Friday, June 17, 2005

Batman Begins to Subvert a Genre

So, I just saw the best feature drama of the year so far. Yes, under its ridiculous comic book mask and cape, Batman Begins is actually an angst-ridden character piece about an ordinary guy in an ordinary arena, wrestling with his inner demons by securing justice for his city. And that's okay with me. But it was curious too.

Batman Begins amounts to a demythologizing of the Batman character. Exept for having a lot of money, Bruce Wayne is presented as no different from you or me. He was emotionally crippled at a young age by personal tragedy, and, decides to find meaning in making himself an alter-ego who can strike terror in the evil-hearted. Oneof themessages of the movie, consequently, is, "You too can be a superhero." (And I know this is supoosed to be closer to the Dark Knight comic books, but still...)

I find this interesting because it represents a departure from the superhero/comicbook genre. We like our superheros being folks who are a little like us, but also very, very different from us. We like them touched by strange powers, which we like served up with a great deal of absurd implausibility. I found Batman Begins to be oddly plausible, and only absurd in the performance of Katie Holmes, who never went for a screen moment which might have messed up her hair and make-up. (I mention this because Holmes is generally better than this. But this is her first major studio project. Unfortunately, because of her failure to put out, it could be her last. Of course, she was completely miscast in the part. There isn't anything about the waifish, halting Holmes to suggest a hard-bitten, Gotham prosecutor....maybe after she gets a little more clear.) I never thought I could be Batman when I was a kid growing up, anymore than I thought I could be The Thing or Wonder Woman, not that there's anything right with that...

Going back to my earlier objection to Cinderella Man, Batman Begins is also a movie without a lot of mystery. There isn't anything about the caped crusader that isn't explained in terms of psychological, emotional, scientific or technological cause and effect. Generally, this refusal to leave any work for the viewer leads the viewer to shrug at the end of a picture, not ever having to go back to the movie again. It makes a movie a one-time experience - once you've seen it, you've done it.

What mystery there is in Batman Begins has to do with the power in living with and embracing the fears that have come to us through our personal tragedy. The idea is not that you get past your fears - they will always be with us - but that you can shake off their control, and actually find in them a power that you can put to work for you. I think this is an interesting theme....but maybe that's just because I was, you know, kicked out of the convent. The theme is not plumbed in deep and surprising ways in the film, but I do think there is some fodder here for parents and children to talk over, and for pastors to work in to sermons. At least those who live with or minister to young people on this planet.

Batman Begins is a very solid movie. It is well-produced, structured for suspense, and incorporates a number of satisfying - if not hugely compelling - characters. It just isn't what you expect it to be as a comic book movie...which might be the kiss of death with the comic book genre fans who want some mystery under their capes. We'll see.

I'm giving two bats ears up.


ryan said...

Wasn't planning on seeing the movie, but I will now because of your post...Have you seen "Unbreakable"? I thought it was on the right track for a desensationalized superhero story--unfortunately, it did poorly enough that it will never be explored further.

Anonymous said...

Sorry about the lateness of this-just read your discussion. I agree and disagree with your points. For a longtime comics fan who wound up doing my doctoral dissertation on the formal differences between the comics and filmic versions of Batman, I found the film a welcome turn toward finally taking the character seriously, rather than a Burtonesque art house brood on the misfit, or the more campy sequels. Comics fans have responded enthusiastically at finally seeing a Batman film about Batman--not stunt-cast stars as scene-stealing villains.

One reviewer said it not so much reboots Batman as remythologizes him--we see the process of training and "theory" of fear-mongering he will use to effectively intimidate the underworld. I thought that approach would be too realistic for a comic book character, but it worked for me on screen--and it's merely fleshes out the original two page origin story. This is what a very good Batman graphic novel feels like.

As for the lack of mystery--that didn't bother me, I still want to see it again. There will always be a deficit of the mystery of the Batman character in a photorealistic medium--you can't reproduce the eerie white eye slits from the two-dimensional comics version that really pushes Batman into this mythic being who is crime's fearsome nemesis--he's more than a guy in a rubber mask--althought I think Bale's technique partly made up for the lost mystery.
-Alex W.

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