I'm still working my way through every Batman movie on Fishing in the Discount Bin, and today, we finally get to Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy with Batman Begins. This is in my notes at June 18, 2016.
Before we get to Batman Begins, how about a quick rundown of all the reboots that they were thinking about in between?
Firstly, before Batman & Robin hit theatres, they were already tossing around ideas for a fifth movie. It was going to be called Batman Triumphant and feature the Scarecrow and Harley Quinn as the villains. After Batman & Robin hit theatres, there was a brief period of “...we can salvage this.” The fifth film was then going to be called Batman: DarKnight. Batman’s thinking about hanging it up because criminals don’t fear him anymore. But then, between Scarecrow’s fear gas, and murders committed by the Man-Bat framing Batman, Batman figures it’s time to come out of his exile. This is what they call a “soft reboot,” and it was hoped to get things back to the dark and gritty feel of the first films.
Then they went with their dual reboot ideas. Two reboots, being developed simultaneously, and whichever one picked up the most speed first would be the one they go with. Reboot #1: a live-action movie version of Batman Beyond, scripted by Batman Beyond co-creator Paul Dini, and directed by Boaz Yakin of Remember the Titans. Dini has been asked about it in his con appearances over the years. He says they submitted a first draft, then never heard back. “It probably died on someone’s desk,” said Dini.
Darren Aaronofsky, fresh off Pi and Requiem for a Dream, was brought on for reboot #2. His idea: an adaptation of Frank Miller’s dramatic retelling of Batman’s origin, Batman: Year One. Miller was even brought on to develop the script. And what they came up with...was unexpected. It was set in 1970s. Alfred became an African American mechanic named Big Al. When the Waynes were murdered, young Bruce ran off frightened, repressing the memory and his identity. Assumed missing, he grew up on the streets, under Big Al’s tutelage, learning how to beat up muggers and the other criminal low-lifes in the ‘hood. Then, when he came of age and remembered who he was, he reclaimed his birthright and figured, with the Wayne fortune behind him, he could take his war on crime to the next level. Yeah...Warner Brothers rejected it for straying too far from the Batman we all know and love.
At this point, Warner Brothers realized they’d been trying to get a Superman reboot going, too, and though, “Why not put them together?” Wolfgang Peterson (Das Boot, In the Line of Fire) signed on to direct. That’s right, we almost had Batman v Superman 15 years ago. With Bruce Wayne’s fiancé seemingly murdered by Superman, Batman was going to dedicate his life to bringing Superman to justice. Then, they realized that Lex Luthor and the Joker were manipulating them, and team up to take down their foes. Surprisingly, back then, public reaction to this idea was overwhelmingly negative. “What, you can’t think of anything interesting for these two to do, so you’re just going to have them fight each other? Lame,” was the general consensus.
One guy who thought so was the king of reboots, JJ Abrams. Abrams pitched his own idea for a Superman reboot, and that was enough to convince Warner Brothers that Batman and Superman still had more value as solo franchises. So they began entertaining pitches for a new Batman film.
Which brings us to Christopher Nolan and Batman Begins. I read an interview with Nolan not too long ago where the reviewer felt that doing Batman seemed like an unusual choice for Nolan, given that his first two films before (Memento and Insomnia) had been these little indie noir thrillers. "Hold on," said Nolan. "Of course I was interested in Batman. Who wouldn't be?" And then he went on to explain that with Batman Begins he sought to do what Richard Donner did in Superman.
And all I could say was, "I was right!" When I first started doing this series of blogs all those years ago, one of the first films I did was Superman, and the similarities between that and Batman Begins hit me square between the eyes. What are those two films but Batman and Superman's origin stories, told in painstaking, loving detail?
I remembered being excited for Batman Begins back in the day because it did delve into Bruce Wayne's lost years. Many Batman stories alluded to the world tour that Bruce Wayne went on in his youth, learning the techniques he'd need to know to become Batman, but there had been no story that dealt with it specifically. Batman Begins was the first one to do that. Granted, they condensed things by simply making Bruce Wayne an apprentice to Ra's Al Guhl and a member of the League of Shadows, but it worked!
