BATMAN BEGINS

CELEBRATING FIFTEEN YEARS SINCE THE GRITTY REBOOT

RETROSPECTIVE REVIEW
By Joel Kalkopf
16th June 2020

2005 was a really memorable year for me, mostly because it is the year I had my Barmitzvah and finally became a man - Mazel Tov to me. Freshly manned and ready to explore the world, I did what any grown up would do: go with his friend and their dad to the cinemas to watch 'Batman Begins' - we weren't allowed to go alone for obvious reasons. In all honesty, I remember going to see 'Batman Begins' so vividly in my mind because it's actually when we sat so close to the screen that my friend felt dizzy in the car chase scene and vomited into the sweater of the stranger sitting next to him. If that isn't a memorable movie-going experience, what is? This, combined with the adrenaline rush of a brand-new reboot of Batman, culminated in an experience I would never forget.

Fifteen years later, I still consider this film a turning point not only for me, but for summer blockbusters, cinemas, superhero movies, and of course, Christopher Nolan. Back in 2005 when this was released, sure we had three versions of 'A Star is Born', but ultimately, reboots were not at the forefront of a studio's mind, nor was it really in the vocabulary of your average cinema attendee. The 'James Bond' franchise had seen different portrayals by different actors, but technically speaking they were all the same person, maybe in parallel universes (but that theory is for another article). What's important for this piece is to realise that, generally, once a film was completed and out there in the world, barring sequels and the odd prequel, that was it.

Warner Brothers had the rights to the world's most recognisable and universally loved character, Batman, but they had a major problem on their hands in the form of Joel Schumacher's 1997 'Batman and Robin'. If you've never seen it, don't bother, but know that it was received incredibly poorly by both critics and fans alike. Following in the footsteps of his predecessor Tim Burton, Schumacher kept the colourful comic atmosphere of the settings and characters, but clearly the audience was after something more. Warner Brothers had seen the effects of Sam Raimi's 'Spiderman', and they wanted some of the sweet dough for themselves.

Off the back of successful - albeit not blockbuster - films such as 'Momento' and 'Insomnia', Christopher Nolan would have seemed an odd choice at the time. His pitch to the studio revolved around the theme of fear and trying to resolve an issue of showing a man go around in a bat suit and fight crime feel simultaneously awesome, and real. That is no small feat, but one that I think everyone can agree Nolan passed with flying colours. For the first time ever, the superhero genre got an exhibition of how to make the world of heroes grounded, gritty and realistic. The fact that Nolan succeeded in this changed the summer blockbuster, in a way not too dissimilar to how Spielberg defined the summer movie with 'Jaws'.

'BATMAN BEGINS' TRAILER

As this film is 15 years old, I will obviously address spoilers, but I'm also not going to explain the whole plot because, let's be honest, if you've read this far in the article, you've probably seen the movie. In its most basic three-act structure, 'Batman Begins' sees Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale, 'American Psycho') convinced he must take revenge on his parent's murderer but aided by his lifelong friend Rachel (Katie Holmes, 'Logan Lucky'), he realises that revenge and justice are not cut from the same cloth. Instead, Bruce uses his guilt and anger as a driving force to go deeper and understand the criminal world, pushing himself to the edge and eventually being trained by Ducard (Liam Neeson, 'Taken' franchise). Upon his return to Gotham, supported by his family butler Alfred (Michael Caine, 'The Prestige') and head of applied sciences Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman, 'Se7en'), a few montages later and Bruce has now become Batman. A string of vintage detective work leads him to confront Dr Crane, (Cillian Murphy, 'Inception') who's plan is to drive Gotham into a panic of fear until the city falls to the ground - that is of course until Batman and his new crime friend James Gordon (Gary Oldman, 'Darkest Hour') thwart the plan and save Gotham.

Contrary to most Nolan pictures, it's not an overly complex story structure, but for the first-time it invites complex characters into this genre, reinforcing to audiences all these years later that for all of Nolan's technical genius, he's also a damn good writer.

What Nolan constructed with 'Batman Begins' is iconic for his portrayal of Bruce Wayne, and for his characterisation of Gotham City. Let's first explore his depiction of Bruce, our complex hero. It now seems obvious, but Bale brought something new to the role of Bruce, something that Clooney, Keaton and even West were never given the opportunity to showcase - vulnerability. Here, Bruce is damaged goods, unable to overcome his guilt and fears, but he decides the channel those emotions to invoke sympathy, harnessing the pain and selfishness into something tangible. Bale makes audiences believe that yes, a rich billionaire actually might use his money to dress up like a bat and save his city. This really shouldn't make sense, but it does. For the first time on screen, the raw complexities that made the Batman comics so appealing in its infancy, are now showcased for a mainstream audience, and it certainly piqued my personal interest in the character. What's more, Bruce's motivations and sometimes polarising intentions, all come from his circle of trust. From Alfred to Rachel and Ducard, we don't need inner monologues or cheap exposition, because Nolan's characters all represent something different to Bruce. It's not the first time this is used as a device, but it's well put together for this film.

For the first time ever, the superhero genre got an exhibition in how to make the world of heroes grounded, gritty and realistic.

So the story is great, the characters are properly fleshed out, and what's next is the environment in which they roam, Gotham City. Usually depicted as a rundown version of Manhattan, Nolan chooses instead to base his city on a darker version of Chicago, and the result gives the film its thriller noir vibe, a not-too-distant cousin of Ridley Scott's production designs in 'Blade Runner'. The red and purple tinges of 'Batman and Robin' are substituted with shadows from barely-lit city lights. It allows Batman to feel more sophisticated and mature, adding weight to the crimes committed in the city. The change was so influential and groundbreaking that every superhero film henceforth felt they needed to replicate it. Only recently are we seeing a shift back to the fun and comic feel in the genre, because studios are beginning to realise that there's no one size fits all. While Batman might work in this environment, Aquaman certainly doesn't, and realising I'll upset a lot of people, nor does Superman to some degree. ('Man of Steel' being gritty wasn't really the problem, but it's a start). What separates Nolan from his predecessors and copycats is his understanding of the characters and the environments that would drive them. Just because it's gritty doesn't mean it's guaranteed to be good, because it may not be warranted.

The chain reaction of 'Batman Begins' for Hollywood studios is still being felt today. Straight away, MGM went to reboot James Bond with 'Casino Royale', a darker and grittier version of the once suave and elegant secret agent. The "Gritty Reboots" kept coming in the form of Godzilla, fairytale origin stories, 'Planet of the Apes' and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, to name a few. One could argue that it didn't change Hollywood for the better, but the influence of the film's success can't be ignored.

It's now been 15 years since 'Batman Begins' was released in cinemas, so the question stands - does it still hold up? Absolutely. My only frustration after all this time would be witnessing the death of Bruce's parents in yet another origin story, which has since been done to death - excuse the pun. We don't actually see Batman in all his glory until about the one-hour mark, but when it happens, Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard put together a theme that is as instantly iconic as its character, and it leaves you with chills all over. It's a beautiful moment that defines what this Nolan trilogy would become, dark and legendary.

'Batman Begins' gifted Nolan with the keys to Hollywood, and arguably, he is the one director whose film openings have become celebrated cultural events. Studios throw the cash at him, and audiences will flock to see his latest achievements. To put his magnitude into perspective, for a while at least, his latest film at the time of writing, 'Tenet', signals the reopening of cinemas worldwide. Not just any filmmaker can have this impact, and its why Nolan is one of the greatest and most influential filmmakers of our generation - and it all started with a man in a bat suit.

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