Upon on a second viewing for the second night in a row, I'm convinced that "Batman Begins" is the best Batman film. My personal favorite has always been "Batman Returns." It's noir all the way to eleven, not no mention nasty and nihilistic and a whole lot of other fun n-words. But Christopher Nolan's done a great job setting up a fresh franchise. I feel he could take the sequels in a variety of directions based on the framework this first film has laid. This Gotham City owes a lot to "Blade Runner" — always a good place to start — and comes off as more realistic than Burton's chaotic nightmare and more likeable than Schumacher's neon disco playground.
And likewise, the film's characters seem more human and less like 3-D versions of models drawn from Saturday morning cartoons. Christian Bale lacks Val Kilmer's cut jaw line and scowl-under-the-cowl, but his acting skills make of for that. He's neither too dark as Batman nor annoyingly smirky as Bruce Wayne. Nolan wisely stocked the rest of the film with top-notch actors: Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman in roles played by no-names in the other Batman films. And I don't care what anybody says about Katie Holmes. She did a good job. She's not too young for the role. And I can see her on screen without thinking about "Dawson's Creek."
The scope of the film's plot is wider than I could have imagined. There's a huge chunk at the beginning that doesn't even really feel like a Batman film, as it concerns Bruce Wayne's ordeals in some snowy Bhutanese mountain range, but it still works. The film's title, it turns out, is quite literal. "Batman Begins" actually shows Bruce Wayne piecing together his Batman persona, bit by bit. I wouldn't have thought watching him and Alfred work out the technical specifications of Batman's gadgets could have been entertaining, but it is. Credit the writing, I guess.
Everything about the writing works — the dialogue, the plot devices, the character development. I especially like the recurrent theme of fear, which ties in nicely to Batman's origins and the subplot involving the Scarecrow. (Also, Cillian Murphy is too pretty to play the Scarecrow, but since it's such a small part, it's not too much of a problem.) The motif also works interestingly by making "Batman Begins" a post-9/11 film: Americans being governed by fear, people destroying a society in the effort to save it, the difference between how east and west approach solving societal ills. Stuff like that.
My only real gripes with the film, I guess, lie in its main villain. As Other Drew pointed out last night, Ra's Al Ghul isn't a name-brand villain. Only fanboys really know who he is, and the incarnation of him presented in the film is quite different from the one in the comic books. But like I said before, this is "Batman Begins" — a ramp-up for the main show. So in that respect, Ra's Al Ghul works pretty well. But taking "Batman Begins" one its own, the casual viewer could deem the big showdown a little anti-climactic.
The other problem I have with the villain is that he is so realistic. He could have been a bad guy in just about any action film, really. The evil terrorist. He's "Die Hard" or "True Lies," just with a better actor playing him. The film also tones down the Scarecrow quite a bit. He's not a supervillain — at least not yet.
It's a whole new take on the Batman universe, and I think it does a good job of making everybody seem less goofy. I just wonder how such a setting could accommodate the zanier members of Batman's gallery of rogues: Mr. Freeze, Harley Quinn or my personal favorite, Poison Ivy. None of these types seem like they'd gel with Nolan's gritty, noirish Gotham. Maybe they never will. Or maybe Gotham will evolve as the series progresses.
And oh yeah: a lot of people seem to think that Liam Neeson's character, Ducard, is an invention of the movie. He's not, really. In the comcis, young Bruce Wayne apprentices under a lot of great men to learn his Batman skills, like Yoru-Sensei for the jujitsu or Zatara for the escape routines and sleight-of-hand. To become a great detective, he trains under a Frenchman named Henri Ducard. So what's presented in the movie is a re-interpretation of the character from the comics, but not a wholly original creation.
Bonus points: cameos from Barbara Gordon and Zsaz. And for putting Holmes' character in the DA's office, which leaves room for Harvey Dent to join the sequel.
This is Summer Gleason, signing off.