"BATMAN BEGINS," AGAIN
By the time I saw "Batman Begins" on the big screen, I'd seen too much, about ten scenes via the magic of the Internet and the excesses of the studio's promotional department. Not the way to watch this film. But sometimes resistance is futile.
Anyway, the core vision of "Batman Begins" was familiar already, at least in any true Bat-fan's fevered dreams of what might be given cinematic life. And here he is, the driven, tough, scientific, ruthless, laconic, mysterious avenger who strikes terror into the hearts of criminals and who is not so easy to exchange small talk with even if you're one of the good guys. A man of reason who is also a wraith. Not the frat-boy Batman, not the chicks-dig-the-car Batman, not the jerko-Robin-as-sidekick Batman, not the hyper-ironic-goofball-villains-as-ponderous-foils-to Batman. This is the Batman. You watch the story unfold and say, "Yes. That's how it would be. That's how he would do it. That's what he would say, how he would move. How he would leave."
Batman versus Batman
"Batman Begins" owes something to the Tim Burton/Michael Keaton Batman of the 1989 film, which was also a serious portrayal, presenting the caped crusader as ominous and formidable. Batman "began" in that earlier movie as well. We see him emerging on the rooftops of Gotham, and we discern the motive for Bruce Wayne's choice to become the Batman in the flashback to the deaths of his parents.
But Burton's movie wanted you to wonder whether Batman is quite sane—cf. the drive through all the leaves on the way back to the bat cave, with Vicki Vale trying to get a closer look at her hooded rescuer as Danny Elfman's very effective music says, "This is weird. This situation is weird. This guy is weird. But also magnificent and beyond human ken and censure." It is a great scene in a somewhat flawed movie with a lot of great scenes. If the scenes establish a consistent mood and ricochet off each other thematically and stylistically, Burton doesn't care whether they add up plot-wise, or whether it makes sense that only TV news anchors look unkempt and unshaven during "Gotham's fashion nightmare." Bottom line, the same phantasmagoric fantasy world that is so interesting to watch, also—because it relies on so many makeshifts, as well as outright magic like the self-shielding batmobile; and because it hints that being the Batman must mean being a little deranged—renders Burton's rendition not fully persuasive. You don't really believe that this guy could be. And the movie sort of agrees with you.
Which is fine. A fantasy that presents itself as such can invite and expect a somewhat readier suspension of disbelief than a fiction with different ambitions. You either accept the lay of the fantasy land or you don't; if it's charming and evocative enough, you probably accept it. But there is another way to go, which is: explain Batman and his trappings as if gravity still works, while also preserving the mystique; indeed, enhancing the mystique, thereby. Which is difficult, but not, apparently, impossible.
There are two sides to the Batman of "Batman Begins." One is very much rooted in the practical world. This Batman is all about welding gizmos and reviewing specs. Putting things under the microscope and gathering clues. Figuring out how to climb up the side of the building or drop the sonic thingamajig. Batman the investigator. Batman the thinker and doer. A reasonably normal if very rich and smart guy, haunted by a tragic past, trying to stop bad things and bad people. But why would somebody like that dress up in a costume to fight crime, and why doesn't the costume make him seem ridiculous?
For Burton, Batman is all about theater. The vicious theater of the Joker is a heavy counterpoint, and the music of the former guy named Prince pounds it home. Theater is a persistent theme in the new film too. But now, instead of simply swaddling everything from the get-go, theater is grounded in the ordinary, in the necessity of solving a problem. It's now about Batman developing theatricality as a tool, self-consciously and deliberatively. Being taught about it. Explaining it to Alfred. Being casually reminded of it by Lieutenant Gordon. We have here a workaday Batman—causal threads not buried in nuance and subtext, but right out in the open, explicit, part of the manual. ("Let's order half the cowl from this company and half from the other, to allay suspicion." "How many?" "Better make it 10,000." "Mm...guess we won't want for spares...ok.") And the question is, when you show how drama and mystery and becoming-larger-than-life are made, when you show it step-by-step—when the fact that the mythos is being formed from parts is central to everything that happens, when all your major characters note it and muse about it openly—i.e., when you "deconstruct" Batman, spend the whole movie proving that he is just a man, albeit a man with a mission—do you not thereby rob him of his transcendent quality, the impression and conviction that he is more than human even when he is weakest and most vulnerable?
