When Batman came out in 1989, I was wary of the casting of Michael Keaton, Mr. Mom, as the caped crusader. But it turned out that he was actually able to capture the duality of Batman and Bruce Wayne extremely well. And while I was disappointed with the death of the Joker (why do they insist on killing the bad guys? the comic books don’t), the movie as a whole was just good.
With Batman Returns… well, Keaton was still good, but the way they chose to portray the Penguin was just… well… crappy. Catwoman wasn’t bad (a zillion times better than the most recent incarnation with Halle Berry) but there were issues with the movie.
Then Keaton flees Batman, and we get Val Kilmer. Now, Val, I thought, could make a very good Batman and Bruce Wayne, but watching the movie, he seemed to be phoning in his performance. He was very wooden in both roles. Add to that the introduction of neon day glo Gotham, and the movie’s suck factor began to swell. Making Robin not be a kid was a step in the wrong direction. He’s supposed to be a teenager, that’s the whole point of his freakin’ character, a young foil to help keep Batman from plummetting off the deep end. I thought after seeing this movie that it had to kill the franchise. Whatever pull Bob Kane had he’d use, and DC would look at the movie and say “Oh, hell no.” and we would never see a Batman movie again. Then the stupid thing, propelled by Jim Carey as the Riddler, made truckloads of money. God help us all.
Val exitted stage left, and we got George Clooney. Now, I like George… he was great on ER, he did a fine job in From Dusk ‘Til Dawn and even in One Fine Day. As Batman/Bruce Wayne he brought so much bravado and swagger to the role that the film choked on it. I figured when I saw Batman Forever we’d seen about as over the top a film as could be made… Then somehow Joel Schumacher managed to double and then triple it and cram it all into the godawful Batman & Robin. The plot was horrid, the actors all gave the worst perfomances of their lives, and Gotham became the new Las Vegas. Utter trash. Thankfully, without the odd star power of a Jim Carey, B&R died (well, it made over $100 million, but it was far less than any of the others in the franchise).
Now that I’m done with that walk down memory lane, let’s get to the movie at hand…
Forget all four of the previous films, Batman Begins is THE Batman movie. Much like I pretend that there is only one Highlander film, and thanks to Episode III I now pretend there are only 3 Star Wars films and it ends with Return of the Jedi, I will now happily pretend that this is the first Batman movie ever made.
Christian Bale is Batman. Christian Bale is Bruce Wayne. He’s able to pull off the brooding superhero, the tortured man, and the facade of the billionaire playboy like no one else. Add to that surrounding him a fantastic cast including Liam Neeson, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Tom Wilkinson, Rutger Hauer, Cillian Murphy, Morgan Freeman, and more. Then add a fantastic script that isn’t full of camp and punchlines (though not without its laughs). And finally put Christopher Nolan (Insomnia, Memento) behind the wheel. What you get is a film about the construction of a hero, a crusader, a legend.
If you go to the film looking for the ‘Biff’ and ‘Wham’ of the old TV show, or the tongue in cheekiness of Batman Forever or Batman & Robin, you are going to be horrible disappointed. You’ll probably think this is the worst movie ever made.
But if you go for Batman… if you like The Dark Knight Returns, or Batman: Year One, or the current run of the comic books. If you view the ‘camp’ of Batman as a blip wrong detour of a much better and larger tale, then this movie is for you.
I can only hope that Batman Begins really is a new beginning, and that at least another movie or two with this collection of folks manages to find its way to the big screen.