Monday, June 20, 2005

Batman-ology

I can't help comparing Batman Begins to Tim Burton's two Batman movies, Batman and Batman Returns.

The Burton movies have a greater sense of style and design, blending German expressionism, Art Deco, and Comic Book Gothic.

And, as a director, Burton brings his own idiosyncratic sensibility to bear on the material: the movies have a quirky, melancholic, grandly operatic tone. Like all of Burton's best movies, they make the strange and wonderful more attractive than the mundane. This gives these movies a genuine emotional core, a soul if you will, that is missing from many other comic book-inspired movies.

And so, visually and atmospherically, these movies are all-of-a-piece: their Gotham City is its own little dark fantasy world, populated by bizarre, touching, and terrifying creatures.

Batman Begins, on the other hand, is done in what has become the standard Big Budget Action Movie style, with the neo-noir trappings and dark color palette of a movie like Minority Report. It looks perfectly fine, but it simply does not feature the kind of near-virtuoso visual design of the Burton films. And, where the tone and mood of the Burton movies is rich and complex, the tone of Begins is straightforward Hollywood seriousness.

Begins is too much of a "grown-up" movie to feature anything as surreal and playful as the gang of circus-freak performers or the Penguin's army of missile-laden penguins from Batman Returns. The Burton movies embraced Batman's somewhat disreputable comic book origins (its easy to imagine a scene from a third Burton Batman movie set on a giant typewriter), while Begins tries to cover them up. It stays far away from anything resembling silliness or camp--mainly because of the two disastrous Joel Schumacher-helmed follow-ups to Burton's movies--but, in doing so, it also stays pretty far away from the farther-out aspects of the Batman mythos. Compared to Burton's movies, Begins feels lacking in inspiration and imagination.

Similarly, Burton's pacing is stately, almost relaxed when compared to that of today's summer Blockbusters, and he directs the action sequences with elegance and restraint. This is probably so audiences can better appreciate all the little details of design and performance and so they can better soak up all the weirdness. But Batman Begins, like most contemporary action movies, is going full-out from the get-go. The action sequences are purposefully rushed, choppy, and confusing--a technique which worked a lot better in last year's The Bourne Supremacy. Begins doesn't have time for quirky, slow scenes like Bruce Wayne's dinner with Vicki Vale in Batman. Because of this, Begins lacks the emotional depth of the Burton movies.

Tim Burton's career has had its ups and downs, but he is really one of the few "Auteurs" working on big budget Hollywood movies over the last twenty years. Whether or not he's working on a personal project like Ed Wood or a studio project like Batman his movies represent his vision of the world. Even when his movies are utter failures--like Mars Attacks--you can see his fingerprints all over the place.

Christopher Nolan, on the other hand, seems like a competent, although somewhat anonymous, filmmaker. David Denby wrote that in Memento Nolan created a "new syntax for movies", but that seems to be a ridiculously overblown claim. Memento's major strength is its virtuoso trick screenplay. Where The Usual Suspects got its twist from Dashiell Hammett stories and The Sixth Sense got its twist from Rod Serling, Memento gets its twist from dorm-room bullshit sessions: "So what's it all mean?" "We can never really know, you know?" "Whoa."

But, as a piece of filmmaking, Memento is, ironically, pretty straightforward. It's done in a standard neo-noir style, but it lacks both playfulness and emotional depth, at least one of which is needed to make neo-noir palatable (to me, at least).

I think Nolan did a pretty good job with Batman Begins, but if the movie had been directed by Paul Greenglass--another filmmaker who turned an indie hit into a job directing big budget action movies--I think it would probably have been almost exactly the same movie. Nolan doesn't bring a personal vision to his Batman movie in the way Burton did.

However, with all that said, I liked Batman Begins the best of all three movies.

Why?

First, I appreciate Nolan's anonymity. He gets out of the way of the story. At no point did I think, "Hey, Christopher Nolan has a neat take on Batman," because the movie felt more like the result of judiciously picking and choosing elements from the comics rather than one person's singular take on the character. Nolan and David S. Goyer--the two co-wrote the screenplay--manage to piece together a coherent, yet jammed packed, genuinely epic Batman origin story, which alludes to a number of the greatest Batman comics, without following any single one too closely. The screenplay balances fanboy-pleasing details, like drawing on Frank Miller's characterization of Jim Gordon from Batman: Year One, with a solid, compelling-to-everyone storyline.

