The Dark Knight (2008): How About a Magic Trick?

This is part of my “Batman on Film” blog series. To read other entries in this and other Batman-related blog series, head over to my Batman page.

Background & HistoryThe Dark Knight (2008) Poster
Prior to the release of Batman Begins, screenwriter David S. Goyer had written two potential sequels that would introduce the Joker and provide the origin story for Two-Face. Much like Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s graphic novel Batman: Year One served as the inspiration for Batman Begins, another graphic novel called The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale served as the inspiration for The Dark Knight, though the second film deviates more from its source material than the first film did.

Of particular note was the filmmakers’ approach to the Joker. Director Christopher Nolan said that he wanted the Joker to appear fully formed, thus circumventing any origin story for the character as had previously been done by Tim Burton and his team for 1989’s Batman, where we see how the Joker came to be. Instead, we come across a Joker in his rise to power. Nolan said that he made this decision in order to preserve the threatening and menacing persona surrounding the character. “To me, the Joker is an absolute. There are no shades of gray to him – maybe shades of purple. He’s unbelievably dark. He bursts in just as he did in the comics.”

maxresdefaultProduction
The Dark Knight began filming in April 2007 and was the first major studio release to use IMAX cameras in production. Nolan said that he had always wanted to shoot something in IMAX, and with the slated IMAX release of the film, this was an ideal opportunity. Four sequences were filmed in IMAX, including the opening bank robbery and the car chase scene toward the middle of the film.

Prior to the film’s release, the studio pioneered a form of marketing called “viral marketing,” which created an audience-participatory journey in which anyone who stumbled on different websites would be given clues regarding tasks they were asked to perform. These scavenger hunts would lead to undisclosed locations where teasers, posters, and other bits of the movie and its storyline were released, immersing fans into the film’s universe long before its release date.

Following the passing of Heath Ledger, the studio shifted the focus of marketing onto the Joker, posting a tribute to the actor on the film’s official website.

The film’s world premiere took place at an IMAX theater in New York City, where composers James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer conducted an orchestra that performed portions of the soundtrack live for those in attendance.

dark-knight-joker-bank-robberyStoryline/Plot
The film opens with an elaborate bank robbery perpetrated by a team of robbers wearing clown masks. As the robbery is taking place, the clowns kill each other off one by one, presumably to increase the size of each share, under the instruction of the individual who ordered the heist.

After the robbers succeed (and are killed off by each other), the final clown removes his mask in response to the bank manager, who had asked him, “What do you believe in?” The robber replied, “I believe whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you stranger,” revealing the face underneath the mask to be covered in sloppily applied white makeup and a Glasgow smile painted with red lipstick.

1f7d0f74_harvey-gordon-batman-rooftop-meetingThe Batman, Lieutenant Jim Gordon, and District Attorney Harvey Dent form an alliance in order to target organized crime in Gotham City. As they work together, Batman/Bruce Wayne becomes increasingly impressed with the DA’s idealism and commitment to the improvement of Gotham City. Wayne begins to consider Dent a worthy successor to the Batman as the type of man who can lead the city into an era free of organized crime.

Wayne Enterprises moves forward with a business deal with Lau Security Investments Holdings, but after Wayne CEO Lucius Fox shares his misgivings with Bruce Wayne, they decide to call the deal off.

Lau’s CEO turns out to be an accountant for the three main crime rings in Gotham City who all hold a videoconference with him in order to discuss the movement of their money given some of the recent success the Gotham Police Department’s Major Crimes Unit has been having at closing in on them. The man from the bank robbery—known as the Joker—shows up at the meeting to discuss his willingness to rid them of their real problem: the Batman.

Mob-Meeting-the-joker-8546378-500-208Batman travels to Hong Kong to retrieve Lau and places him in GPD custody. Harvey Dent and his girlfriend/Assistant DA Rachel Dawes convince Lau to testify against the Gotham City crime lords, and Dent arrests all of them.

The heads of the crime rings make bail, and in response to the DA, Gordon’s MCU, and Batman’s quick arrest, they turn to the Joker to rid them of their problem.

