Sunday, December 11, 2016

Sunday Best: Top 25 Superhero Movies of All Time #18 - Batman Begins

A man in a batsuit spreads his wings while looking down. Tall skyscrapers extend above and bats fly around him.

Many years ago I purchased a trade paperback titled "Secret Origins."  Most of the stories in there were reprints of comics of the same title, showing the origin of characters like Superman, Martian Manhunter, the Flash, and Green Lantern.  But there was an original story about the origin of Batman.  Unlike other origin comics of the Dark Knight, this one focused not on that fateful night in Crime Alley.  Instead it examined Bruce Wayne's life between the murder of his parents and the steps he needed to take in order to become Batman.

And that is what sets Batman Begins apart.

The iconic origin is known by most people.  But director Christopher Nolan decided to explore the means to that end.

And enough cannot be said about Nolan as a director.  He brought a very clear mood and style to his work, grounding it more in the real world than any previous Batman film.  And while it does not achieve the concrete realism that the sequel has, it is a welcome step in the right direction.  The science-fiction elements are the ones that hold up the least, but they are not nearly as distracting as they could be.

And Nolan also uses his traditional non-linear model of storytelling that keeps us jumping around the chronology.  This makes what a very familiar story seem mysterious and fresh.

This Batman gives such a fresh perspective on the character that in many ways it is like seeing him for the first time.  I will never forget hearing Carmine Falcone tear into Bruce in that condescending tone saying, "Now you think that because your mommy and daddy got shot that you know the dark side of life."  It was such a shocking, yet obvious statement to make.  Many people experience tragedy like Bruce, but no one ever became what he did.  The journey to become that is full of fascination.

Christian Bale brings a brooding charisma to the character that had been lacking since Michael Keaton had the role.  But he also brought an intense physicality that made his superhero antics believable.  Bale is often mocked for his use of "Batman voice," but it is actually incredibly effective in establishing Batman's intensity.  But he is not the only star in this picture.

Nolan said he was influenced by the original Superman film in the way that it populated its characters with actors of the highest caliber.  And so we have an all-star cast that includes Morgan Freeman, Michael, Caine, Liam Neeson, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Katie Holmes, Rutger Hauer, Tom Wilkenson, and the great Gary Oldman.

The action set pieces are also top notch.  The filmmakers famously commisioned an entirely new martial arts style (Key-See) to be invented for Batman to use.  And fight scenes down to the final train battle are wonderfully exciting.

And yet even more than that, Nolan and writer David S. Goyer wanted to make a thematically rich film.  There are many elements at play including justice, vengeance, loyalty, and love.  But above all, the main theme is fear.

Bats frighten Bruce.  Bruce has been living in fear since the death of his parents.  He blames his fear for his parents death.  His father's last words are "Don't be afraid."  It is fitting that one of the main villains is Scarecrow and that the main villain's scheme involves fear tearing the city apart.

But the whole point of the movie is that we can do extraordinary things if we overcome fear.  All it takes is one person, a symbol, to be brave.  That courage inspires others like Gordon and Rachel Dawes to do more.  The most important thing that is required is that they do not give in to the fear around them.

And I especially love the line, "It's not who I am inside, but what I do that defines me."  This is a very Catholic ethic.  Our character is shaped not by our feelings but by our choices.  Feeling brave does not make me brave.  An act of courage is what makes me brave.  Batman is a hero not because he feels righteous anger but because he bravely stands up to evil.

And this movie begins one of the greatest super hero movie trilogies of all time.

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