Second, despite all the nice things I said above about Tim Burton's Batman, the movie is ruined for me because of what I call its "Villain Problem". Now, I don't want to sound like some kind of fanboy crank, but Batman's version of the Joker is ridiculously lame. He is a psychopathic, bad-ass killer who undergoes a horrible accident which turns him into... a psychopathic, bad-ass killer. Jack Nicholson's performance doesn't help much: he starts the movie off playing Jack Napier as a deranged, dangerous sociopath, and, then, he plays the Joker as a slightly more deranged, slightly more dangerous sociopath. Moreover, having the Joker be the hood who killed Bruce Wayne's parents is flat out stupid, turning the final battle into a grudge match. Nolan and Goyer's screenplay deals with the whole getting revenge vs. serving justice thing with a lot more sophistication.

Third, despite all the nice things I said above about Batman Returns--which, on the whole, I like a heckuva lot, preferring it by far to the first Batman--it also has a screenplay problem in that it really doesn't go anywhere. Batman Returns seems to set itself up for a sequel that never came off. The whole movie seems a little lacking in structure, too. It can be slow at times because Burton often sacrifices forward momentum for reveling in the movie's weird, freakshow atmosphere. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, in itself, but, like sharks, big budget spectacles need to keep moving forward in order to stay alive. Otherwise, they tend to get weighed down by their own excess. Batman Begins is twenty minutes longer than either of the other Batman movies, but its near-relentless pace makes the extra running time hardly noticeable.

Fourth, there are good performances in the Burton movies, especially from Michael Keaton, Robert Wuhl, and Michelle Pfeiffer, but, for the most part, the supporting cast is pretty thin. Begins, on the other hand, is chock-full of terriffic actors in well-thought out parts.

Finally, the biggest reason for my preference for Begins might be that it is a movie designed for fans of Batman comics, specifically, Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's Batman: Year One. In purely cinematic terms, Begins may not be as impressive as Burton's movies and it may even lack their soul, but, in purely Batman-ological terms, it features a much better Batman story than the ones in the Burton movies. Though the craftsmanship behind the movie is anonymous, the content of the movie is a more compelling and interesting exploration of and introduction to the Batman mythos.

8 comments:

Dick said...

Greengrass is attached to THE WATCHMEN, which is supposedly being scrapped by the studio--they want to spend $80M, he thinks it'll take $100M.

I mean, c'mon.

Kevin said...

Interesting post. I think artistically I prefer Nolan's to Burton's mainly because there is a balance to the world. With Burton everything spirals out of control which is fun to watch but makes for a poorer film.

This new Batman Begins has a Peter Jackson LOTR feel to it where they want to me a fantasy appear real to us. In that regard Nolan succeeded quite well.

I did think there were some great slow scenes. I think the reason there weren't more was because of Katie Holmes inane character and stupid love interest.

Also I agree with your comments on Memento. However, I loved his work on Insomnia. A great feel and pacing to that film.

I disagree that Burton's film had more soul, and if I have time I'll post a retort on my site.

Do you have any opinions on the score? I loved Elfman's score for the first two films and think that on that level the original is better than new Begins (caveat, the sound for Batman Begins was off for me the first time and I'll have to see it again).

And yes it sucks that Watchmen has been scrapped but currently they can shop it around to other studios.

Jon Hastings said...

Kevin,

I understand your points about balance and the desire to create a "realistic" fantasy.

I didn't mention it but I thought Katie Holmes was pretty awful. Fortunately, I have completely forgotten all of her scenes. (Although I can't get her ridiculous lip curling thing out of my head: honestly, that looks like a symptom for some kind of neurological disorder).

I also agree about the score. Elfman's score is a classic: maybe one of the best "blockbuster" scores from the last 20 years.

In general, I thought the sound design for Begins was pretty lackluster: lots of noisy action movie type stuff. Not very inspired.

The "soul" thing is probably more subjective. I guess what I mean is that I think Burton's movies have a kind of evocative, poetic weirdness. I really feel for Keaton's Batman, Catwoman, and even the Penguin in a way I don't for the characters in Begins.

Anonymous said...

Ugh - what vapid, inane over-analysis [apart from that on Holmes]... It seems as if you have a hard time escaping from a hopelessly ego-centric eye, which translates, I think anyway, to being hopelessly locked in what Heidegger called 'forestructure'.

It is the sort of thinking that leads to the conclusion "the classics" can't be outdone.

Maybe a little less focus on rating art, and a little more on trying to simply understand it?

Jon Hastings said...

Anonymous,

I guess I don't quite get your point. My post wasn't really about "rating" these movies, but rather about my reaction to them. That is a little "egocentric", but this is a blog, after all.

I'm also not sure where you see any "over-analysis". I was really trying to describe the differences between the Burton films and Begins. I'm sure there are better ways to talk about these movies, but, sorry, my mind tends to work in a compare & contrast fashion.

Anonymous said...

Well - fair enough, actually.

take a look at this, Senor Hastings

http://www.aps-pub.com/proceedings/1491/490106.pdf

Kram said...

I really liked the movie called Batman Begins.

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