I saw Batman Begins today, and what it said most powerfully to me was how bad the earlier films in the series were—and how crippled by stylistic cliches today's Hollywood action films are.
The best way to experience Batman is still to read the original DC comic books from years ago and watch the TV cartoon series. This one ain't bad, but they're the real thing.
I remember that the various filmmakers involved in Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Whatever, and Batman Yadaa Yadda Yadda were uninamous in pointing out how much more serious their films were than the 1960s TV series, as if seriousness precisely equalled intelligence, and as if being more serious than the Batman TV series were some sort of accomplishment. I could do that while telling knock-knock jokes in a tutu.
As hard as they may have tried to capture the essence of Bob Kane's comic book series (well, that's what they said they were trying to do), the Batman films were frequently silly and usually not very interesting. The first one, Batman, was endurable, although I think Jack Nicholson was incredibly boring as the Joker. OK, he's angry, we get it. Now can you try to do something interesting? At least the TV show was fun, and the actors playing the villains were first-rate and managed to find the right tone for their performances. Excellent performers such as Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, Frank Gorshin, Julie Newmar, Anne Baxter, Reginald Denny, and the like all seemed to be having as much fun as the viewer (and not more!). The movie series, by contrast, was like some kind of career graveyard. Remember Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face? Alicia Silverman as Batgirl? Is it any wonder their careers went into the dumper after those stinkers? Heck, even Michelle Pfeiffer has pretty much disappeared, and I thought she did an excellent job as Catwoman.
Batman Begins is much better than that. Christian Bale is actually a decent Batman, although the affected, Dirty Harry-style growl he uses when in costume is, well, rather embarrassing for him after a while. But he's good, overall. The supporting cast is largely excellent, with Gary Oldman giving a standout performance as Sgt. Gordon (who will eventually become Commissioner Gordon, we presume.) Katie Holmes misfires in a poorly conceived role as an assistant district attorney, but Cillian Murphy is terrific as Dr. Crane/the Scarecrow, Rutger Hauer is splendid as Bruce Wayne's manipulative business partner, and Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Tom Wilkinson, and Liam Neeson lend their formidable presences in other important supporting roles. The acting is one of the real pleasures of this film, and Bale holds his own within this powerhouse cast.
In addition, Batman Begins actually has some consistent themes that are worked out in a surprisingly comprehensible way—such as the ways the theme of fear and human reactions to it comes up in different situations throughout the film. Well done, that. And it really does present the issues of vigilantism, justice, personal responsibility, and the role of government in a rather thoughtful manner.
That, however, is also one of the problems with the film. It is awfully slow, with more expository dialogue than a documentary on how to caulk bathtubs. Do really really need to see another version of how Batman obtains all his Bat-weapons and Bat-whatnot? (Hint, the answer starts with an n and ends with an o. Multiple explanation points are optional.) Do we really need to waste a lot of time watching Bale and Freeman reprise the Q-James Bond relationship? (That has become extremely wearisome in the Bond films, for goodness sake.) It's like showing us long, boring scenes from the early years of Hercule Poirot. OK, he can solve crimes, we get it. Gee, just let us see the dang Bat-things in action and we'll figure out that he must have got them somewhere. Who but an obsessive geek weirdo gives a darn where he got them from, anyway? Save that for the novelization.
And what's up with those early sequences in Asia, stolen from the film version of The Shadow and done a heck of a lot better there? It's all way much more than we need to know. We already understand the situation, people! He's a vigilante but he's conflicted about it. We can puzzle that out without watching him fight multiple Asian prison guards simultaneously or climb an unnamed mountain to get to some ancient hideaway for global vigilantes. We don't need to know about that, so just skip it. Now can we just get on with the Batarang-throwing?
OK, I understand it's Batman Begins and you feel obligated to show his beginnings, which is acceptable as a premise even though we've seen his beginnings some 55 times before, but that doesn't mean it has to Batman Begins with a Whole Bunch of Boring Dialogue and Puzzling Fight Scenes Shot in Close-Ups So That You Can't Tell Who the Heck Is Doing What or Why. That's another pet peeve for me: the fancy-schmancy tendency of Hollywood directors to cut the fight scenes up into close-up shots lasting approximately three tenths of a second apiece, quite obviously to disguise the fact that the actors couldn't fight their way out of a preschool birthday party. Man, make them learn the moves and then step back and let us see them fight it out a little.
Hong Kong directors use brief shots, too, but at least they know how to make the fight comprehensible by pulling the camera away from the protagonist's elbow or bad guy's ribs once in a while. In Hollywood films, the only way you know who's winning a fight is by how far we are into the movie: the good guy typically loses early and wins late. And in the climactic fight, he has to look like he's losing until the bad guy does something really dirty and then the good guy gets all morally outraged and wins really quickly.
Maybe if you'd let us actually see the fight, we wouldn't have time to think about how hokey the whole situation is. Just an idea, which I give you for free.
And by the way, a note to Hollywood's fine stable of directors and cinematographers: dark, muddy cinematography does not equal depth of insight. It equals dark, muddy cinematography, and that is absolutely all. You can see everything perfectly clearly in a David Lean film or an Anthony Mann epic or a John Ford drama, yet there is never any sense that the director is stupid and just doesn't know how to make us have to squint to figure out which character is the protagonist, which is the antagonist, which the leading lady, and which is actually a lamp emanating a dull, brackish nimbus. Actually allowing the viewer to see what's happening could even be thought to be an advantage, or at least common courtesy.
So, could you people buy some lights? I know, I know, that will mean that your actors will actually have to act, as the audience will be able to see their stupid, bovine facial expressions all too easily, but what you'll lose in employability of bad actors you might well gain in the ability to express the occasional insight into the human condition. At least, that's what Lean, Mann, Ford, and the like managed to do. Tom Cruise and John Travolta have enough money and can afford to be tossed aside for people who can actually act a little. Besides, they can always do some reality TV.
Nevertheless, even though Batman Begins was photographed through a jar of Smucker's Plum Preserves, includes the most boring love interest character of all the films in the series, steals ideas and scenes from countless other movies, and is more unreal than the average Wagner opera, it's a fairly thoughtful film with some real conflicts, tough moral choices for the characters, important themes and ideas, and good performances. Those things make it worth seeing. But it certainly would have been much better if it had avoided the silly stylistic cliches that blemish most of today's Hollywood action films.