The Joker kills a Batman copycat vigilante and broadcasts a message across Gotham City informing them that if Batman didn’t reveal his secret identity, he would continue murdering unless Batman were to come forward. He successfully murders Police Commissioner Gillian Loeb and Judge Janet Surillo, who had presided over the case involving the Gotham City crime bosses. He attempts to murder Mayor Anthony Garcia, but Lieutenant Gordon jumps in front of the bullet, sacrificing his life to save the mayor’s.

To put a stop to the killings, Bruce Wayne decides to reveal that he’s Batman, but before he does, Dent steps forward and claims to be Batman, knowing that his actions will draw the Joker out, giving the real Batman an opportunity to take him down.

Dark Knight screen2Lieutenant Gordon reveals that he faked his own death in an attempt to help capture the Joker and takes the criminal into custody at his precinct. However, the Joker has already set in motion a plan to blow up a hospital and uses that leverage to get two of Gordon’s officers to kidnap Dent and Rachel separately.

While being interrogated by Gordon and Batman, the Joker reveals the locations of both Rachel and Dent, but lies about which hostage is at which location, which sends Batman to the location housing Dent. He rescues Dent, but not before half of his face catches fire from an explosion igniting the half of his body that had been covered in oil. Rachel dies in the blast at her location.

An accountant at Wayne Enterprises reveals that he knows who the real Batman is and attempts to disclose the information publicly in the hopes that it will put a stop to the Joker’s murders, but the Joker interrupts him to say that he doesn’t want Batman’s identity revealed. Instead, he announces that he’ll blow up a hospital if the accountant isn’t killed within the hour.

the_dark_knight_1Visuals/Cinematic Design
The Dark Knight is much more visually grounded in reality than the previous film, spending much of the production on location in Chicago. It feels like it takes place in the real world, which is a mood that the filmmaker’s were going for. Where Batman Begins was clearly a reality-based “fantasy” film (and I use the term “fantasy loosely, since the comic-book supernatural doesn’t exist in Nolan’s world), The Dark Knight is a crime drama set in as realistic an urban world as can be portrayed on-screen.

The film pulls away from the sepias and browns of the previous film and steers towards a more natural color palette for the city. The final scene hearkens back to the first film a bit, but maintains the more realistic edge when compared to the majority of scenes from the previous film.

Main Characters
Capture
Bruce Wayne/Batman: Christian Bale.
Some have accused this film of making Batman a passive character, but I think that accusation misses what’s going on in the film. The character is Bruce Wayne, and we certainly see a fully fleshed out character arc for him. He’s anything but a passive character.

There were several moments in this movie where Bale truly shines in his portrayal of the character, but the one that stands out to me is the moment where he’s sitting in his penthouse—in agony over having just lost his best friend and the woman he loved, confounded by his inability to effectively eliminate the threat that the Joker poses to the city, and inching closer to the realization that he is utterly failing in his mission to make Gotham City a better place.

Bale makes Bruce so thoroughly relatable in that moment that he brings this untouchable character down to the audience’s level. I could see myself in his shoes, but I’d never want to find myself in his shoes.

1fRNJThe Joker: Heath Ledger.
At the risk of echoing every other blogger’s praise of this performance, I’m going to add my own. We can all agree on just how stunning the late Heath Ledger’s work was in this film. This character is absolutely frightening and mesmerizing at the same time. He is omnipresent in this film; in the scenes where he’s absent, his existence is still significantly felt.

The character as portrayed in The Dark Knight warrants quite a bit of exploration, but I won’t go too far into it. I do, however, want to peek a little bit into the Joker’s psyche just a bit. In the opening scene, upon the character’s unmasking, he utters the phrase, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stranger,” a one-letter deviation from the overly popular Nietzsche quote. Nietzsche and several of his philosophical contemporaries explored what has been popularized as Existentialism, and this character is the very embodiment of Existentialism. That could be what makes the Joker such a popular character these days.