I also liked how the character of Ducard is introduced, and the kind of strange history he has. So, back in 1989, Tim Burton's Batman dominated the box office. To kind of tie in with the film that summer, DC asked Batman's screenwriter Sam Hamm to do a Batman storyline. Hamm agreed, and did a story dealing with Bruce Wayne's lost years called Blind Justice. In it, we learn as part of his world tour, Bruce Wayne once partnered with an Interpol agent named Henri Ducard...a man whose swift tactics and amazing deductive reasoning skills made him a legendary lawman. Wayne and Ducard became fast friends and partners...until Wayne learned that Ducard wasn't above taking a bribe now and then to look the other way. And they left on bad terms. And then, Ducard shows up in Batman Begins, with a lot of that relationship adapted. So the writer of the 1989 film wound up inspiring the 2005 film.
Anyways, watching it again tonight, it amazes me at how...realistic the film is. I remember all the way back in junior high English, when my teacher was lecturing us on how stories can have levels of believably. (I remember that lecture coming about when the assignment was to write a short story that was believable, and I said 'K, then, I'm writing my Star Trek fanfic,' and some of my classmates ratted me out.) But I remember he presented Gremlins as an example of how the fantastic can be presented in a believable way. Watching it again tonight, it surprised me how it presented the Batman mythology in a very believable way. The way Bruce Wayne starts assembling his tools and techniques...you buy it. Every step of the way.
But let's not confuse realistic for gritty. Yeah, Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy does get gritty and realistic, but this film is a laugh riot compared to Batman v Superman. Nolan still managed to inject a little levity, be it in the form of Alfred's dry comments, and Bruce Wayne's sarcastic replies, all the way up to the sight gag of the Batmobile powering into a tiny parking spot labelled "Compact Only." That being said, I remember the fanboys having a fit over that. When the first TV spot aired of Bruce Wayne taking the Batmobile for a spin, then slyly smiling and asking Lucious Fox, "Does it come in black?" there was much nerd rage. "BATMAN DOESN'T SMILE! BATMAN DOESN'T CRACK ONE LINERS! ROBBLE ROBBLE ROBBLE!" But damn it, it works. You can still find the fun in Batman.
My God, Lucious Fox. It's fun seeing how Nolan elevated that character. Before Batman Begins, Fox was actually a very minor character in the Batman mythology, but a sensible one. He was the CEO of Wayne Enterprises, and the man who really ran the company while Bruce Wayne was leading is double life. But Nolan turned him into Batman's Q, and again, it really helps with the believably of the whole situation.
We do get a new character in form of Rachael Dawes, played by Katie Holmes. She did get some flak back in the day, and watching this again tonight, yeah, she does seem a little flat compared to the rest of the acting in this film. But it's a vital character to Batman's lost years...something I think that was only ever tackled in Mask of the Phantasm. Surely, in that time, there must have been a love...the One...that tempted Bruce to give up his war on crime and lead a normal life. Rachael fills that role here, and that fact that she turns away Bruce at the end of the movie, knowing that they can never have a normal life, just shows a little more strength on her part, I think.
What also struck me as odd, and what a friend of mine pointed out when it first came out, is how so much of it seems to mirror Tim Burton's Batman. When Batman rescues Rachael from the Scarecrow and takes her back to the Batcave to cure her, it just really reminded me of when Batman rescued Vicki Vale from the Joker and took her back to the Batcave. Hell, my friend pointed out that, ultimately, Ra's Al Guhl's plan is exactly the same as the Joker's plan in Tim Burton's Batman: gas the whole city with a toxin and watch the populace tear themselves apart.
Seriously, though, Zack Snyder needs to take notes from Batman Begins on how to subtly work in classic comic book scenes. Yeah, in Batman v Superman, it was fun to see whole swaths of The Dark Knight Returns played out on the big screen, but it felt a little force and obvious and too much like fan service. But here, in Batman Begins, there are scenes straight out of Batman: Year One, but they're worked in organically and are appropriate to the story.
And the Scarecrow has always been my favourite villain, so thank you Nolan for putting him in a Batman movie! Clillian Murphy is great, and he's used in just the right amount and in just the right way. It's just so right.
That's what I like about Batman Begins. So much of it just seems so right for a Batman film. At the end, when Rachael says that Bruce Wayne is the mask and and Batman is now his true face...I watched that and thought, "Wow. Nolan and company get this."
And to wrap things up, I think Nolan's most brilliant idea was saving the Joker for the sequel. Unencumbered by Batman's origin story, he could tell a kick-ass Batman vs. the Joker story. And that ending, with Gordon talking about this new villain that's shown up in town, is just the right tease for a sequel, without feeling too cliffhanger-y.