|Directed by:||Christopher Nolan|
|Written by:||David Goyer|
|Cast:||Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Gary Oldman, Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson, Rutger Hauer, Ken Watanabe, Morgan Freeman|
The Grounded Reality - I'll start by addressing something controversial among some fans, the more grounded take on Batman that the Nolan films depict. First of all it's not all that "realistic", it still has a big fantasy component to it. These movies are about as realistic as a James Bond or Indiana Jones movie is. It's most definitely a heightened reality, a movie reality in which these characters exist. What Nolan has done by placing Batman in a more grounded world is to give it some grit, a real sense of danger. The Gotham that Burton created, as good as the production design was feels like a set on a back lot full of wardrobe and props, not a real world. Any menace that it has is dulled by the artificial and cartoonish nature of it all. The Gotham that Nolan creates in this movie feels like a real crumbling city, were danger lurks around every corner and you can't trust anybody. It's the Gotham depicted in Frank Miller's Year One, which was a huge influence on this movie. Just like Miller had done in Year One Nolan has returned the character back to his grittier roots in a more contemporary modern day setting. No longer are their cartoonish gangsters with tommy guns wearing pin strips and fedoras, but instead an modern take on organized crime that is more in line with Martin Scorsese films like Goodfellas or The Departed. The depiction of a more militant, modernized and corrupt Police Force is also an addition that lends more complexity, danger and obstacles to overcome in the world surrounding our hero, just as it had in Frank Miller's Year One.
The Villains - Sure you can argue that Nolan's more grounded approach to Batman excludes some of the more fantastical characters such as Clayface, Man-Bat, Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy and Killer Croc. However chances are we weren't ever going to see those characters in favor of the more recognizable and popular Batman villains like Joker, Two-Face, Scarecrow, Penguin, Riddler and Catwoman anyway. You have to give Nolan credit though for giving nods to the fans by having Mr. Zsasz as a mob hitman that keeps popping up in the movie, and Ken Watanabe in the role of Ubu. Ra's Al Ghul's disposable body guard who's often killed protecting Ra's in the comics only to be replaced by another Ubu, just as depicted in the movie during Ra's Al Ghul's reveal at Bruce's birthday party. Did anyone ever expect to see those characters in a Batman movie? I sure didn't, but there they were. Not to mention the use of Arkham Asylum as a major location and important part of the movie as well. A huge part of the lore that the Burton movies didn't even acknowledge.
Some people like to criticize Nolan by saying that removing some of the more fantastical elements like Lazarus Pits or the Joker's bleached skin isn't being faithful to the source material, but that couldn't be further from the truth. The comics are constantly evolving, altering and changing to reflect the times. Nolan's films may remove or alter certain aspects to help ground these characters in a more plausible way, but his depictions of them have been spot on and extremely faithful to the personalities, psychology and the motivations of the characters. Whether it's Bruce Wayne's quest and the development of his honor code. (I loved that he briefly carried a gun before throwing it away, which was a nod to the original comics in which Batman carried a sidearm before the writers retconned that.) Ra's Al Ghul's motivation to tear down civilization so a better one can arise from it's ashes, or his respect and sense of pride in Bruce Wayne. The Scarecrow's obsession with fear and power. The Joker's mind games to force Batman into compromising his principals, and his anarchistic world view. Or the rise and fall of Harvey Dent. Nolan has consistently delivered incredibly rich and faithful interpretations of these characters across the board. He has captured their essence and presented it with a more grounded humanity, because it's hard to relate to a larger than life cartoon character in an emotional way. Nolan not only understands these characters and what makes them tick, but he knows his Batman history and lore as well. This is Nolan's vision, just as The Dark Knight Returns was Frank Miller's, The Killing Joke was Alan Moore's, The Long Halloween was Jeph Loeb's and Batman '89 was Tim Burton's, and that is how it should be viewed. Nolan is not telling a superhero story full of super villains here, he's telling a Knight's Tale in a modern setting which is exactly what Batman has been about since his original inception.
What I was rather surprised at though was the choice of Ra's Al Ghul as the main villain for this movie. Sure he's well known to comic fans, but not as flashy or recognizable as most of Batman's rogues gallery. After seeing the movie though I completely understood why Nolan made this choice, and it was handled brilliantly in my opinion. Not only did it lend itself beautifully to crafting a fantastic origin story for Batman with his training and journey into becoming The Dark Knight, rich with all of that great mentor/student, betrayal, student becoming the master stuff that Ra's Al Ghul stories always bring to the material, but Nolan was able to use Ra's and The League of Shadows as a reflection of Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. The undercurrent to both of Nolan's Bat films thus far is terrorism. Whether foreign (Ra's and the L.O.S.) or domestic (The Joker). This is a post 9/11 take on Batman reflecting the cultural and political landscape of the last decade like chemical attacks, wire tapping, terrorist bombings and mass evacuations. There's even a suicide bomber used in humorously grotesque fashion by The Joker in The Dark Knight by placing a bomb inside a mans stomach. Gone are the "Get'em boys" cartoon villains of old with their costumed theme goons in favor of terrorists cells, and cult like followers indoctrinated in The Joker's twisted philosophy. What Nolan has done in his Batman films is exactly what Frank Miller did in The Dark Knight Returns. He's captured the cultural zeitgeist of the era in which we live and used it as the backdrop of his interpretation to contemporize a timeless story that has been, and will continue to be retold for generations.