Ledger dove so deeply into this character where others (like Jack Nicholson) had merely scratched the surface. This performance was altogether chilling, enthralling, humorous in a dishearteningly and morbidly unfunny way, and hauntingly enticing. To me, this is the defining interpretation of the Joker and the yardstick by which all others will be measured for many years to come.

the-dark-knight-aaron-eckhart-as-harvey-dentHarvey “Two-Face” Dent: Aaron Eckhart.
One of the most fascinating studies of human morality is Aaron Eckhart’s portrayal of Harvey Dent. He was such a believable character, and the performance was so well executed that I couldn’t help but feel legitimate sorrow over the tragic events of his life.

Prior to The Dark Knight, there hadn’t been any convincing interpretation of this character with the notable exception of the version in Batman: The Animated Series, which played up the heartbreaking narrative behind Harvey Dent.

Where Eckhart truly shines is in the honesty of his portrayal of Dent. He plays the character with such verisimilitude that he’s eminently believable and relatable. It wasn’t difficult to see myself in his shoes, snapping the way he did after such a tragic event. He’s Capture2confident, strong, and devoted to his cause, but he (like other characters throughout the film) treads the line of moral ambiguity incredibly well. His good actions prior to his accident are sprinkled with some morally questionable execution. His evil actions following the accident ring true to some degree and while his actions aren’t acceptable, his perspective is morally justifiable.

Nothing embodies the character more than the ominously foreshadowing phrase he utters: “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Chilling even in the moment since most audiences already knew what would happen to him down the road.

maggie-rachelRachel Dawes: Maggie Gyllenhaal.
Katie Holmes would not return to reprise her role from Batman Begins, and some would argue that was a good thing. I’m not among those, as I think Holmes would’ve been up to the task, but Gyllenhaal certainly played the character well.

However, despite the fact that I found it to be a convincing performance, I did feel that the character changed rather drastically (not just in looks, of course) between the first two films. Holmes’ interpretation of the character was someone who was okay with bending the rules to get what she was after. She was a bit more intimidating and often pushed her boss (then Gotham City District Attorney Carl Finch) to uncomfortable places to get a conviction. Her version of the character was also more confrontational, facing off with Jonathan Crane when she suspected something wasn’t right.

Gyllenhaal, on the other hand, played the role a bit more modestly. That’s not to say she was timid or unassertive, but I didn’t find her to be as strong a character as she was in Batman Begins. She deferred often to Harvey Dent and relied on him to get the job done. She confronted Bruce a few times throughout the movie, but I was never convinced of her ability to truly sway him. Some of that could be the screenwriters’ fault, but I just felt that the chemistry between Bale and Gyllenhaal wasn’t as strong as between Bale and Holmes.

Capture3.PNGLucius Fox: Morgan Freeman.
In his second go-around as the Wayne Enterprises CEO, Morgan Freeman shines even brighter. He’s smart, witty, and provides a moral compass for the characters and a groundedness for the audience.

The character progression for Fox is fun to see. In Batman Begins, he served as a minor protagonist with his own minor antagonist in then Wayne Enterprises CEO Richard Earle. This time around, the stakes are higher, and Fox faces off against Batman’s own moral ambivalence.

Morgan Freeman is an incredible actor, and he gives another outstanding performance in this film. It’s fitting that the “voice of God” provides the voice of reason for the titular character.

Capture4Alfred Pennyworth: Michael Caine.
Bruce Wayne’s butler and surrogate father figure is the reason he doesn’t show up at the hospital with inexplicable cuts and bruises. His calm partnership with Batman provides a foil through which we can see Bruce’s unwillingness to think outside the box created by his preconceived ideas about criminal motivations.

I loved the way Caine brought some criticism of the Batman persona. He understands the need for Batman, but he also knows better than anyone what the Batman can become beyond a simple crimefighter. Caine shows that wisdom in a way few others can. He has excellent chemistry with Bale, and their banter in this film continues to improve over the last one.

Themes/Motifs
Where the primary theme of Batman Begins was obvious to the point of being preachy, The Dark Knight revels in ambiguity. Some have pointed to the theme of chaos, but my response to that assertion is an accusation of reductionism. Additionally, there appears to be a thread in the story that points to the negation of chaos: that ultimately there is always a goal.

