Batman Begins: Fear And Loathing In Gotham City

In my imagination, the jokey outtakes from Batman Begins would feature Christian Bale hamming up that typical actor’s query: “What’s my motivation??”

As Michael Chabon makes clear in The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay, his literary homage to comic books, the key to a great comic superhero isn’t the costume, the name or even the powers, but the why – why does he do what he does in the way that he does it? Come up with an answer which is more interesting than the vagaries of “fighting crime” and “upholding justice”, and you might just create a legend.

In Batman Begins, director Christopher Nolan explores “the why” and gives us what all the other Batman movies couldn’t, or wouldn’t. Apart from weirdness in the start where Bruce Wayne is apparently young and restless in a country full of Asiatics who all speak English like David Carradine, an annoying Michael Caine as Alfred whose accent wobbles Thatcher-like between posh and decidedly un, and the fact that I personally find Christian Bale bloody ugly and wish he’d keep his bat mask on all the time, I think Nolan succeeds spectacularly. In these dark cultural days for UCL alumni when Coldplay rule album charts, it’s nice to have a fellow alumnus actually doing something you’re proud to be associated with, albeit incredibly indirectly. (Ricky Gervais, Antony Gormley and Gandhi, I’m totally proud of y’all too!)

So, “Batman” is cobbled together from Bruce Wayne’s childhood fears, residual guilt from his parents’ deaths, advice from mysterious mentor Henri Ducard to “become what you fear most”, his view that Gotham’s criminals need to fear a symbol rather than just a man, and finally, the relative ease of making good bat-shaped ninja stars as compared to, say, wombat-shaped ones. Wombatman’s ninja stars would suck, though I guess he’d probably sell more Happy Meals. I’d buy a Wombatman Happy Meal.

But I digress. At the risk of sounding a bit high-school film class, I’ll say I think the theme of fear is well developed and explored in this film, and at the risk of sounding like a pretentious fuck I’ll also say I liked the modern allegory of the ploy to destroy Gotham by creating artificial and irrational fear in its populace. Cillian Murphy is great as Scarecrow, and the trippy sequences where he induces terror and dons his mask look soooo Dave McKean. Also, he’s dead sexy, and can lock me up and play scary mask games with me any time.

Although I’m only tangentially familiar with the Batman/DC Comics universe (through the bits of it that appear in Sandman), one thing which stood out for me was how much Batman Begins felt like reading a good graphic novel – meticulously intelligent, plot-driven yet dense with interesting ideas, and visually transporting. All in all, it is a stunning example of how once in a while, movie adaptations don’t end up raping their comic book originals in the ass.


  1. And despite the Scarecrow and the shiny new verbs (“weaponize”?), I really appreciate the gradual and logical rise of the villain in this movie. It always strikes me as hugely implausible to have the newly-inaugurated superhero confronted with a newly-arisen uber-villain. Coincidence? F4, I don’t know you yet, but I’m looking at you with foreboding. That the Dark Knight is himself a reaction to/result of artificially-induced violence makes his own artificial appearance and means suddenly very fitting and acceptable/excusable. Batman, and not the villain, realistically drives the plot of this film. Burton out, Nolan in. Game on.

  2. Hrm.. much like Star Wars I can’t say I enjoyed this very much. A whole hour of “to understand fear you must become fear” nerdiness before you even get to see him beat up some perps. Much like Darth Vader he’s alot cooler when you don’t know what he ate for breakfast that morning.

    And I really don’t like the fast cut, close quarters camera work in the fight scenes. It’s the sort of thing that was done well in The Bourne Indentity, but this leaned more towards the Bourne Supremacy, where you couldn’t see what the fuck was going on.

    The tone of it was all over the place. You’ve got the gritty seriousness one minute, the next the Batmobile is bouncing from rooftop to rooftop.

  3. James, i think its important that they lay out the backstory in all its nerdy-(shallow)-depth, cos the last Batman movie was “Batman and Robin” and that killed the Dark Knight Detective in everyones mind, i mean, i mean, I MEAN Batman could have had a Surf-off with the Joker* and i couldn’t have thought any worse of him at the start of this movie, but i have to say that giving the “long version” of the Batman Origin was a bold step, but it was necessary.

    i thought the fast editing was a pretty good way to raise the fear level to almost that of a horror movie.

    This movie had a few impediments to begin with, but the worst of all was that it was a “Superhero movie” and they, with few exceptions, are shallow, pallid reflections of shallow, childish source material -but This movie rocks, oh and incidentally it has a superhero in it.

    * see Batman the Series for that kitschy horror.

  4. I suppose it’s that all comic adaptations feel rather limp now that I’ve seen Sin City. That movie seemed to embrace it comic book dialogue and asthetic in such and unselfconsious way that you couldn’t help loving it. The way they stalled on all the impacts and gory parts really captured the feeling of browsing the panels. Batman Begins by contrast seemed to hurry past all the fistycuffs and bat suit close ups as if it were embarrased by it.

  5. James I agree with you about the annoying “fast cut, close quarters camera work in the fight scenes.” I felt like they forgot to hire a good fight choreographer so they got the editing guys to make it flashy and unintelligible.

    Overall I thought they did a fine job and can’t wait to see what they can do with the other villian stories. Anyboy got ideas for casting?

  6. ‘Ere Batman the series gets all sorts of flack, none of which stands up at all. The Batman tv series is amazing. Seriously, watch it and compare it to any other family adventure show, and your favourite show will come off worse. Its incredibly well made, beautifully shot, with guest stars the likes of which Buffy the Vampire Slayer could only dream of, and incredibly knowing humour.

    Batman and Robin, on the other hand, was largely appalling, apart from Uma Thurman’s Mae West pastiche. Which was great.

  7. yeah, but no, but yeah, batman the series is all very well if your having a laugh and the sets and set ups were great! but i think they are trying to tell a serious story about an milllionaire orphan who grows up to be a man who wants to out, till well past midnight, dressed in rubber trying to satisfy some deep seated urge, so the less it has to do with that silly series the better.

  8. Yes, you’ve got some convincing to do with this “serious story” malarkey, don’t you? This is why Batman Returns was great. It wasn’t serious at all.

  9. The one of the best episodes on the Batman TV series was when Robin asked Superman to be a temporary substitute for Batman because these microrobots had taken over Bruce Wayne’s body.

  10. I liked Batman Returns! There’s this bit where Penguin’s talking to some broad at a society party and says “You know, things could be worse! My nose could be gushing blood!” She laughs nervously, not quite understanding. Then he bites off her nose.

    I love that bit.

  11. I suspect that Chistopher Nolan might offer a similar response.

    I’m glad that I saw the movie before becoming mired in this portenious debate on the respective merits of Moore, Marvel et al.

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