Contradicting Popular Opinion
An Enquiry Concerning Why Your Favorite Movie Sucks: Batman Begins
Mr. Coogan has informed me that I had failed to really introduce myself last week or more importantly failed to introduce the column.
I am ML Kennedy, known to some internet folks as Xylo, and here is how I fit into the whole Inside Pulse world:
Like Lucard, I know too much about old horror movies.
Like Eric S., I am a graduate of the University of Chicago.
Like Hyatte, I find big women attractive.
As for the column itself, well, that is a simple matter. We take a movie held in high regard by critics or the public, and then rip it apart with logic, reason, science, and a good helping of b-movie sensibilities. Consider it to be an autopsy done in the concession stand of a rundown drive in.
Oh well, onto the column proper…
Who is the best Batman? Which Batman movie is the best? These questions have brought up some of the most insipid and banal arguments of the year. I always answer Mask of the Phantasm, to which people often respond, “huh?” or “What?” or “No I said Batman not Tall man.”
At any rate, people seem to be creaming themselves over the newest Batman flick. Not even just fanboys, but honest to God film critics seem to love this creature. Let’s go see what is wrong with them.
First off we have a pretty good cast. Christian Bale seems to have a good enough range to play both psychopath and playboy, a must for playing Batman. Though looking at Bale’s career it seems like he specializes in playing unlikable characters in dumb movies that profess to be smart and showing up in chick flicks. Michael Caine and Gary Oldman are perfectly acceptable. Whatisname playing Scarecrow is good and creepy even if it looks like his mom has to drive him to Arkham. Cillian Murphy, that’s his name; you pronounce it like the beer. He married a girl named McGuinness, which is awesome.
I think that Katie Holmes is a terrible choice to play Harvey Dent. Wait she wasn’t supposed to be Dent? Let’s see, childhood friend of Bruce, check. Batman cohort, check. Assistant District Attorney in Batman’s first year, set to put Falcone in jail, check. Although, I don’t remember Two-face’s nipples popping through his shirt so dang much.
I definitely enjoy the idea of Liam Neeson as Ra’s Al Ghul. Oops, uh spoilers. If Neeson would’ve called Batman “Detective” I would’ve marked the f*ck out. But of course, the Batman in this movie isn’t called this thing because he is not this thing. Instead of relying on the skills of the world’s greatest detective, he instead relies on being totally sweet, flying and fighting pirates with his real ultimate power! Or as my buddy Sawyer put it to me:
I felt like I was watching Batman, World’s Greatest Ninja.
And now, a pop quiz: This origin belongs to either a) The Shadow or b) Batman:
Rich playboy leaves to pursue a life of crime in China. He is later lead to a Tibetan monastery where he is taught the arts of the ninja, including how to “Become one with the shadows”. He is then sent back into the world to fight against crime and evil.
So, ostensibly the movie is about Bruce Wayne becoming Batman and not Lamont Cranston becoming the Shadow ( I figured this out for certain when Bale lacked the Colt 1911s). The climax of the movie should be Wayne, fully realized, as Batman. Instead, it seems like he becomes all the Batman he can be right smack dab in the middle of the picture. At which point, all the momentum of the movie had been sucked out. The movie actually seems to pause in the middle as if to say, “Okay, now I’m Batman. Now what?”
But that is just my interpretation. You could also interpret it to mean that he does in fact become Batman during the movie’s climax, when he refuses to save Ra’s from an accident that Batman himself creates. But a Batman that kills, even by inaction, is not really a Batman I want to get behind. I hope that wasn’t intended as the moment of apotheosis. Yes, I know big words.
I fear that I’m not being especially clear on this point. Think about it like this. According to this movie, the profession of the Batman requires no on the job training. There is no learning curve. He doesn’t make any rookie mistakes. He doesn’t have to test different techniques through trial and error. He decided ahead of time what works and what doesn’t and has no need to adjust. From the moment he spray-paints his costume he is a fully formed Batman. Anybody who has had a job can tell you, that ain’t how it works. In the beginning, you f*ck up. A lot. A college degree in education doesn’t make you a good teacher on day one. In fact, most teachers suck for the first three years. Learning curve!
Let’s go back though. Batman’s degree isn’t in education; it is in vigilantism, with a minor in derrin’-do. This is a movie about the training of Batman. When we first see Bruce Wayne as an adult, in the Asian prison, he pretty much knows how to fight. And by that I mean that he beats the crap out of six guys at once.
Then he goes off to study with Ra’s al Ghul to learn how to… fight. The majority of this time is spent on Batman learning different sword fighting techniques, which he then uses… wait for it… not at all.
