The Dark Knight Returns with a Vengeance
|Starring:||Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Ken Watanabe, and Katie Holmes|
Finally – a “Batman” movie that’s actually about Batman. Well, it sure took long enough!
Sure, the first “Batman” film from 1989 gave the immensely popular DC comics character – a superhero without any real super powers – the big screen treatment he ultimately deserved (worldwide gross: $415 million). But with so much attention paid to director Tim Burton’s deeply-layered gothic style – not to mention Jack Nicholson’s scene-stealing performance as the maniacal Joker – it almost felt like Batman (played by Michael Keaton) was a guest star in his own movie.
And it got progressively worse with each passing film. After stumbling with a more violent, but less focused sequel – 1992’s “Batman Returns” – Burton handed over the directing chores to Joel Schumacher, whose attempt to liven things up with a more energetic, colorful vibe ultimately backfired. Sure, it worked to some extent with 1995’s entertaining “Batman Forever” (with Val Kilmer in the title role), but by then, it became even more about who the new villains were and even less about who Batman was. By the time “Batman & Robin” came out in 1997 (with George Clooney donning the nipple-bearing Batsuit), Schumacher veered so far into camp territory that he effectively killed the series.
But have no fear – Batman is back, and he’s better than ever. After years of false-starts, during which time comics rival Marvel dominated the big screen with the incredibly successful “Spider-Man” and “X-Men” movies, the Dark Knight returns with a reported $180 million budget to reclaim his stake on the modern superhero epic that he helped to define. Thanks to a mostly tight screenplay, loads of character development and a star-making performance by Christian Bale, “Batman Begins” will not only appeal to both longtime fans and casual moviegoers alike, but it also succeeds as the Batman film that we’ve all been waiting for.
Tormented by anger and guilt over the death of his parents, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) travels the world seeking the means to fight injustice. After he is mentored by a mysterious vigilante group called the League of Shadows, Wayne returns to Gotham City to find it overrun with crime, greed and corruption. With the help of his trusted butler Alfred (Michael Caine), good-guy police detective Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and business ally Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Bruce Wayne transforms himself into Batman, the masked crusader who uses his strength, intellect and high-tech weaponry to fight the sinister forces destroying the city.
Many people have asked, Why did Bruce Wayne become Batman? Where did he get that suit? Who taught him how to fight? Where did he get those cool gadgets? How did Gordon become his most trusted friend? And where did he get that awesome car?
All these questions – and a whole lot more – are answered in “Batman Begins.” But rather than merely fill in the blanks, director Christopher Nolan (“Memento,” “Insomnia”), who co-wrote the screenplay with David S. Goyer (“Dark City,” the “Blade” movies), provides the answers in a creative, interesting and logical manner while still telling a thoroughly engrossing story. (George Lucas should take note – this is how you do a prequel!) In fact, by relying on the tone set by seminal comic book classics like “The Dark Knight Returns” and “Batman: Year One,” the first part of the story is so riveting, you don’t even realize that Batman doesn’t make his first appearance until well over an hour into the film.
The problem is that after that happens, the film loses its footing with a convoluted plot, an ineffective villain and a 2 hour and 20 minute running time that feels a tad bit too long. As a result, the last half of the movie isn’t nearly as compelling as the first half (a flaw that also inflicted the first “Spider-Man” film). It doesn’t help that the threat against Gotham City is somewhat derivative of other films (most notably the first “Batman”), or that the final fight scene aboard a runaway train is remarkably similar to what we just saw last year in “Spider-Man 2.”
But flaws aside, the film also succeeds in its casting. While Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney each deserve credit for putting their own notable spin on Bruce Wayne, they all pale in comparison to Christian Bale. Never mind the fact that Bale had only 4 weeks to bulk up for the role after losing 63 pounds for his skeletal appearance in “The Machinist,” but he gives a physically and emotionally grueling performance that goes above and beyond what’s usually required for the genre. At the same time, he clearly seems to be having a blast, whether he’s kicking butt in the Batsuit, taking the wheel of the souped-up Batmobile or charming the ladies while dressed in a tux.
Bale is supported by a talented list of co-stars, even if some of them are under-utilized. Michael Caine relies on his usual fatherly charm as longtime guardian Alfred, while newly crowned Oscar-winner Morgan Freeman (“Million Dollar Baby”) brings his authoritative wisdom to the Bond-style tech expert who helps Bale acquire all his Bat-goodies. Katie Holmes does an effective job as the Assistant District Attorney who vows to clean up Gotham City, but Cillian Murphy’s villainous Scarecrow seems ineffective and underdeveloped. And while Liam Neeson can practically play the part of the mentor in his sleep after similar performances in “Kingdom of Heaven” and “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace,” at least he carries a secret that will ultimately effect Bale on his quest for justice.
By putting such a complex psychological character in the hands of a moody, character-driven director like Christopher Nolan, the Batman franchise has finally gotten the makeover it needed to be taken seriously again as one of the great comics-to-film franchises. This is also a rebirth for DC, which is brandishing a new film logo to re-establish its place in the big screen marketplace (a trend that will surely continue with next summer’s new “Superman” movie). But we are talking about a summer blockbuster here, so it’s also fun and action-packed where it counts. And with a final scene that basically serves as a set-up for the inevitable sequel, it looks like the new-and-improved Batman is here to stay.