The film’s complexity provides a window into the perceived psyche of the primary personal antagonist. He is mysterious, his plans and actions multifarious, and his motivations enigmatic. In fact, he has seemingly no motive other than pure enjoyment. But the character, as the director stated, is absolute. The story arc in this film belongs to Harvey Dent, not to the Joker. This is part of what helps the movie succeed on so many levels. The antagonist follows no arc at all; he merely exists and reveals to us the depth of character in Harvey and Bruce.

the-dark-knight-the-joker-batmanSomething I enjoyed in this film is the subtle arrogance that Bruce maintains in fighting the Joker. He never appears to heed Alfred’s warning in his story about the bandit from Cambodia. Instead, he relies on his own deductive abilities, his skills as a student of the League of Shadows, and his mythical status as Gotham City’s silent protector. Even by the end of the movie, he fails to fully understand how everything could have fallen apart, and therein lies some of the beauty of this film.

The Batman is not the incorruptible, inerrant hero we imagine him to be. Rather, he is a flawed, single-minded man who doesn’t pay attention to the advice of those who love him most.

A common critique of this film, particularly from the comic-book-fan crowd, is that Batman and Gordon could have easily pinned the blame on the Joker or even told the truth and cleaned up the consequences of letting the truth out. But I think that critique misses the internal path that Bruce Wayne takes in this film: he has journeyed from the city’s mysterious savior to its greatest failure.

bruce-wayne-and-batman-snapshot20080504110957Why does Bruce believes he failed? Because he was the inspiration for Harvey Dent’s run at the DA’s office. Because he bears the responsibility for the Joker’s crimes after never revealing his identity. Because he orchestrated and catalyzed the plan to take down all of Gotham’s crime lords in one fell swoop. Because he allowed Harvey to take the fall for him in claiming to be the Batman. Because he removed Carmine Falcone from power which opened the door for the emergence of a man like the Joker. In his attempt to make Gotham City a better place, he turned it into a breeding ground for chaos and destruction.

The first moment that Bruce truly understands what has taken place is the final breath of the film: when he takes the fall for Harvey in what he feels is his last chance at personal redemption for what he has done to Harvey, to Rachel, and to Gotham City.

The first film began a journey toward portraying Gotham City as a character in itself, and the second film continues that trajectory. The city’s response to the Joker’s repeated threats is a fascinating study, and the turn where the people on the ferries decide not to react (which is in stark contrast to their reaction to his threat to blow up a hospital) is fascinating a fascinating study in the progression of the city, particularly when coupled with the personality given to the city in the third film.

Reaction & Impact
The Dark Knight Rises continues to blow me away after what’s quite possibly the eleventh or twelfth time I viewed this film. Rarely does a film make such an impression on me that I’m left speechless after watching.

Every aspect of this film was nearly perfect, and even its imperfections (the editing during the truck chase scene, Batman’s voice, etc.) added to the overall beauty and magic of this film. It is still, in my opinion, among the finest films ever created.

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Batman Begins (2005): More than Just a Man

This is part of my “Batman on Film” blog series. To read other entries in this and other Batman-related blog series, head over to my Batman page.

Batman Begins (2005) PosterBackground & History
In 1995, comic book fans were sorely disappointed by the drivel that was touted as a Batman movie with the release of Batman & Robin.

That film’s director, Joel Schumacher, had another film planned, but upon the movie’s release, it became evident rather quickly that he would no longer be a part of the Batman film franchise.

Warner Bros. was unsure of how to continue the franchise, and for the next six years, they looked at hundreds of ideas by nearly as many filmmakers just to come up with an idea of what to do with Batman.

In 2003, the studio settled on a take by young untested auteur Christopher Nolan, whose previous work at the time was comprised of two movies: the frighteningly cerebral indie film Memento, and the mid-budget thriller Insomnia. Screenwriter David S. Goyer joined Nolan to tackle the then-unnamed Batman movie.

The idea Nolan put forward included Batman’s origin story, which is something that had never been depicted on the big screen before. He also wanted the film to be a “grounded” one, written in such a way that audiences would be able to relate to the characters and the universe they exist in. That became the launching pad for one of the most successful film series to date.

Production
Filming began in March of 2004 at a glacier in Iceland (mimicking icy mountains in Bhutan) and moved to Shipperton Studios in England, as the film was a British-American production. Other filming locations were used for key scenes involving Wayne Manor including Mentmore Towers in Buckinghamshire. Several Gotham City scenes were shot in Chicago, such as the Tumbler chase sequence.