Most of the movie’s problems come from the writing, which was done mostly by David Goyer. Goyer tends to create a strong ambivalence in the comic book fanboy; for some reason he is Hollywood’s go to guy for comic book movies working on the Blade movies, and upcoming films like Ghost Rider, The Flash, etc. He tends to write bad movies that rock (Blade, Arcade, Demonic Toys). Here he flops things over and tries his hand at writing a good movie that sucks.
Goyer as a writer has a couple of main problems. First he tends to start a story, lose interest in it and start a new story in the middle of the movie. Batman Begins felt a lot like this to me, i.e. Batman training, then Batman vs. Super-villains. This was a bigger problem in his writer-director vision Blade Trinity which started out with the story of Blade being outed by vampires as a killer and ended up as just Blade vs. Dracula. The tone seems split here too. We have the grim and humorless tale of a Batman in a gritty “realistic” world, but we also have the comic book land of mega-weapons, crazy gas, hang-gliding capes and so on. The film tends to compromise the two and mash them into an underwhelming fantasy land.
Goyer’s second problem is a lack of faith in audience intelligence (possibly merited in today’s culture). Other movies show you some thing in the beginning, like say the hero can ride a horse. Then when the climax comes it isn’t surprising when the hero jumps on a horse to save the day. Goyer likes to add another instance in there, just in case you forgot. Watch the Blade movies and you will see that he likes to show you something twice before it actually becomes important. Here we have Bale and Neeson fight and Bale loses by overlooking his position. Bale and Neeson fight again and Bale loses by overlooking his position. Bale and Neeson fight yet again and Neeson loses by overlooking his position. Katie Holmes has a stun gun to scare away bad guys. Katie Holmes shoots Batman with her stun gun to no effect. Katie Holmes uses the stun gun to chase away Scarecrow. When he introduces something only once in the first two acts you can rest assured that it will never be important (e.g. Batman’s shattering mask).
Thankfully Goyer’s main problem, clunky dialogue, is kept to a minimum here. There are only a couple of groan-worthy lines. Goyer’s writing is often such that an actual comic book character would have trouble pulling them off. (You know, if you put a magnifying glass up close to Wesley Snipes, you can see that he is made entirely of 4 color newsprint!)
Goyer also seems to have a problem with psychology and motivation. In the comics, particularly Frank Miller’s Year One, from which Goyer borrowed heavily, we understand exactly why Batman is Batman. He sees Joe Chill shoot his parents. Joe Chill isn’t caught. Young Bruce becomes obsessed with catching and punishing the bad guys and thus spends the next 15 years or so training how with magicians, escape artists, martial artists, learning the crafts of detection, studying science, etc. He learns how to use all sorts of weapons but despises guns as the weapon of the enemy.
In the movie, Batman sees his parents killed. Joe Chill is immediately caught, tried, convicted, sentenced, serves 14 years, makes a deal for parole. A college aged, underachiever Bruce goes to the trial with a gun and has designs to shoot Chill until somebody beats him to the punch. And thus he becomes obsessed with sending bad guys to jail? The hell. That doesn’t make sense. Why would he want to send bad guys to jail if he was clearly shown that the justice system is broken. His motivation would either be to change the legal system or to kill off bad guys like the Punisher. But hey, I only have one Ivy League degree in psychology. What do I know?
Of course even a uncorrupted legal system would have trouble with some of this Batman’s methods. “Batman caught Falcone!” “Okay. Convict Falcone of being tied up and placed near the scene of a crime!” “Score!”
Now I’m not even going to make any more unfavorable comparisons to Year One. (There are many.) Instead I am just going to suggest either giving Miller shared story credit or not half-assing his stuff. Okay so maybe that is a lie. But I won’t do a whole section on the myriad ways in which Year One is a better story and the myriad ways in which Goyer rips it off and half asses it.
Another big problem I had with Batman Begins is that it falls victim to the Magneto Syndrome. This is where an actor I really like portrays a villain I really like and does it well, but has a super-villain plot goofier than a pet coon. What’s wrong with Ra’s’s plot you ask? Well, just about everything. So the water supply is poisoned, but the fear poison is only active in vapor form. So this means that no one in Gotham takes hot showers, boils potatoes, makes teas, washes dishes or is ever exposed to water vapor.
The microwave weapon itself seems to be able to generate enough energy to heat tens of thousands of gallons of water almost instantly, but in such a way that they are not painfully burning steam. This really isn’t the column to discuss heat of vaporization or specific heat of water, but that is a tremendous amount of energy. Hell it takes me 8 minutes to make a bowl of macaroni and cheese in the microwave. Plus the weapon in the movie runs more quietly than a microwave oven.