The Cast - The cast, to put it mildly is fucking phenomenal in this movie. I couldn't have asked for a Better Bruce Wayne/Batman than Christian Bale, and no the voice doesn't bother me because it's often described as "harsh and grating" in the comics, so I assume that's where Bale got it from. Liam Neeson is the coolest man on the planet and is always great in these kind of mentor roles, but it was especially great seeing him get a little nasty by the end of the movie. Cillian Murphy is just really creepy and intelligent in a Hannibal Lecter sort of way as the Scarecrow, and anyone that doesn't enjoy Michael Caine is somebody I just don't care to know. He brings all the charm and trademark dry wit Alfred is best known for while also portraying all the worry of a concerned father for a troubled son. Like Michael Caine Morgan Freeman brings a lot of humor to his role as Lucius Fox, a thankless role that could easily dip into boring exposition. He's basically used as Batman's version of Q from the James Bond movies. Gary Oldman is the living embodiment of James Gordon from Batman Year One, and is great at playing a slightly bumbling in over his head character. If I had to pick one flaw in this otherwise stellar cast it would obviously have to be Katie Holmes, however I don't think she did a bad job with the role as much as she just felt out of place in this cast. I'd blame miscasting for this more than her really. I can't say Rachael Dawes is my favorite creation of Nolan's Bat films, but she does serve a purpose. It's through her that we get an insider look at the corrupt legal system, most of our interaction with Johnathon Crane, and she sets things in motion leading us into the last act of the movie sparking a killer car chase in the process. Her character addition also pays off big time in The Dark Knight. Creating new love interests for Batman is fairly common in the comics, he's had as many girlfriends as, well, James Bond I guess. The rest of the cast from top to bottom is great as well including Tom Wilkinson as Carmine Falcone, and Rutger Hauer as Mr. Earle.
The Visual Aesthetic - A lot of people criticism the visual design of the The Tumbler or the tools and gadgetry of Nolan's movies as being ugly, but it helps in creating a more grounded and plausible world because most of Batman's stuff comes from military tech, which is quite ugly in reality as it's designed for functionality. Yeah the Burton Batmobile is a beautiful design, but it's a fantasy car that only really fits in Burton's fairy tale Gotham. The Tumbler looks and functions like something you could believe was being developed for the military. It's a Humvee that drives like a Lamborghini and looks like a stealth bomber on wheels, it fits in perfectly with the world Nolan's films create for this take on Batman. The Batsuit in Begins is the best one to date in my opinion, it's bulk gives Batman a beast like presence and I love that they gave it the Frank Miller style squarered gauntlets. As for the look of Gotham I absolutely love the look of The Narrows (slums) in this movie. It's dark, atmospheric, and gritty with a real Blade Runner influence to it. It's stylized just enough to be fantastical, yet grounded enough to feel more believable. It's a shame we didn't get more of it in The Dark Knight, but hopefully we will in Rises.
The Action - Another common criticism I hear is the way the action is shot to close and is hard to follow. Personally I like this approach, it helps the intensity and sense of danger by placing the viewer right in the midst of the action. It feels more raw and chaotic like a real fight instead of some large overly choreographed martial arts demonstration that feels like a dance sequence. As Ra's Al Ghul says when training Bruce. "Your skilled, but this is not a dance!" Also I love the Keysi Fighting Style they use in the movie, it's just brutal and vicious. Strait to the point without a lot of wasted movement by showing off with spinning jump kicks and posing. The scene were Batman takes down Falcone's men in the shipyard is meant to be seen from the criminals perspective, it's like an animal attack, he just mauls those guys. It was a stylistic choice by Nolan to make Batman feel more like a force of nature than a man in a costume. The Tumbler is also put to good use in one of the best car chases in recent memory, to only then be topped in the sequel. A big improvement over the limited back lot use and fragile fiberglass shell of the Burtonmobile, which prevented them from getting to elaborate with the car stuff in Tim Burton's movies. The finale of the film is just EPIC in every sense of the word, and the final confrontation between Batman and Ra's on the train is fantastic on every level. Their fight was just brutal and emotionally charged from beginning to end. I love how morally ambiguous Batman's decision to not save Ra's in the end is too.
The Score - I'll touch on this briefly because it keeps being brought up. Danny Elfman's score is great, but it's way to whimsical for this interpretation of Batman. I think Hans Zimmer's score really sets the tone of Nolan's movies perfectly, it's intensely atmospheric and moody. It really draws you into this world right from the beginning and never lets up. The first act of this movie just breezes by due in large part to the score.
In Conclusion - When you put it all together you get one Hell of a film, and a great adaptation of Batman that really works best for today in a post 9/11 world. While I agree that The Dark Knight is the better movie, this is my personal favorite because it's a Batman movie that's actually about Batman. This is the Batman movie I had dreamed of while reading all those comics growing up, a serious, dark and intense take on this world, and it didn't disappoint. To me Nolan's films elevate the material, whereas Burton's films mostly deviate from it.