medical plans that they can't afford, and which breeds the culture that criminals rise from, and which Batman ultimately preys upon.

There's something about that second side of the Batman Myth that irritates me. It digs beneath my skin. The ways that Bruce Wayne could use his wealth to change things are numerous, and in the end more helpful than wearing black body armour and attacking junkies. Of course, in Batman Begins, Goyer and Nolan take what feels like insane levels to show how this failed in Wayne's father who is killed by someone from the gutter, someone starving and out of control, and unable to recognise one of societies betters, a man who is his own unknown, altruistic benefactor... In short, money won't help the poor. They need to be terrorised and put into place by the fear generated by a man who emerges from the dark without a sound or whisper and who places his blades against you throat, never intending to harm you.

In the end, I decided I didn't like the Batman Myth.

Of course, Batman Begins is just a film, and as films go, it doesn't matter much. There's no blood in it, and despite fine performances (most notably from Gary Oldman and Michael Caine), you won't actually find yourself thinking at the end that you had seen anything new. It was just the same old shit.

Comments

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drjon
Jun. 19th, 2005 11:49 am (UTC)
Certainly Batdude's one of our New Myths in a sense, but that's actually a nonsense. He's an Archetype, and the evolution and the elements of the story aren't as important as the image and the process of the symbol.
benpeek
Jun. 19th, 2005 11:52 am (UTC)
well, how would you describe his archetype? and what is he a symbol of? and what exactly does his image really mean?
drjon
Jun. 19th, 2005 12:11 pm (UTC)
Personally, I'd say he's a poor cousin of V, but with bigger props ;})>
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ratmmjess
Jun. 19th, 2005 01:39 pm (UTC)
I'd say that the Batman is a 20th century version of the myth, but the whole they-killed-my-parents-and-now-I-must-kill-them-but-in-disguise goes back at least until the 1830s, with books about disguised Indian fighters. Originally Batman was pretty much a direct lift from the pulps, down to the "I shall dress up like a bat!" defining moment. What Batman has over his pulp precursors is longevity and, sometimes, better writers. But I'd say that the Batman got replaced as a relevant cultural myth in the 1970s by the Executioner and the Punisher and the other serial killer vigilantes.
benpeek
Jun. 19th, 2005 10:47 pm (UTC)
i don't know if you can have a killing vigilante as a myth at the moment. i reckon part of it is the whole sancticty of life business. perhaps it's even the reason what things like batman and superman have remained popular over characters such as the punisher. could have something to do about how they're handled, too, i guess.

anyhow, like you said, i know the death of parents motivation is old hat, and a good part of it is pulp inspired, but i just felt like picking at the scab last night.
catvalente
Jun. 19th, 2005 04:40 pm (UTC)
I was yelling to my husband in the car just yesterday about this-- "Dubya is Batman!" Someone who has the power and money for real change but thinks its more fun to dress up in silly costumes and perform stunts that change nothing ...
benpeek
Jun. 19th, 2005 10:49 pm (UTC)
you know, the thought crossed my mind. of course, i thought it was more likely to be paris hilton. i mean, she has that whole obnoxious public image to make us think she'd never had a social thought in her head forever...

and you know, if at night she dressed up in a leather costume to look like a bat, i wouldn't be surprised.
jack_ryder
Jun. 19th, 2005 10:13 pm (UTC)
In kind of defence of Batman.
we are given a kiss so we know something has ended or began

love this quote.

I am/was a big Batman fan (as a kid I despised the Adam West Batman as being "unrealistic" and the villains being too soft as I was into the Denny O'Neil/Neal Adams Batman at the time - my first sign of fanboy asperger's.)

I've always considered the "myth" of Batman to be about turning chaos into order and about fatherhood (something that Frank Miller picked up in "The Dark Knight Returns") - Batman's motivation could be seen as a desire to prevent people from experiencing what happened to him - he's a guardian, not a vigilante. He represents the ultra-rational (albeit from a Judeo-Christian perspective) versus the irrationality of the Joker and crime in general (which is isomorphic with the right-wing belief that criminals are just bad - there are no extenuating circumstances therefore justifying a zero tolerance approach.) Remember Batman was modelled on Zorro, another rich boy who could only play with the proles disguised in a mask and cape, therefore leading us neatly into the "queer" reading of Batman, that it's all about repression and sublimation. Bruce Wayne can only act out his fantasies when dressed for them. We could call this the Joel Schumacher theory.

