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Batman Begins

February 4, 2017

Batman Begins (2005)
Director: Christopher Nolan
Actors: Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, Michael Caine

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Synopsis: A dissolute Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has travelled to the Far East after graduating college, still ruminating over the murder of his parents in his youth. Co-opted by the League of Shadows, Wayne breaks free from their doctrine when he realises they are an avenging, terrorist organisation. Wayne returns to Gotham City, sets up his Batman persona, and seeks to free the city from its stranglehold of corruption until an even more ominous foe materialises…

Review: One can see what Christopher Nolan was trying to do with his rebooting of the Batman legend: translating its mythology and themes as didactically and realistically as possible into a comprehensible landscape. This central earnestness of purpose is both Batman Begins’ greatest strength but also its fundamental weakness.

The film certainly wrestles with its central dichotomy of social responsibility and vigilantism (why Bruce Wayne does what he does), and – invariably inspired by a post-9/11 world where aspects of self-determination and fear on both sides of the state/terrorist divide are malleable concepts – Nolan attempts to probe this ideological quagmire but in an exceptionally stodgy way. The elongated exposition at the film’s beginning where Wayne’s ‘radicalisation’ is charted on a trip to the Far East verges close to the self-parodic in its endless incantation of a semantic field of fear as Wayne fosters but ultimately rejects the League of Shadows’ extreme notions of intervention.

Another problem with Nolan’s line of attack is that he spends so long trying to flesh out and incarnate how Wayne could conceive of and establish the Batman project in a realistic universe that he ends up caught between two stools. On the one hand, he’s got to tell what is essentially a fable and honour the conventions of the superhero genre, but in doing so, he winds up fetishising and padding out something inane to the rest of the film’s solemn philosophical musings. The scenes with the Batmobile, for example, are an excuse for ogling on the sheer technological might of Wayne’s artillery (which only a billionaire would have the privilege to access), and this militaristic detour for the film is a storytelling black hole through which Nolan too wilfully allows himself to fall into – a fault of his otherwise commendable Inception too?

Other aspects of Nolan’s interpretation fare better. He always conjures tonally appropriate musical scores (Hans Zimmer replacing David Julyan here), and Wally Pfister does his usual impressive job with the cinematography – conjuring evocative canvasses that inspire awe, most notably of Wayne’s early odyssey into the Himalayas, although it is partly a retread of the masterful imagery at the beginning of Nolan’s Insomnia.

If nothing else, Nolan’s Batman iteration is a movie for our times: at times intentionally, other times unintentionally, sourcing the ethics and stakes of contemporary society’s engagement with a post-nationalistic canvas of responsibility and terror. That the movie ends up thematising the murk of this world if not exactly piecing it together into a comprehensible whole is perhaps as much as we can expect. (February 2017)

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