Friday, November 04, 2005

Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2005)

My feelings towars this new Batman film have been rather schizoid. As it was developing in production, I was very excited about it. Every new announcement about the writer, director, cast (I'd probably pick Christian Bale to play Batman over every actor in Hollywood history, possibly excepting a young Orson Welles) and general direction of the story thrilled me. Then, when it finally arrived, I found myself not caring at all. I think, after the Star Wars prequels, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Kill Bill, the Spider-Man films, and whatever else you want to add on to that list, I was just tired of films that I was required to be excited about. At any rate, I didn't see it in the theater, and finally caught it on DVD a few days ago.

I like the film. I'm not going far out on a limb to say that it's the best Batman film to date. I know it has it's fans, but I cannot stand Tim Burton's original 1988 Batman film. I like Batman Returns, but more as a Tim Burton film than as a Batman film. The two Schumacher films are both awful. I like the Adam West version, but that hardly counts as a "real" Batman film.

One of the things I like about this one is that, as with Batman Returns, there seems to be some thought put into the selection of villains, and what those villains mean to the hero. There's a great thematic unity to this film, and it's reflected in the images of bats and scarecrows that show up in various forms throughout. Many ideas from the comic are tightened up here, such as Bruce feeling responsible for his parent's death because he was frightened by a performance of Die Fleidermaus.* And it's a fantastically good looking film.

Bobbie was asking me about what is and isn't taken from the comic, and of course the whole story of Bruce being initiated into The League of Shadows in China is invented for the movie. "I'm sure the comic book geeks hate that," she remarked, but I found myself at a loss to explain why they don't--why this whole new backstory for Bruce Wayne is greeted so warmly, compared to, say, Peter Parker's Cronenberg-y web glands replacing the mechanical webshooters (which was a huge controversy all through the production of Spider-Man). I said, at the time, that it was maybe because it didn't actually contradict any thing in the comics, but mostly because geeks were just so happy to get the kind of Batman movie they always wanted (dark, gritty, violent, taking itself seriously, with a complex plot and scary villains). But now that I think about it, the answer is probably simpler--this is simply the story that fans would have written themselves. It's like official fanfiction. What pimply-faced comic reader wouldn't want Bruce Wayne to have been trained by a secret society of ninjas templar? It's super cool! The more I think about it, Batman Begins probably appeals more directly to the teenage, male, comic book geek than any of the other recent superhero films.

Personally, I like the changes as much as anyone. The serious tone is a great asset, but it's so serious in the early part of the film that it begins to be a detriment when it suddenly becomes a pulpy superhero movie about an hour in. I could list several other complaints, including lapses in logic, out-of-place one-liners, and a thematic thread about justice vs. revenge that seems to be abandoned before the end (unless it's intended to be picked up later in the series), but the film generates so much good will for me that it's easy to overlook these things. I even like Katie Holmes' character. She makes sense in this world, where it's not enough to have a guy in a mask going around kicking people's butts, along with one honest cop--you need an honest DA. I like that someone even bothered to think that out.

*I'm guessing that it was Die Fleidermaus. My knowledge of Die Fleidermaus consists of knowing the fact that there is an opera called Die Fleidermaus, and it has something to do with bats, and there was a character in The Tic cartoon named after it. In fact, that's my knowledge of opera in general.

Sun Ra - I'm Gonna Unmask The Batman (mp3)
Lacy Gibson - I Am Gonna Unmask The Batman (mp3)

These are from the collection Sun Ra: The Singles, which collects all the singles released on Sun's label Saturn Records. Many of them are Sun Ra's weird space-jazz workouts (the extensive liner notes are occasionally hilarious, as they ponder the question of what the fuck Sun Ra was thinking in releasing this stuff on singles), but there's also quite a few recordings from the 50's of The Arkestra backing up doo-wop and rhythm & blues singers.

Yochannan - Muck Muck (mp3)
Yochannan - Hot Skillet Mama (mp3)

This was a single released in 1957. When I heard "Hot Skillet Mama" on WUOG, I was sure it was Screamin' Jay Hawkins, and I was shocked when the DJ attributed it to Sun Ra. As the liner notes point out, The vocal style...seems inspired by Screamin' Jay Hawkins. Yochannan, of course, always claimed that Hawkins stole his act from him. What's most interesting about these two recordings is that, while Yochannan is clearly singing rock-n-roll, the Arkestra is not playing like a rock-n-roll band (creating a rough, noisy rhythm that you can dance to), but like a jazz band, reacting flexibly to what the singer is doing, and creating onamonapoetic sound effects.

PS - Image courtesy of Superdickery.


Blogger Ben MirĂ³ said...

The thing for me that Begins gets so right is it totally focuses on Bruce Wayne/Batman. And mostly works to establish a strong emotional foundation to the character. I mean, I believe that this guy would be so hurt, so angry that he would do something so psychotic like dress like a bat and beat the shit out of criminals. I call that 'mission: accomplished'.

It's been 15 or so years since I fanatically read comics but I seem to recall the ninja stuff (it is in the animated series). Though, I'm sure they weren't connected to Ras al Ghul at all.

11/08/2005 5:00 AM  
Blogger Chris Oliver said...

That's what I get for not doing my research. I haven't read a regular Batman comic (not counting Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke and Arkham Asylum) since...I guess since the 70's, and I've seen maybe 1/3 of the animated series. I was under the impression that they made all that shit up. Still, the question of why the insertion of Ras Al Ghul into that origin myth works, but Burton's insertion of The Joker into the origin doesn't, is an interesting question. Although, in that case, I'd say the main problem is that Burton diminished The Joker by making him a common mobster. So that's the great accomplishment of Batman Begins: it grounds all the aspects of Batman mythology into a semi-believable reality WITHOUT toning down the pulp.

11/08/2005 8:07 AM  
Blogger Ben MirĂ³ said...

I think the umpteen hundreds of Batman creators always pull some nugget of info from Batmans Lost Years at the most convenient times. Bruce Wayne was schooled in the Detective Arts at Scotland Yard, etc.

I don't really care about strict adherence to the comic origins (i.e. I loved Constantine)...but one thing I dug about Denny O'Neill's and Neal Adams's early '70's run was the creepy gothic...almost EC Comics vibe. Ras al Ghul was totally a Hammer Horror villain. I doubt that would play in a major motion picture...but it was missed.

11/08/2005 8:47 AM  

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