Monday, 10 March 2014

Why Do We Fall?

The corpse of Schumacher's Batman had gone cold, nipples presumably still erect, the Millennium had come and gone and Warner Bros were, understandably, nervous of superheroes.  The Matrix had come and spawned inferior sequels whilst Fox had dalliances with The X Men and Daredevil. Quality and success was inconsistent. It was all a bit haphazard.  For every Spider-Man there was a Hulk and every Blade a Catwoman.  Disney was yet to establish and mine Marvel Studios and Time Warner seemed to view DC as an unwanted inheritance.  Undoubtedly, there was money to be made but there was no vision, no continuity.  There was something missing and it took an Englishman to find it.

Christopher Nolan and David S Goyer set out to humanise the Bruce Wayne/Batman axis and make us care about the whole package and not just the Batarang round the back of the Joker's head.  The rumoured development of Miller's Batman:Year One looms heavy over the story as does The Long Hallowe'en and it's ideas of corruption and organised crime running Gotham whilst a surprising serial killer stalks the streets.  Loeb and Sale effectively balanced villains' origins and a surprising twist, something Nolan surely took as inspiration.  Not only were the actual comics really being used as source material but the realism and darkness of 80's and 90's Batman was being taken from the page to the screen effectively.  Burton's cartoonish realism was being usurped by a Taxi Driver cityscape easily identifiable as the industrial Northeast of the US.

Nolan seemed like a safe pair of hands for a new crack at Batman.  Despite not having an extensive filmography his ace in hand was undoubtedly MementoMemento was one of those films that Hollywood studios like: cheap and successful both critically and commercially.  It cost $4.5 million and pulled in five times that on a release fuelled by word of mouth and viral marketing.  Viral marketing would become a core feature of The Dark Knight trilogy and the following Man of Steel. Cloverfield would have MySpace profiles and Japanese drinks but Batman would have 'I Believe In Harvey Dent' and mysterious chanting.

Nolan's character driven approach was to be a refreshing tonic for the franchise now twitching back to life.  Nolan and Goyer chose to do something not yet seen on film; they chose to fully explain how Bruce Wayne adopted the Batman persona.  Batman Begins was to truly be an origin story. Yeah, we all know kiddie Wayne went to the theatre and watched his parents get dispatched by a mugger, but was this mugger really a pre-sheep dip Joker?  No, that was just convenient artistic license.  Lifting Joe Chill from the comics was much more satisfying.  Indirectly, Chill creates the Batman and Chill's time in jail is used to accelerate the story.  An amazing ensemble cast is presented as Bruce Wayne grows up and disappears.  The double act of Michael Caine's Alfred and Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox is a perfect antidote to Rutger Hauer's Earle and his boardroom schemes.  The corporate shenanigans are far removed from the brown slime, corruption and rain which threatens to swallow up the idealistic Lt. Gordon.  Gary Oldman has a knack of looking younger than he is but at the same time conveying huge amounts of weariness and wisdom as he stands alone against the old school Irish gangsters led by Tom Wilkinson.  He might have an Italian name but Falcone is more The Departed than The Godfather.

The time spent laying Gotham's roots parallels Bruce Wayne's training in Batman: Year One but this time Wayne is trained by the ominous League of Shadows.  But who is Bruce Wayne/Batman? Nolan chose Christian Bale and looking back there couldn't have been anyone else for the role.  Jake Gylenhaal would've been great for me but back then he was too young and inexperienced, his Donnie Darko days whored for a teen turn opposite Dennis Quaid.  Much has been made of Bale being ever so method, bulking up from Trevor Reznik a little too much and hating the suit they made him wear.  Bale is yet unleash his full tetchiness as McG will testify.  It was less The Machinist and more Equilibrium and American Psycho that made Bale the best choice, these films showed he had the physical and mental edge to compliment his undoubted ability.

Bale would need an enemy of suitable gravitas.  Despite his amazingly beautiful blue eyes Cillian Murphy wasn't quite enough.  It's clear Dr Crane was a secondary villain but who he was really working for comes as quite a surprise.  Murphy is excellent as Crane and his alter ego but Nolan and Goyer didn't make his character big enough, presumably the payback for this was to have Crane as an ever present in the trilogy.  Crane's weapon of choice inspires some excellent hallucinations and it's fitting that the action explodes in Arkham Asylum.  The hospital had become a comedy dumping ground under Schumacher but is restored to Victorian horror by Nolan.  The completion is augmented by the cameo of Mr Zsasz, a particularly nasty foe of Batman.

Batman Begins sees Bruce Wayne adopt technology and grow into the role of vigilante.  Aided by Fox we move from billionaire spelunker and adrenaline junkie to full blown vigilante.  Whilst the Tumbler is the most eye catching of the technological advancements it's not the most important.  Wayne's improvisation and eye for the theatrical leads him to delve into his am-dram days and come up with the costume.  The attention to detail is remarkable, whether deliberate or note the Batsuit is heavy and hot, yet flexible.  When Bale put the suit on he hated it, his bad mood channelled through the character to make Batman a figure of rage and vengeance.  Everything is explained from the electrically manipulated fabric to the trial and error cowls.  Fox is Bruce Wayne's Q and does provide some light relief.

The same cannot be said of Rachel Dawes.  I've flicked through comics, Selina Kyle, Vicki Vale, Leslie Thompkins, Silver St Cloud and Jezebel Jet.  All woman of various ages and connections to Wayne and Batman but no Rachel Dawes which probably explains why I find her character so irritating.

Nolan may not have been convinced he'd get another crack at Batman but Warner Bros went into marketing overdrive ensuring the critical success was matched at the box office.  Batman Begins wasn't the biggest film of 2005  (come on, there was a Star Wars and a Harry Potter that year) but it did beat Hitch and The Fantastic Four.  All of a sudden those calling cards in Gordon's evidence bag weren't just wishful thinking.

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