Saturday, September 20, 2008

When Batman Began

Last week, one of the commercial television stations broadcast Batman Begins, director/c0-writer Christopher Nolan's first shot at Batman. As I said in a previous post, I disapprove of the ninjas and the use of a white Englishman to play a famous Arab villain from the Batman comics. (I guess that's to fool the viewer: "They'll never suspect that the villain with the Arab name--who we first suggest is some kind of Asian--is actually a guy who looks nothing like an Arab!" Brilliant. Not that having the Arab villain initially represented as Japanese (Ken Watanabe) made much more sense.)

However, what's strikingly good about the first film is its visual style. 

First, let's talk about Gotham City. (Well, I'll talk. But feel free to post comments.) In the second Batman film, Nolan shot on location (for some scenes) in Chicago. Chicago's streets and buildings provide great opportunities visually; it doesn't look like New York; and Nolan managed to not show widely recognized buildings. The problem for people adapting DC comic heroes (Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Flash and so forth) is that the geography of DC's America isn't American geography, quite. There are major cities in the same places, but they aren't the same cities. Like Superman's city, Metropolis, Gotham City (and for those who don't know, New York has long been called "Gotham" or "the Gotham City," from a short story by 19th century American writer Washington Irving, referencing a town of crazies back in England) is on the Eastern Seaboard. Really, they're both aspects of New York. Marvel Comics, on the other hand, places its characters in actual cities, so filmmakers can have Spider-man, say, swinging from the Empire State Building.

In Batman Begins, rather than use Chicago, or any actual cityscape, Nolan crafts a fictional, dark city. While Wayne Manor lies on a green atoll outside of town, the Gotham he depicts looks more like the stacked slums of Mexico City. One shot in particular, the camera dropping from the heights down past hanging laundry and then to the streets themselves, recalls--in what seems to me a clear homage--the imagery of Blade Runner, a city swathed in endless darkness, where it never stops raining. Long shots of the city are clearly not real, and it all looks run down, brutalized by both violence and endless rain. Why did Nolan leave behind this fictional creation and resort to something more prosaic? Is it to suggest that, already, some change has taken place in Gotham, granting it architectural beauty overnight? 

A second issue of style involves Batman's weapons in his fight for justice. In the first film, Batman's rather clever with his technology, using the sonar device to summon bats, putting sensors in his mask, designing a Batmobile that is both a brilliant vehicle and fantastic weapon. His base of operations is the cave beneath Wayne Manor, reached by passing through a waterfall via Batmobile or riding an elevator concealed in the manor. The cave itself harbors both his secrets and his psychic core, the bats that terrified him and made him who he is. In the second film, nearly every device he uses is some variant of a gun, and he seems to be carrying a lot of them secreted somewhere on his person. The Batmobile is gone, replaced by a cycle which, frankly, is capable of a lot less. The cave is gone. Yes, Wayne Manor is being repaired (though we never see this), but the cave must be still there; nevertheless, he spends his tech time in a steel basement like the one Iron Man uses. Visually, it's all wrong. Heck, are there even any bats in the film?

Third is the look of Batman himself. I've commented in my previous post on the visual absence, in the second film, of the cape. Seeing (part of) the first film confirmed that this is a shift for Nolan. In the first film, the cape is a constant--swirling, concealing the shape of his body, creating streams of movement that are inhuman. In several shots in Batman Begins, Nolan shows Batman moving quickly--but not running. Rather, he seems to fly from one side of the screen to the other. We hear the cape flutter, the figure, shown only from the waist up, moves abruptly, and there he is. It's as if Nolan thought more carefully, in the first film, about how to capture what was dramatic about the character without letting himself get stuck in the literal.

I complained, previously, about the second film having two villains, and thus too many story arcs that fit together awkwardly. I'd forgotten that the first film also had two villains, but the structure of the film is smarter: Ra's al Ghul frames the film, though we don't realize he will until towards the end. His plot (ridiculous as it is), while it intertwines with the Scarecrow's, doesn't fight it for attention; Scarecrow is the "criminal" of the film; Ra's is a larger nemesis for the Batman; and most important, the key character, obviously, is Batman. It's his story; he suffers; he loses and wins; we're more or less clear on the objectives of those other fellows, but it's Batman's story, and he dominates the screen.

Also, I feel Nolan dropped the ball on how the second film starts. At the end of the first, Batman is shown the Joker's calling card and says, "I'll look into it." But there's no sense, in the second film, that Batman has been tracking his actions or even knows who the heck the Joker is until he shows up at the party. Time has gone by. What's Batman been doing? The film would have played much better--and, again, been more about Batman as our protagonist--if we'd seen him attempting to catch the Joker at the beginning . . . and failing to do so. Nolan felt, for some reason, that he wanted to hold off on a face-to-face confrontation between the characters. I like the scene at the party, when we see how formidable a foe the Joker can be, but we could have had a better set-up for the building antagonism between the two men, and Batman would have been more clearly seen taking action.

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