Now, microwaves are funny things. They pass through certain objects without disturbing too much, but when they pass through water they cause its molecules to vibrate more rapidly. Speed on such a tiny level translates to heat in the big picture. So, if you put an egg in a microwave oven the wet inside heats and expands; the shell does not. Thus we get EXPLOSION!
So the microwave gun then should heat up just the water right? Well not really. The gun is being used from an El Train car. Metal tends to spark when hit with a microwave, but that doesn’t seem to happen here. Microwave radiation in the oven is stopped sufficiently with a viewing glass, but somehow the microwaves in the movie go through the train, the tracks, the air, the street, into the sewers. They have no noticeable effect on any of these things, nor are they noticeably affected by these things.
As for the fear gas, a concentrated dosage is potentially fatal to Katie Holmes, but an island full of the stuff apparently provides no long term damage to its residents. Nor any treatment. Nor any resolution of any kind that was shown in the movie. Did everyone just get better? Does it wear off? We never saw it wear off in the film.
From a logical standpoint, why does Ra’s plan have to be so complicated? He seems to be running a part of all the gangs and part of the cops and part of the government. Can’t he just cause a massive gang war? Why rely on such a complicated, multi-step plan?
Of course, Ra’s also thought it was a good idea to build his mansion out of some sort of super flammable substance. Shit why does his whole house burn down so dang quickly? Did he soak the wood in liquid oxygen? You’re on a mountaintop. There is little oxygen. It is very cold. You are surrounded by ice and water. How is it that fire spreads instantaneously?
But hey, there are a lot of cool fight scenes, right? Well, not really. The camera tends to be close up and a large part of the movie doesn’t appear to be lit at all. I can never quite tell what is going on, who is who, what style Batman is using to fight, etc. A bunch of shadows vibrate and then fall down. And don’t tell me it is the intended to demonstrate the sneakiness of Batman and the chaos he creates for criminals. Fuck that shit. This isn’t the final battle of The Wild Bunch. This movie is about Batman. It gives us Batman and pretty much only Batman as our POV character. We should know what Batman is doing.
Speaking of “what the hell is Batman doing,” why drive on the roofs? If you used bats to make your getaway, stay under the bats and drive back home. Why drive over your cover and onto the rooftops where the helicopters can more easily track you? It is a stupid and reckless maneuver that Batman wouldn’t have done.
The movie also shows the sad state of the film industry. That is to say, there is nobody left that Batman is allowed to fight. In the movie, who does Batman battle? Ninjas, and faceless gangsters working for the ninjas. Robbing a bank is a cool and victimless crime now, can’t stop one of those. Pimps and thugs are respected members of many communities, we can’t have a backlash against the Batman. We don’t want any Dirty Harry-esque accusations of fascism right? There is corruption all over Chicago, whoops I mean Gotham, but we can’t have Batman fight cops, city officials, or scare any rich white people (especially if they are good looking). The only time he comes close to fighting authority is his harsh interrogation of Detective Flass (whom the movie made sure to change from a large handsome Aryan to a fat sloppy dark haired character).
One of the best scenes in Year One goes like this: A bunch of rich white folks are having a dinner party. The rich old white commissioner is trying to convince gangster Falcone that the Batman might be beneficial to them, how he keeps the people happy and occupied and less likely to ask questions about how Gotham is being run. Meanwhile Batman has drugged, and in some cases disarmed, their limo drivers. He cuts the lights on the party, throws in some smoke, and blows up a wall. He enters the party like a dark god, saying, “Ladies and Gentlemen. You have eaten well. You’ve eaten Gotham’s wealth. Its spirits. Your feast is nearly over. From this moment on – – none of you are safe.” He disappears into the darkness.
For some sad reason, I have a feeling that this scene would be terribly controversial to do. For the last fifteen years too many of our action movies and horror films have involved protecting rich white people from some horrible menace that has already killed and eaten some less important inferior people. The heroes of these films usually profess to rebels or outlaws, but are usually just tools of the status quo protecting the so-called elite or in some cases members of the upper-class themselves. Whether it’s Harrison Ford as the terrorist fighting President or Mel Gibson as the despicable robber baron who does his own dirty work Hollywood seems to send this same message.
And what are we left with? A world where Batman is limited to fighting vaguely foreign terrorist ninjas.
Fucking shoot me now.
Final word: Normally here I like to say what else you should watch or how to fix the movie, etc. Instead, here I will applaud the makers of Batman Begins for not including the Counting Crows theme song for it. Here is a sample:
His justice fall like rain
It washes scum away
and Batman begins
to fight some crime
he chases thugs away
Then just disappears
and oh no
he’s not ready for this sort of thing.
Okay so maybe that was just nonsense, but I understand it.