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Published: 6/15/2005

Batman earns his wings

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Kathie Holmes as Rachel Dawes Kathie Holmes as Rachel Dawes
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A myth can be demystified.

A legend can be defiled. And a man can be killed.

But as a symbol, the young Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) realizes midway through the very entertaining, and sometimes powerful Batman Begins, as a symbol well, I can be incorruptible.

Like that. Love the sentiment.

This is not your nephew s Batman. Gone are the Popsicle colors. Erased are the bits of camp. Excised are all hints of Robin.

Evaporated are the exclamations! Holy retooling! Or perhaps I should say, Wholly rebounded!

Batman Begins may be the fourth Batman film from Warner

Bros. since 1989 but it s the first Batmanmovie to truly nail down

the character: It s the movie that finally, if not entirely believably,

traces the path of rage that leads one to become a crusader.

The problem with saying that, of course, is that Batman, as

with nearly every do-gooder in latex outerwear, has gone through

so many revisions and rebirths, no version is definitive.

And that s not to take anything away from Tim Burton s playfully dank Batman blockbusters, Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992).

But they were merely that: playful. Their Gotham City, designed by Anton Furst, is one of the most memorable of all film creations: a

vast jumble of skyscrapers and bridges climbing like steel vines.

What those movies lacked, however, was an engaging creation

myth, and that is the foundation, even the most casual superhero spotter will tell you, of the comic book itself.

And yet the average superhero movie handles heady beginnings

like radioactive exposition: to be addressed, considered, and quickly left behind for bigger action. Christopher Nolan s Batman Begins is thrilling precisely because Nolan who made his name on the idiosyncratic Memento and Insomnia, and brings a similarly baleful

style to this one is intrigued by origins. In his mind, it s the reason we re interested to begin with. He s entirely correct.

What flattened the Batman franchise in 1997 was not, as is widely believed, grossly exaggerated costumes, inane one-liners, a reliance on special guest stars, and a steady march to the cheese of the old Adam West TV series.

It was that the character had ceased to represent anything. And on the big screen, when a gaping chasm of ideas is replaced with lots of production design, the effect is garish.

Batman Begins, though, is less a title than a mission statement: For more than an hour, we watch the character meticulously come together from the ground up: first as an idea, then a curiosity, and finally, as the last righteous symbol in a corrupt city that looks as if it were trapped in a 24-hour solar eclipse. Nathan Crowley is the production designer. There are shades of Blade Runner and touches of Depression-era gangster movies, but his Gotham always feels as if it could be a real place.

Like, Chicago which it is.

The film was shot there.

That s the underlying conceit of Nolan s Batman as well as creator Bob Kane s: a myth grounded in reality. To an extent, it s what a Batman movie would have looked and felt like if one had been made around 1978, when Christopher Reeve and Superman first took off it s the first superhero film since the original Superman, in fact, that doesn t think in terms of comic book panels and word balloons.

If there s fun in Batman Begins (and I admit, it s a pretty earnest, humorless affair), it s in how Nolan who co-wrote the script with David S. Goyer, an established screenwriter (Dark City) and comic book scribe who grew up in Ann Arbor finds prosaic, real-world explanations for everything in that famous origin.

If you ve ever had understandable doubts about one of these films How does Batman stay stocked in Bat-paraphernalia? Who bankrolls the supervillains? Can a hero really remain anonymous? Nolan gets obsessive compulsive about adding plausible flesh and blood beneath the Dark Knight s cape and cowl.

What matters is not that you buy it all. What matters is that the film acts as if it were possible.

Everything must have its reasons, and all of the psychology carefully thought out Wayne doesn t arrive at his Batman fetish on a kinky whim. While playing on his family s mega-estate as a boy, he falls into a well full of bats. They become the thing he fears most; which makes a perverse sense. It also, however indirectly, leads to the death of his parents, which leads to a deep-rooted guilt and helplessness about the future of Gotham, which leads him to wander the Earth and study the criminal mind. There s, yes, a bit of Kung Fu to this. And kung fu.

Here s what you need know:

Wayne latches onto the idea that a man can become more through discipline and intelligence. He studies under an anarchic group of ninjas called the League of Shadows, based high in the Himalayans. (The cinematography is epic and austere.)

His trainer is played, naturally, by Liam Neeson, and this sounds like routine stuff but it raises an intriguing question: When the League turns out to be packed with fundamentalist ideologues, has the line between righteous Caped Crusader and twisted terrorist stretched very thin?

Batman Begins hits its stride back in Gotham, where Wayne meets with his childhood pal, Rachel (Katie Holmes, with a big part, but shoehorned in), and sets about assembling his uniform, his Batcave, and his code of justice.

The story grows pleasantly overstuffed with character actors: Michael Caine is a sorrowful Alfred (doing more with the role than anyone has); Morgan Freeman is Lucius Fox, the brains behind Wayne Enterprises Applied Sciences division (he s Batman s Q); Rutger Hauer plays the oily CEO of Wayne Enterprises; and Gary Oldman is unrecognizable (again) as the last honest officer in Gotham Detective Gordon.

Batman Begins is inspired when those pieces are fitted into place and weakest when Nolan is forced to deal with the demands of a plot and even weaker with the standard summer movie action smackdowns: The fist fights are nonsensical blurs, and the finale, a battle on an out-of-control train, is ordinary. The villains, one I d rather not mention, and the other, a psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy of 28 Days Later), who becomes Scarecrow, feel like distractions.

But if Batman Begins does far more right than wrong, it s because it is not reliant on special effects and stays true to the ethos of that original, very first appearance in 1939. People forget Batman was born in Detective Comics, of modest film noir stock a Depression baby.

Bale is a humorless actor but he uses that. He never winks; he s the best Batman yet because he s unapologetic, intense, borderline psychotic, and the first to convince us of the virtue of being Batman. And virtue is a tough sell when you re three-stories tall on a wide screen, and even tougher with bat wings.

Happy flying.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.comor 419-724-6117.



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