I'm ambivalent about "Batman Begins" even though I'm a fan of the character, Christian Bale and, to a lesser extent, Christopher Nolan. I don't think the character works in a real-world setting as he just looks stupid in the costume. He works in the animated series because the animators have been careful to create the kind of world where such a character could exist, but in the "real world" he's just another kinky rich boy who gets his kicks from beating up the disenfranchised.

I don't consider myself much of a Batman fan now, anyway. The only part of the franchise I really like is the Dini/Timm animated series which I think is astonishing and some of the comics. Though I now appreciate the '60s series much more now - on the whole it sounds more enjoyable than "Batman Begins".
benpeek
Jun. 19th, 2005 10:58 pm (UTC)
Re: In kind of defence of Batman.
yeah, i think the most recent cartoon series, with the possible exception of the new one, have worked quite well. (i haven't seen the new, anime inspired version, but it doesn't look good in the commericals.)
angriest
Jun. 20th, 2005 01:45 am (UTC)
I think Batman qualifies as a popular myth because his story takes our worst fears of urban society and then fights it with violence and terror: it's a catharsis of our darker impulses, if you like. As with all contemporary mythologies, you can draw Batman's origins from countless earlier sources: Zorro, the Phantom of the Opera, Robin Hood, and so on and so forth until the cows come home. It feeds into our distrust of "law" as something fundamentally unfair, and distinctly separate from "justice", which can only be earned by fighting against (or at the very least separately to) the establishment.

I don't think the world that Batman inhabits is an appealing one - you wouldn't want to live in Gotham, for example - but I do think the character has enormous cathartic value. In many ways it's also an inversion of traditional Western symbols: the hero is a bat and the villain is a clown.
benpeek
Jun. 20th, 2005 02:56 am (UTC)
well, i see that part of the myth, too, but i don't think it's enough. by that i mean, there are plenty of examples of that kind of cathartic narrative. so i reckon it's time to dig deeper in the mythology and see what keeps it around.
angriest
Jun. 20th, 2005 03:52 am (UTC)
The mask is a big part of it: one of the biggest reasons that I think substandard comic book texts such as the Punisher don't work on a popular level is because he's just an angry guy shooting people. Batman has the dual identity going on, and the ability to act out particular fantasies because his identity is hidden.

The use of masks is a major part of most human cultures, and I think Batman (indeed many dual-identity superheroes) taps into that very successfully. He's a character that appeals to our desires to do what we want without fear of recrimination.

I think we also identify more strongly with Batman over other superheroes because he's represented as a non-superpowered ordinary human being. Clearly he's not - no human could do the physical activity he puts himself through every night - but by comparison he's a much easier figure to identify with than, say, Wonder Woman or Spider-Man.
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angriest
Jun. 20th, 2005 01:49 am (UTC)
Just also wanted to add that I disagree re: Nolan's version of Batman vs Burton's. While I personally loved both, I think that Nolan achieved something far more difficult, in that he deliberately attempted to re-locate Batman and Gotham into a far more realistic world. Comparing the Chicago-inspired cityscape of Batman Begins to the ridiculously over-designed gothic castles of Batman and Batman Returns makes this fairly obvious.
benpeek
Jun. 20th, 2005 03:01 am (UTC)
i got to disagree. i don't think the cityscape is that much different--granted, it's toned down and shaped into more of a sprawling urban thing, but the gothicness is there, still, in the buildings and the lighting. it's not really a gritty urban jungle, and there's the ridicuous train system. nor do i think batman was bought into the real world, but then i think that's kind of impossible due to the central concept of batman--that being that a man dresses up like a bat to terrorise criminals.
angriest
Jun. 20th, 2005 03:48 am (UTC)
Naturally it's impossible to draw Batman 100% into a realistic environment, but I do think Nolan and Goyer did pull the story about as far into a believable world as they could have.
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