BY NAME WITHHELD, ART BY JASON DAVIS
Every once and a while a film comes along which transforms – and simultaneously sets the standard for – a genre. Kubrick’s 2001 did that for science fiction in 1965.
This film broke from the formula of aliens traveling around in rocketships and did something daring: no aliens, just their artifacts. The aliens aren’t there but always in the background. (Another thing the film did was realistically depict space travel, from artificial gravity in a spinning centrifuge and no sound in space.)
The superhero genre in recent years was in need of such a transformative film. Considering the state of the art after the first Batman film franchise and other films such as Daredevil and Elektra, 2005’s Batman Begins finally broke the mold of the superhero film. It did two things which were neglected in recent superhero films: character development – and, the most important – plausibility. I’ll take the second attribute first.
Today’s audiences are sophisticated enough to recognize, say, a fake computer system where the protagonist types on the keyboard and windows pop up and videos play and tapped phone calls start to come out of the speakers. No computer works like that. The audience knows this. They deserve better. Batman Begins purpose was to provide a plausible trajectory for Bruce Wayne’s ascent from child, to rich slacker to crime fighter. Not only did it do that, but it explained in a realistic way how such things as the bat cave, the Batmobile and all of his little gizmos were derived from products his family’s mega corporation’s R&D department developed. There’s also the matter of what the arch villain is planning to do to Gotham. While the science may be somewhat shaky it does depict the nightmare terrorist attack scenario of an aerosolized pathogen attack.
Now for the first attribute. The characters are not mere background in this film. Take the excellent portrayal of Carmine Falcone by Thomas Jeffrey “Tom” Wilkinson, for example. Carmine is the physical manifestation of the blight which has struck Gotham, ruthless and supremely self confident in his ultimate power over the populace. When talking to the pre-Batman Bruce Wayne he exhibits his usual arrogance going so far as to point a gun at Wayne’s head in full view of dozens of witnesses. And for an instant he shows a little – a little – compassion for Wayne’s loss and shows his humanity by simply tossing him out of his restaurant.
And then there’s Henri Ducard/Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson). This is an interesting character who seeks out Wayne in prison and gives him the opportunity to get out and perhaps to become something else althogether. (It is interesting to note that Ra’s al Ghul got Wayne out of prison pretty easily; perhaps he was watching and testing him for longer than we are led to believe.) From his mentorship of Wayne up to Wayne’s betrayal we see the magisterial al Ghul. At Wayne’s birthday party we see the other side: the mentor is still there, even when he’s telling Wayne how he’s going to burn his house down and destroy his city.
There were some missteps as well, to be sure: casting Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes for instance. Holmes brings a cardboard, one-dimensional performance for someone who is a supposedly significant part of Wayne’s life. The microwave water vaporizer is kind of gimmicky but it serves its purpose as a plot device. But these are minor things.
It is not often that we get a film which makes a clean break from the past raises the bar for everyone else. Batman Begins did that and then some. The movie-going public now has a higher standard for superhero movies and woe to any film that dashes that expectation. May the producers of future superhero films keep that in mind – and that applies equally to the new, revived Batman franchise as well.