The deconstructed caped crusader
Not hardly. And this is what the movie wants to argue. That notion is, in fact, the fatal mistake of Batman's arch-enemy: the notion that knowing (something about) how the caped crusader came to be, could reduce him to less than what he now is. It turns out to be a critical miscalculation to assume that if you know about the Batman's primal fear and how he struggled to overcome it, know about the training behind his tricks and strategies, know where he lives, etc.—he thus becomes a less fearsome and formidable foe, so that you can afford to wax condescending as you counter all the familiar moves, can afford to believe that it is now easy as pie to out-psyche the guy.
The forces that shape Batman—that he has drawn upon to shape himself—cannot be reduced to hammers and nails. The goal of director-writer Christopher Nolan and co-writer David Goyer was this: to show how to make a Batman, to show that it can be done and that there might be good reasons for the emergence of such a figure, while also preserving the Dark Knight as a still-impenetrable mystery, a nemesis of evil who cannot really be explained at all except by the fact that he has permitted himself to become what he was going to become from the beginning. Batman in full regalia does not "begin" until halfway through the movie. But he has already begun in the very first scene, when he is a ten-year-old child being frightened by bats. His fear will help bring about the very tragedy that, in the end, he can cope with only by embracing, then unleashing, that fear. "Why bats, Master Wayne?" "Bats frighten me. It's time my enemies shared my dread."
It's all there in the beginning; in the story, but also in the Zimmer/Howard score. The music expresses something dark and powerful, present, but not fully formed; something natal and emerging, emerging, emerging...and, then, finally...released. Then there's the camera. The fact that, even by the very end, we often catch only fleeting glimpses of what has been released, is one of the cinematic tricks that make the tightrope walk work. One reason Batman remains a mystery is that we can never really examine him, though we're privy to his entire history. We understand the why, but not quite the what. Whenever we see another nail being pounded, there's always something else going on too, less easy to fathom.
Batman employs theatricality in such a way that the theatricality becomes immediately superficial, not truly explanatory. It falls away. To participate in the dramatic acts of theater means that at some level you're reading from a playbook. That's not Batman. Recall the scene in which Gordon's partner, fatso, has just robbed a street vendor and is now happily munching a falafel. It's raining. Batman from a high perch snags the dirty cop on a sling and yanks him up, interrogates him, drops him down, yanks him up again. The Batman is a terrifying creature barely holding himself in check.
Now, this was all prepared as deliberate theater, for practical reasons. Batman could have simply walked up behind the guy and dragged him into an alley, and scared the crap out of him there. But things are a whole lot more dramatic, and scarier, this way; more horrifyingly symbolic of things bat-like; more oppressive and disorienting; the result is that the victory over the weaker man is immediate, complete, and incontestable. The Batman's anger is also theater, one might conclude. "He'll talk to me," he has told Gordon. The calculation is obvious: this man is a third-tier hanger-on; my intimidating Batman persona will easily scare the dickens out of him; I'll grimace and roar; he'll talk. But is it possible to watch that scene and believe that the Batman's anger is in any way simulated?
The real thing
Christian Bale is a fine enough actor to have known how to cue the viewer that the Batman is just putting on an act here, however convincing, if that were the case. It's not the case. Go now to some of the adult Bruce Wayne's encounters with Rachel Dawes and others. We see through his cheerful vacuity not only because we know that he's hiding something but also because the actor is letting us see through it. There is no hint of such playacting in the scene with fatso. Batman may have become Batman as a strategy or a symbol or whatever else he tells himself and others to explain it, and it's all true up to a point. But when he's in uniform, when he's on the prowl, he is the Batman—really, really the Batman, not a symbol. He is not merely enacting a drama, or implementing a plan. And nothing about his dead calm, or unswerving focus and dedication, or menacing ferocity, is ever just for show.
This is also why Rachel and Bruce can't get together, finally. She wants Bruce, not Batman. And she realizes that the Batman is not "just a symbol" as Bruce claims. The Batman is for real. He does, however, have an alter ego, a mask he wears when he must, and with which he does play a part.
David M. Brown is the editor of The Webzine.