Rewatch Ruminations: 8 thoughts on Batman Begins

19 Nov

I went back and revisited Batman Begins a few days ago. This was my first time stepping into Christopher Nolan‘s Batman-verse since seeing The Dark Knight Rises in theater this summer. I’ve been of the opinion since then that TDKR, while very good, was the weakest of the series. A close call with Batman Begins though, so a rewatch of this first entry seemed in order. Overall, I think this was my third or fourth time seeing Batman Begins. I’ve always enjoyed it. Not even getting into the new ground it broke for superhero movies or the box office impact the trilogy would go on to have, it’s also an entertaining movie in its own right.

Here are a few thoughts that sprung to mind for me during this rewatch. Warning: There will be spoilers ahead.

1. Ninjas sounds like a silly thing, but it’s a good fit for Batman.

The whole story of how Bruce Wayne becomes Batman takes an interesting route this time around. I remember the first time I saw the movie, the whole League of Shadows thing felt a bit odd. I’ve never been familiar with the Batman mythos apart from the movies, so having a bunch of ninjas involved was not something I was familiar with Batman-wise. It totally works, though. Minus the whole killing thing, Batman is kind of like a modern day ninja. He’s sneaky, he lurks in shadows, and deception and trickery are as fundamental to him as strength in combat. Bruce Wayne being trained by assassins makes for a cool origin story.

2. There is plenty of (retroactive) foreshadowing to The Dark Knight Rises.

I say retroactive because the third film in the series wasn’t really being planned when Batman Begins was written, so it’s more a case of The Dark Knight Rises building on things introduced here. Still, there’s a lot in Batman Begins that carry extra meaning when you know what happens in TDKR. The whole “Why do we fall” thing, for one. Or Alfred urging Bruce Wayne to consider his future rather than dwelling on the past. There’s plenty of neat stuff like that in Batman Begins.

3. Michael Caine steals the show.

In a truly star-studded cast, it’s Michael Caine in the role of Wayne’s butler Alfred who delivers the best performance. There is the dry wit and loyalty that one expects from a butler character like this, of course, but what seals the deal is the real affection that’s evident from Alfred towards his young master, both in the flashback scenes to Bruce’s childhood and in the present days of crime fighting. The relationship between the two is maintained throughout the whole trilogy, and it very much serves to remind us that beneath the mask, Batman is very much a human being.

4. Ra’s al Ghul was a great choice for an antagonist.

Batman’s rogues gallery seems to me a double-edged sword. On one hand, having a variety of colorful villains means you can tell plenty of different stories. On the other hand, this means that Batman himself often seems less interesting by comparison. With Batman Begins being an origin story, you want the hero to be the center of attention. For this purpose, having Ra’s al Ghul as the big antagonist is perfect. At least in this incarnation – again, I know little of the comics – he’s not as flashy as a Joker, a Riddler, or a Two-Face. In fact, by having him serving as Batman’s mentor, you get a hero-villain dynamic where they’re from the same root, yet differ in key philosophies. Plus, with Scarecrow as the secondary threat, there’s still enough of the “typical” Batman villain craziness to keep things fun. Even if Ra’s al Ghul doesn’t get the chance to steal the show like Heath Ledger‘s Joker does in The Dark Knight, he still has to be considered the right pick for this part.

5. Ken Watanabe is wasted.

Admission: I’m not overly familiar with Ken Watanabe. Like most in the western hemisphere, I first took notice of him in The Last Samurai. That said, he was teriffic in that film, and you have to assume that it was that performance – along with the attention his Oscar nomination got him – that made Nolan pursue him for Batman Begins. It’s unfortunate, then, than his role as a decoy Ra’s al Ghul is so limited. He barely has any lines, doesn’t get to do much, and he’s killed off early on. There are reasonable explanations for this, of course. Perhaps his short appearance was meant to make you believe that he might return later on, only to then spring an extra twist on you by having Liam Neeson‘s character turn out to be the real Ra’s. It makes sense, I suppose. Still, it’s a shame that an actor as good as Watanabe wasn’t given a bigger chance to show his stuff here. It was cool of Nolan to bring the actor along in a more substantial part in Inception, though.

6. Christian Bale’s Batman voice is less pronounced here.

I get that Bruce Wayne wants to hide his identity, while at the same time coming off as intimidating. He thus adopts a deep growly voice for his Batman alter ego. In The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, this goes overboard. He sounds like he’s trying way too hard, and the effect is a bit silly. In this first film, however, he plays it a bit softer. It’s enough to make him seem dark and foreboding, while still concealing his true voice. Maybe the fact that Ra’s still saw through his disguise in this film made Bruce extra cautious in the sequels. I prefer this voice, though.

