Spoilers below for Batman Begins and The Prestige.
For some reason, seeing Batman Begins after a couple of go-rounds with The Prestige — which actually works as a sort of companion piece — made a huge difference in how I read it. For one thing, the complexity and intensity of the characters in The Prestige, and that film’s signature idea of recursive psychological torture and physical self-sacrifice, worked as a new angle for my approach to the earlier movie. The Prestige reaches its climax only after magician Robert Angier’s quest for vengeance — which would come, for him, in the guise of a perfect illusion — culminates in the creation of a potentially endless series of doubles, each of which is drowned, night upon night, in a chilling act of self-flagellation. Once the first, magical, bifurcation occurs, it becomes impossible to say in a meaningful or definitive way which version of Angier is real, and which one is the copy — if, after the first duplicate has been made, that distinction has any meaning at all. Angier reaches the terminus of his journey, and finally works some real magic. But only at heinous cost.
Batman Begins has its own ideas about doubles, not just having
to do with the practice of donning a mask to engage in acts of great
heroism and/or villainy, but with the relative difficulty Bruce Wayne
has, once his superhero scheme gets rolling, in keeping track of which
persona is the man himself, and which one is the put-on. Both films,
too, are concerned with magic. In The Prestige, Christian
Bale’s character is blindsided by his first encounter with real magic,
not the sleight-of-hand stuff he specializes in on stage. And in Batman Begins,
another Bale character works at creating a kind of movable theater, a
living magic show that uses deception and misdirection to convince its
audience – the people of Gotham City, but especially the criminals –
that they’re gazing on something infinitely more fearsome than the mere
man who faces them.
Nolan is not known as a visual stylist (though his resolutely old-school DP, Wally Pfister, certainly knows his way around a Panavision camera kit). His films are driven by story and character and (especially) situation. The action scenes in Batman Begins are mostly threadbare; camera placement is perfunctory, edits fairly rote, and there’s none of that fancy Eisenstein-by-way-of-Peckinpah montage (by way of MTV edits) that came into Hollywood vogue in the 1990s. They’re just blurs of motion, and it’s impossible to tell what’s actually going on. That bugs me on some level, but there’s no denying that on another level it’s exactly the point. Bruce Wayne is not a superhero. He has designed his public appearances, as best he can, to give the illusion of superhuman fearsomeness, to prevent anybody from getting a good look at what exactly he’s up to.
The closest thing Batman Begins has to a conventional action set piece is the scene of the police chasing the Batmobile out of Gotham City – itself probably shot and assembled according to the exigencies of second-unit photography and available coverage than any kinetic strategy. What’s more, the film’s failure to deliver a conventionally satisfying payout of VFX and violence can be read as a deliberate choice, reflecting the fundamental emptiness of Wayne’s cheerless vigilante enterprise.
Batman Begins is also a film without much of a sense of humor – that’s a problem, I think — but the dialogue deliberately mocks Bruce Wayne’s humorlessness, and therefore that too is a conscious artistic decision rather than a failure of tone or style. Yes, Bale looks a little ridiculous in his Batman get-up. But there’s a twinkle in his eyes and a deadpan set to his mouth and jaw that says he knows it – but since he’s now fully committed to the bat thing, he’s going to scowl and growl and make the best of it.
In the context of Bruce Wayne’s seriousness, and the care he takes to construct the illusion of great otherworldly menace, even Bale’s Batman voice – which was nearly a dealbreaker for me on first viewing — seems less ridiculous. For one thing, it just sounds less silly on my home system than it did in a movie theater, where the basso profundo grumble was amplified to risible proportions. Through smaller speakers in a smaller room, his voice just sounds a little doubletracked – distracting at first, but you get used to it. And it makes sense that a cowled Batman operating in a Gotham where his secret identity is an undeniable celebrity would strenuously seek to alter his voice, whether it made him sound like a muppet or not. Maybe it also serves as a code, a way to remind himself that being Batman is a different thing from being Bruce Wayne. Like Robert Angier, Bruce Wayne suffers as his sense of self starts to slip away.
I think the film still has problems – I’m not in the masterpiece camp. The weakest link in a very strong cast is clearly Katie Holmes, who lacks the self-possession to invest her character with the kind of moral rectitude that the role demands of her. (Rachel steps up, repeatedly, to give Bruce a hard time about his behavior, and to lecture him on how the hidden layers of his personality are becoming confused.) And I’m not crazy about the flashback scenes that detail Bruce’s relationship with his father. They’re part origin story and part sociopolitical subtext (the elder Wayne was a social benefactor who funded Gotham’s once-shiny mass-transit system), and if the Norman Rockwell-style scenes between father and son are a bit too precious as origins, they’re similarly unconvincing as politics – except as they refer, perhaps, to an impossible myth of the ideal American philanthropist. Still, they’re so earnest they make me wince. And, yes, I miss the state-of-the-art set pieces that anchor the Spider-Man series, playing in counterpoint to the homespun corniness that dominates Sam Raimi’s take on Marvel.
But Christopher Nolan has his own angle on the superhero, and mostly it plays to his strengths. The film also works surprisingly well on the small screen, which somehow makes the film’s grandest gestures – the recurring imagery of swarming bats – seem more nuanced. And there’s something bracing about the film’s darkness. At the end of Batman Begins, the poorest neighborhood in Gotham has well and truly been beaten with the shit end of the stick — the slums were the first place where Scarecrow deployed his dementia drug, and although Batman is able to save the wealthy denizens of Gotham’s downtown, the Narrows are a loss, the citizens driven mad not just by the effects of a brain-altering poison, but by the scarring apparition of a man-bat shrieking overhead in the dead of night. The magicians Angier and Borden of The Prestige, like Bruce Wayne, worked at creating the perfect illusion — at convincing an audience something impossible is transpiring before their eyes. As Batman rips through the sky overhead, eyes and mouth lit up like an eccentrically designed roman candle on Independence Day, he’s up to the same thing. He wants to show the world that real magic may still be possible — but the collateral damage may be enormous.
Returning to my original review, I still think it makes some legitimate points. But it penalizes Nolan too much for not being Paul Greengrass, and that C rating is just crankiness. B+