The film released in June of 2005, and it opened to rave reviews from critics, cinemagoers, and comic-book fans. To many, it represented a return to form for the previously ailing Batman franchise and injected new life into a nearly dead film franchise.

Storyline/Plot
Batman Begins is presented in a nonlinear fashion for much of the first two acts of the film. The storyline is purposely fragmented and disjointed, which serves to create a sense of urgency for all the story’s elements. For the purposes of this synopsis, however, I’ll recount the story linearly.

2The film opens on the child Bruce Wayne and his friend Rachel Dawes playing on the Wayne Manor grounds. Bruce falls through a weak spot in the cover of a well, breaking his leg and frightening a nest of bats that come out of the shadows to attack him.

Shortly thereafter (an undefined length of time, though presumably a few months since Bruce appears around the same age he did in the opening scene yet his leg is fully recovered), the Wayne family attends a production of Boito’s Mefistofele. During “Rampiamo, rampiamo, che il tempo ci gabba,” Bruce finds the performers dressed as demonic creatures reminiscent of the bats he encountered in the cave, frightening him to the point of asking his dad if they could leave the opera house.

In the alley behind the opera house, a man named Joe Chill holds the family at gunpoint, demanding Thomas’ wallet and Martha’s pearl necklace. Thomas complies with Chill’s demands, but when Chill points the gun at his wife, Thomas steps in, causing Chill to shoot him and his wife. Young Bruce is left kneeling over his parents’ corpses.

Fourteen years later, Bruce drops out of Princeton and returns to Gotham with the goal of avenging his parents’ death at Joe Chill’s parole hearing. The opportunity doesn’t come as the crime boss Carmine Falcone has sent an assassin to murder Chill for providing the DA’s office with valuable information about Falcone’s crime empire.

batman-begins-parents-deathRachel Dawes, who is interning at the DA’s office, shows Bruce the dark underside of Gotham City, where the city’s corruption has perpetuated the problem of crime and poverty. There, Bruce meets Carmine Falcone and attempts to prove to him that he can put an end to the Falcone crime ring. Falcone laughs him off and demonstrates to Bruce just how much power he has in Gotham.

Bruce disappears to Tibet, where he explores the criminal underworld in an attempt to find a way to come to terms with his inability to avenge his parents and put a stop to the crime in Gotham City. While in prison in Tibet, he meets Henri Ducard, who invites him to train with the League of Shadows, which will prepare him to return to Gotham and fight crime and corruption with a new purpose.

Visuals/Cinematic Design
Christopher Nolan mentioned that he based much of his design for the film on the look of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. While the film remains heavily grounded in a recognizable reality, there are elements of the design that betray some sympathies for science fiction and fantasy. Many of the scenes from the Narrows district of the city hearken back to Blade Runner‘s look and feel.

Visually, the film has several setpiece moments: the mountains of Tibet, the wide views of Gotham City. However, the movie overall has a more intimate feel, creating an atmosphere of intensity and driving home the idea that this is a deeply personal movie with an emphasis on characters more than landscapes and action.

Main Characters
Batman Begins has a fairly large cast of characters, so I’ll attempt to touch on as many of them as possible.

batman-begins-267x300Bruce Wayne/Batman: Christian Bale.
Bale’s characterization of both Bruce Wayne and Batman is among my favorites of this character. He truly sells the idea of a conflicted and frustrated young man, unable to properly mourn the deaths of his parents. My main (very minor) complaint overall with Bale’s portrayal is that his character often gets swept up in the story. While he is certainly the driving force of the movie, I sometimes get the feeling that the events of the movie are happening to Bruce, rather than Bruce deciding the trajectory of his story. There were several moments where I felt like the characters around him were stronger than he was.

That’s not to say that I didn’t think of him as a strong character with a well developed arc. On the contrary, I found Bale’s Bruce/Batman to be a truly forceful character. He’s at once menacing and calculating, distant and relatable, providing the perfect lens through which to view this story.