7. Nolan wasn’t very good at shooting action scenes yet.

While Nolan had certainly made great movies before Batman Begins, this was still his first venture into the action genre. It shows. The fight scenes have always been one of my main problems with this movie. Shaky-cam coupled with quick cuts, to the point where it’s almost impossible to tell what is actually going on. This is a trap many action films have fallen into in the post-Bourne era. Luckily, Nolan would get better at this in future films, but it still remains a blemish on this one.

8. Katie Holmes is mostly useless.

Well, not in general. She has had decent showings in other films. In the role of Rachel Dawes, however, she’s pretty lame. Some of this could be chalked up to Nolan’s trademark weakness when it comes to writing and directing female characters, but part of the blame still has to reside on Holmes herself. She’s a poor fit for the character, there’s no chemistry between her and Christian Bale, and there’s simply nothing impressive about the performance at all. Her being replaced by the great Maggie Gyllenhaal was one of my main sources of excitement for The Dark Knight – although Gyllenhaal turned out to be not great for the part either. Alas.


Posted by on 19 November, 2012 in Lists, Rewatch Ruminations


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16 responses to “Rewatch Ruminations: 8 thoughts on Batman Begins

  1. vinnieh

    19 November, 2012 at 20:22

    Great post, just thought you’d like to know I’ve updated a post on Skyfall, you should check it out.

    • Emil

      19 November, 2012 at 20:36

      Thanks. I haven’t seen Skyfall yet, so I’ll pass on that one.

  2. Brittani

    20 November, 2012 at 16:24

    I’ll never understand why he casted Holmes in the first place. She was horrible.

    • Emil

      20 November, 2012 at 21:03

      Beats me. Maybe he’s a huge Dawson’s Creek fan.

  3. Nostra

    21 November, 2012 at 08:47

    It’s been quite a long time since I’ve seen this, but nice to read your thoughts on the movie. I never was bothered by the Batman voice he did….although I know a lot of jokes have been made about it.

    • Emil

      21 November, 2012 at 12:29

      I’m not as bothered by it as most, but there is one or two moments in TDK and TDKR where it does become too much for me. Most notably when Batman keeps asking about where the trigger is in TDKR.

  4. Travis McClain

    5 December, 2012 at 13:02

    I don’t fault Katie Holmes or Maggie Gyllenhaal for how extraneous Rachel Dawes was, or Anne Hathaway for how immaterial Selina Kyle was in The Dark Knight Rises. They’re all wonderful actresses. No, that blame falls squarely on Christopher Nolan. If one of the three had felt so unimportant, maybe I would be more inclined to fault the actress; but his filmography has yet to include a single female role of any actual interest.

    We were meant to be emotionally invested in Cobb’s tragedy in Inception, but Nolan’s coldness told us to feel something rather than actually evoking emotion within us. That wasn’t Marion Cotillard’s fault. Hell, even Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in that is too perfunctory to engage and he’s one of his generation’s finest.

    In fact, I think this is why Nolan succeeded so well (overall) with his Dark Knight Trilogy. The emotional spectrum of Batman storytelling rarely ventures into the areas where he’s so deficient. Batman himself is somewhat cold and methodical, so Nolan could stay in his comfort zone and make it work.

    I confess, I was initially concerned when I learned that Michael Caine had been cast as Alfred. I had already become concerned that I’d be taken out of the movie by the very recognizable cast in general, but there was something about Caine that seemed…too big, I guess, for Alfred. Like casting overkill, I guess. The moment when that doubt dissipated for me was when he kicked back on the plane and told Bruce he “can borrow the Rolls if [he’d] like”. That was when I bought him as Alfred.

    I’ve never liked the dubious science behind the water vaporizer, though. I mean, if you turned on a water vaporizer on a boat in the ocean, wouldn’t it just sort of start vaporizing the entire ocean? For that matter, why doesn’t it vaporize the water in people if it’s so powerful? I understand the basic gist of how it allegedly operates, but it’s too conveniently ambiguous for my taste. We don’t know enough about its limitations or operations to really know anything other than that it’s the Techno Device That Must Be Stopped.

    Still, there’s plenty to enjoy here – particularly for a longtime Bat-fan such as myself. One of my favorite scenes in the whole thing is Batman’s interrogation of Detective Flass (Mark Boone Junior), straight out of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One. That was the moment when I felt that I really recognized Batman in Batman Begins. Up to that point, it was some kind of high concept experiment. That one scene was what convinced me that this really was going somewhere I was interested to go.

    One last thing: I appreciated that Nolan’s Gotham City had actual diversity. My personal favorite Gotham is still the one in Tim Burton’s Batman, but it’s pretty obviously just one basic town square set. Nolan’s Gotham has everything from slums on up to the kinds of places only the obscenely wealthy can access. The city could have used an actual diversity of its population (very few people of color in the trilogy altogether), but at least it feels like a real major city.

    • Emil

      5 December, 2012 at 14:20

      To me, Inception is probably the best Nolan has been at utilizing his female characters (though the fact that they’re “utilized” rather than “existing” might be a problem in itself”.) Votilard was a suitably haunting antagonist of sorts, and Ellen Page was a useful viewpoint character in a movie that could have been maddening without one. They’re not “good” characters as such, but compared to the rest of Nolan’s filmography, they’re decent enough. I wonder if the problem would persist if Nolan would work with other writers, rather than just writing his films himself or co-writing with his brother Jonathan.

      I saw Batman Begins some time before my cinematic awakening, so I didn’t have any issues iwth any of the actors being too big, as such. Despite its all-star cast, I didn’t really know the actors that much at the time, other than maybe recognizing their names. Michael Caine wasn’t someone I was too familiar with. Looking at his filmography, Batman Begins might well have been the first movie I ever saw him in, to be honest. Christian Bale was just “that guy from American Psycho” to me. I had seen Gary Oldman before, but he was too much of a chameleon to have registered with me in any real way. Katie Holmes and Liam Neeson were pretty much unknown to me. Morgan Freeman was the one guy I firmly knew from before.

      I never notice things like that water vaporizer example. Stuff that makes little sense and once you’re aware of it, it’ll just keep bugging you. I’m fine with that. For the most part. There are too many people who seem to do nothing but look for plot holes and such, so I think of myself as a counterweight.

      Interesting to hear your thoughts on it as a long-time fan of the Batman franchise. It’s a different background than I have myself, though I know how a movie will have to work that much harder to win you over when you’re a fan of the source material.

      Good point about Gotham City, and it reminds me of something I thought of about the trilogy as a whole since publishing this post: all three films have sequences set outside of Gotham. Batman Begins has the opening act set partly in the Himalayas, The Dark Knight has the Hong Kong episode, and The Dark Knight Rises has the prison in some undisclosed country. I could very easily be wrong here, but I don’t recall any of the older films feature much of the world outside of Gotham City. It helps to further cement Nolan’s more “real” approach to the Batman mythos. If everything takes place in the city, it comes off as some crazy dark fairy tale place, where weird things seem the norm. By putting the city in the real world, it’s easier to buy into its paricular atmosphere.

      • Travis McClain

        5 December, 2012 at 14:41

        I don’t actively go looking for nits to pick, but I’m a critical minded enough viewer that I catch things and process them when I do. Sometimes I’m aware of them, but they don’t faze me. The letters of transit, for instance, in Casablanca or the Nazis’ very law-abiding way of handling Victor Lazslo; these are completely absurd and are outright contradicted by facts of the time. Even if there was such a thing as a letter of transit, the signature of Charles De Gaulle would have been entirely worthless in the eyes of the Nazis or in the eyes of Vichy France (under whose jurisdiction Casablanca technically fell).

        Knowing this makes me wish the writers had been more diligent about their MacGuffin and exit plan for the characters, but it doesn’t detract at all from my enjoyment of the film.

        The water vaporizer bugs me more, I think, because I have a pet peeve about Fake Science. It’s always dressed up in enough Real Science talk to seem plausible, but it really exists because writers weren’t invested enough in their story to come up with something better. Sometimes I’m fine with that. I don’t care that there’s no scientific explanation for lightsabers. They’re cool. That’s good enough for me.

        What makes the water vaporizer so glaring is that the entire thesis of Batman Begins is that it’s possible and even plausible for there to be a Batman. After two hours of having every part of Batman explained, from his martial arts skills to his costume design, it just seems sloppy that the actual conflict is built around a device so dubious.

        I don’t question the dehydrator weapon in the 1966 Batman: The Movie because the aesthetic of the whole film is pretty far removed from plausibility. The Penguin, The Joker, The Riddler and Catwoman break into the United Nations security council room, wearing domino masks with their flamboyant costumes, and then dehydrate the council members so that they’re reduced to piles of dust? Sure. Why wouldn’t they?