CaptureHenri Ducard/Ra’s al Ghul: Liam Neeson.
To be honest, I was/am a bit frustrated about the whitewashing of this character. In the comics and other media, Ra’s is of some kind of Middle-Eastern descent, likely Arabian. It was a slight annoyance that his name’s pronunciation was altered, that his character was turned white, and that the League of Shadows (League of Assassins in the comics) was headquartered in Tibet rather than the Arabian Peninsula.

My annoyances aside, Neeson played the role well. To be fair, I’ve always enjoyed Liam Neeson’s acting, but I found this character to be particularly fitting for him. He’s smart, calculating, and collected; but he creates a persona that is frighteningly devoted to his cause.

Capture2Alfred Pennyworth: Michael Caine.
Prior to the film’s release, casting news was coming out about the characters for the movie, and I was a somewhat perturbed by the decision to cast Michael Caine as Alfred. I had always considered Alfred to be a more refined character than Caine could likely portray, but I was so thankful to have been proven wrong. While this depiction of Alfred is certainly not “refined” as fans had come to know him (particularly in reminiscing on Michael Gough’s fantastic performances), I thought it was a perfect fit for this film’s world. He’s witty and loyal, and provides some of the most timely moments of depth, wisdom, and even comic relief that only Michael Caine could provide.

gordon-joven-bruce--644x362James Gordon: Gary Oldman.
Batman Begins is loosely based on the graphic novel Batman: Year One by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli, in which Jim Gordon is the primary perspective character for the reader. His relationship with Batman is the focal point of the novel, and thus the film’s character needed to be just as strong.

In many ways, I felt like Gordon was an even stronger character than Bruce in this film, and Oldman’s performance is one of the finest I’ve seen. He’s relatable, fun, and disarming, and some of my favorite scenes from this movie include him.

oEKqKLucius Fox: Morgan Freeman.
The inclusion of Lucius Fox in this movie was an incredibly brilliant move for the filmmakers. One of the key characteristics of the Batman character in any medium is his gadgetry, but it’s difficult to believe that he and Alfred put all of that together themselves. Enter Lucius Fox, the former head of the Applied Sciences division of Wayne Enterprises.

Morgan Freeman was an impeccable choice for this character. He’s almost a perspective character, providing several winks and nods for the audience, and Freeman does that perfectly. As with Gordon, Fox is one of my favorite characters from this film.

RachelDawesKatieHolmesRachel Dawes: Katie Holmes.
The character of Rachel Dawes is far more than a mere love interest for Bruce Wayne. She provides a catalyst for the character and offers a fascinating voice for Thomas Wayne into Bruce’s life following the elder Wayne’s death. At the start of Bruce’s journey, Rachel tells him that his father would be ashamed at him for his attempt at vengeance. At the completion of his arc, knowing that Bruce has become Batman, she tells him that his father would be proud of him.

I liked this character a lot, and I felt like her inclusion in the story provided an interesting motivating element. She serves as a moral compass of sorts, reminding Bruce of the responsibility he has to his father’s legacy. Holmes did an excellent job in that regard, but something about her seemed slightly unfitting for the courtroom environment that her character needed to be in. She honestly wasn’t terrible, and I’ve got a feeling that some of my perspective might be tainted by the fact that I know the character is better portrayed in those environments in the next film.

BATMAN_BEGINS-011Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow: Cillian Murphy.
My first exposure to Cillian Murphy was the film 28 Days Later, so when I heard that he would be playing Scarecrow, I couldn’t have been more excited. He was fantastic in the earlier film, and the casting decision worked perfectly. The demented genius that Murphy brought to the character was chilling, but keeping in line with most portrayals of the character, he’s also somewhat of a foil for Ducard, even though they never share any screen time.

Other than his literary role, however, I couldn’t find a purpose for the character in the plot of the film. He wasn’t a member of the League of Shadows, but Ra’s al Ghul was using him for some reason. What was that reason? Was he the one who weaponized the blue poppy from Bhutan? If so, that was never explained, and it seemed that the League already had that capability with the final training exercise that Bruce goes through with the League. As great as the character is on his own, he appears to serve very little purpose to the story.