        As regards the scope of the stories and getting out of Gotham City, that can be indirectly attributed to Bond. For one thing, Nolan clearly had some Bond sensibilities in mind throughout his trilogy. But also, Ra’s al Ghul was created in the 1970s by Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams for the express purpose of getting Batman out of Gotham some and putting his adventures on a global scale. They even described their intent as giving Batman a “Bond villain” in Ra’s.

        I was hopeful in 1997 that the next film after Batman & Robin would feature Ra’s al Ghul. I pictured this whole mountain climbing climax where Robin and Batgirl are separated from Batman and have to ascend a mountain just to get to where Batman is taking on Ra’s and the League of Shadows all by himself – and losing.

        Also, a friend of mine really wanted to see Rick Moranis cast as Scarecrow. I think that would have worked.

        • Emil

          5 December, 2012 at 17:48

          I didn’t know that about Ra’s al Ghul. That adds another neat layer to the choice of him as the antagonist.

          I could see Moranis as a Scarecrow, at least in the Burton/Schumacher chronology. My personal Batman casting wish that never happened was to have Robin Williams as The Riddler in Nolan’s third film. I’m not sure how well he’d fit in with prior versions of the character, and admittedly, you’d probably not want a brain-over-brawns baddie for a closing chapter of a trilogy, but… Williams could have made a really cool antagonist, whether they’d gone for more humor or more menace. Bonus: Williams and Nolan had already worked together on Insomnia.

          • Travis McClain

            5 December, 2012 at 23:17

            Robin Williams was on the top of a lot of peoples’ wish list to be cast as The Riddler. He was even a hoped-for Joker before Jack Nicholson was cast in Batman.

            Personally, I’m not a fan of Williams. I admire his humanitarian work, but I find his self-caricature mania grating and I think even less of his “dramatic” work. I use ironic quotes there because even when the films themselves are dramas, his performances have been laughably over-the-top anyway.

            The one genuinely terrific performance of his that I’ve seen was in One Hour Photo. That kind of toned-down creepiness could have really worked as The Riddler, but we all know that what everyone really wanted was to see Williams channel Frank Gorshin.

            At least when Jim Carrey did that, he was young enough that his performance has a sort of naivete to it that makes it work – though I’ve never been a fan of much of Carrey’s work, either. The Truman Show was interesting and I loved him in Man on the Moon. That’s…pretty much it.

            • Emil

              6 December, 2012 at 10:20

              I’m mostly fine with Williams’ comedic schtick. It’s not something I actively pursuit or anything, but I can watch stuff like Mrs. Doubtfire without getting annoyed by him. I’m fond of his toned down stuff in films like One Hour Photo and Insomnia – and it’s this WIlliams that I would have liked to see in a Batman movie – whereas he often becomes a distraction in in-between movies like Dead Poets Society.

              It’s been a long time since I saw Batman Forever. I recall liking Carrey in that one at the time, though back then, I wasn’t very discerning. I remain a fan of him to this day, even though I think people tend to overvalue his dramatic abilities. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a great film, for instance, but plenty of actors could have played Carrey’s part. Man on the Moon is definitely his most impressive performance.

              • Travis McClain

                6 December, 2012 at 10:34

                I despise Mrs. Doubtfire. Abhor it. Not even my adoration of Pierce Brosnan can save that one from being excruciating. I want that movie dead. I want its family dead. I want its house burned to the ground.

                I liked Dead Poets Society, in part because despite being the top-billed star, Williams is actually in more of a supporting role there. Fun fact: I have never once seen that movie in its entirety in one setting. I’ve seen the whole thing more than once, but I either started it and was interrupted or I’d catch it on TV already in progress. I don’t think I’ve watched any part of it in at least a decade now. I should revisit that one at some point.

                • Emil

                  6 December, 2012 at 10:51

                  I had completely forgotten that Pierce Brosnan was in Mrs. Doubtfire. Huh.

                  I remembered really enjoying Dead Poets Society when I first saw it back in the 90s. Revisiting it a few years ago, it’s still a good watch, but I have some issues with it. Robin Williams does a good job at playing his character, but the character seems an awkward fit for the film. I’m also somewhat amused by a film that makes a big point of how you shouldn’t be afrad to be different ends with everyone banding together and doing the same thing.

                  • Travis McClain

                    6 December, 2012 at 10:59

                    If you want to be an individual, you have to be like other non-conformists, you know. ;)

                    • Emil

                      6 December, 2012 at 11:13

                      And knowing that is half the battle!


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