Themes/Motifs
Batman Begins presents a number of intriguing themes, but the one I want to look into here (and the one that’s been touted as the most obvious) is the theme of fear as both the motivator and the object of both the protagonists’ and antagonists’ actions throughout the film.

Before I get into that theme though, I want to acknowledge the fact that despite the heightened realism and groundedness of this film (especially in contrast to Batman Forever and Batman & Robin), it’s still relatively friendly to some of the silliness of the comic-book tropes used in previous Batman films: a boisterous and colorful villain, an over-the-top plot that involves the destruction of an entire city, and spectacular action sequences that stretch the line between believability and the ridiculous. Even the film’s production design leans just a bit into the fantastical, stepping away slightly from the movie’s goal of groundedness.

None of this detracts from the experience, and despite the fantastical design and comic-book tropian silliness, the film’s straight-faced approach and honesty in its storytelling provide its “ridiculous” elements with meaning and purpose, pairing reality and fantasy in a unique and beautiful marriage.

The film follows a complex three- (maybe four-) act structure that incorporates a confounding use of flashback in its storytelling, likely a holdover from Nolan’s Memento (a beautiful technique that offers the flashback points with more urgency and poignancy than a traditional flashback methodology might provide).

lead_960All the acts present the concept of fear as its underlying theme. The theme is obvious to the point of nearly becoming heavy-handed, even preachy. But the thread exists beneath the face-value layers as well. Act I and the flashback scenes present fear as the true motivation behind Bruce’s actions, both as a child and as a Princeton-University dropout. Act II is where the theme becomes a sermon, with the introduction of Jonathan Crane presenting fear as his modus operandi. Act III  (along with Act IV) turns fear into the antagonist when both Batman and Rachel are confronted by fear itself and when it is unleashed on the Narrows district of Gotham City.

There were a few observations I made while watching the movie this time (admittedly my sixth or seventh viewing of the film) that I didn’t notice before. The first is the numerous ways the movie points to Bruce’s relationship to his father and how it influences or foreshadows Bruce’s decisions throughout the movie. In the scene immediately following the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne, a young officer Gordon puts the late Dr. Wayne’s coat around Bruce’s shoulders. The coat quite emphatically symbolizes Batman’s cape as though Bruce’s taking on of the Batman persona is directly related to his connection with his father. Ducard’s desire to turn Bruce into a leader in the League of Shadows is thwarted by Bruce’s unwillingness to be an executioner, and that rebellion is motivated by his memory of how his father lived his life.

Another example of this is his father’s stethoscope, which serves as a symbol for Bruce’s ability to listen to three key “heartbeats” in the movie. The first is his own. He can’t discern his goals and desires until he effectively listens to his heartbeat through his father’s ears. He’s not seeking vengeance, but justice for those whom his father cared for. The second is closely tied to the first, and that’s his father’s heartbeat. When he better understands what his father wanted, he finds a better way to address the problem of corruption and crime in Gotham. And the third is Gotham City’s heartbeat. This is the first time in cinema that we begin to see Gotham City as a living, breathing character, which will be fleshed out even further in the subsequent two films.

ThomasMartha_trainAnother observation I made was the overt way in which Thomas Wayne was written as a Christ figure. Perhaps it’s my own theology that’s imposing the image onto him, but it stood out to me in a few ways. First, Thomas Wayne loves Gotham City, particularly the impoverished and underprivileged. He’s devoted his wealth and his skills as a doctor to caring for the people of Gotham. But the current system of power in Gotham has created and perpetuated a type of crime that Dr. Wayne is powerless to eradicate on his own, and he instead falls victim to that system when he and his wife are tragically murdered in an alley behind the opera house.

Second, at his death, Dr. Wayne utters to his son the words, “Don’t be afraid,” a phrase used around 70 or 80 times in the Christian Bible and repeated often by the Christ himself. The concept serves as the impetus for a “resurrection” of sorts as Bruce gives new life to his father when he becomes Batman.

Reaction & Impact
If it wasn’t already quite obvious by the sheer size of this post, I absolutely loved this film. The movie provided a new cinematic take on one of my favorite characters while also hearkening back to his roots.

Batman Begins helped to redefine the superhero movie and its success spawned one of the greatest film franchises to date.