I didn't much like this back in 2005. Today, I think it's quite good. It's been improved by the existence of The Dark Knight
, but fundamentally I think it's still vulnerable to the same charges it always was. It's just that I have more respect for its innovations now I can see them in the light of where the series would later take them, rather than just seeing them as surface quirks on what had previously seemed to me a fairly conventional superhero film. Lots of style and brave decisions on the surface, but underneath it's largely business as usual.
Firstly, it's predictable. It conforms to the Hero-Villain-Girl template as in Daredevil
, Iron Man
, Hulk et al. The hero goes on a personal journey and discovers his true calling, donning the outfit after exactly an hour's screen time, etc. You know. The usual. Admittedly this film was hugely influential in doing so and has since been cited as an influence by pretty much everyone. Is it a cliche to invent a new cliche? We could argue that one back and forth, but personally I felt the film had less energy when focused on Ra's Al Ghul. During the first hour, we're just waiting for the inevitable. G'wan, get suited up. Stop messing around. Then the final twenty minutes feel a little as if they're going through the motions with the obligatory overblown silliness, none of which really means much.
Admittedly Ang Lee's Hulk fell apart similarly, to name only the most obvious example. It's almost traditional. However I do find it a weakness in a film that's so single-mindedly focused on realism, especially given that its sequel managed to overturn all our ideas about a superhero film.
Perhaps more controversially, I don't find Christian Bale's Batman that interesting. Admittedly I can't deny the film's courage in going so far in creating this appallingly damaged character. In a rather abstract way I can even admire Bale's psychotic performance, as with for instance his deadpan sense of humour in his scenes with Morgan Freeman. You can see why they cast him. I certainly prefer him to Val Kilmer, for instance, but he's a million miles from displacing Michael Keaton as my favourite. To draw comparisons with James Bond, if the earlier films in this series had been Roger Moore campfests and/or the 1967 parody of Casino Royale, then this is like reading Ian Fleming's novels. I can respect that. I enjoy those books. However if you had dinner with Fleming's Bond, you'd find him a slightly sinister bore. For me, that's this Batman.
However on the upside, those are my only two real criticisms and even I find them less convincing than I used to. The Dark Knight
is just so damn powerful and revolutionary that one becomes more sympathetic towards its precursor, given how clearly they're singing from the same hymn sheet. Then of course there's all the good stuff I haven't got to yet.
The cast! Heavens above, the cast! Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Rutger Hauer, Gary Oldman... bloody hell, they've out-Pottered the Harry Potter films. We are not worthy. I could dribble about that lot all day, but I haven't even got to my favourites yet.
Liam Neeson! I so adored him in The Phantom Menace that I've come to enjoy the fact that here's he's basically playing an evil Qui-Gon Jinn. This man is the mentor of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader and Batman. Even his dialogue is similar. "Your anger gives you great power, but if you let it, it will destroy you." I found on rewatching that I loved all of Liam Neeson's scenes despite my problems with them on a plot level, simply because I enjoyed watching him with Christian Bale so much. One of my favourite moments in the film was simply Neeson closing his eyes. Admittedly I regret the fact that they chickened out of making Ra's Al Ghul a proper Fu Manchu figure as he ought to be, but perhaps the days when Hollywood could make such movies have passed.
Then there's Cillian Murphy as the Scarecrow, having more fun being emotionless than anyone I've seen since Peter Cushing. He's as cold as the South Pole and twice as cool. I loved, loved, loved his performance. He's also a very logical villain to choose for a film so focused on fear.
That's enough for me. Really. I couldn't ask for more.
On the comparative downside, Tom Wilkinson does nothing wrong but has never managed to convince me as a bad guy. He's too cuddly. Then there's Katie Holmes as The Girl, ahem, Rachel Dawes. She's drawn a lot of stick in this film, but I thought she was fine. She's cute and passable, even if one might perhaps have wanted a little more fire and chemistry from her. I think the problem with her character is simply that she's The Girl. She didn't need to be in this film. She never comes across as a spare wheel, but equally this Batman is the one superhero who's never, ever going to settle down with the girl. In today's age of all-too-human cinematic superheroes, he's the anomaly. There's something iconic and elemental about him that resists anything so domestic. Or, um, heterosexual. A stronger performance from a better actress could have perhaps lifted the role of Rachel Dawes into something more, but no.
I like the iconography. We get Arkham Asylum, the Batcave and great swarms of bats from a vampire film. They use two classic villains without making you feel as if they're being juggled as in Forever
. Joe Chill killed Bruce's parents, not Jack Nicholson. However best of all is the way that Christopher Nolan knows not to stay dour throughout. The idea of a gritty, realistic Batman film is bizarre in itself, but it would have felt downright alien if he'd never let his hair down with a self-indulgent action sequence. Wayne's first appearance as Batman had me chortling. "Where are you?" "Here." However the big set-piece is of course the Batmobile chase. That was funny. "It's a black... tank." It's nice to know that even a Blade Runner wannabe understands the entertainment value of slumming it as Joel Schumacher for a few minutes, even in a restrained way.
I also like the way in which Dr Crane's crazy gas and the opening of Arkham are clearly what will have polluted the city's criminal element with the kooks we see in subsequent films, e.g. the Joker. It's hard not to watch those last twenty minutes without thinking of the long-term damage that's being caused on all those unstable minds in Gotham City.
When this was the only Christopher Nolan Batman film, I didn't quite buy it. Today, I'm more convinced. There's plenty here that I love, such as pretty much any scene featuring those veteran actors they've packed into the supporting roles. Michael Caine does particularly well, which is slightly surprising since one tends to think of him as a film star rather than a thespian and yet here he's really, really good. The scene of Bale saving Neeson is strong, while it's also good to see the film putting so much emphasis on the character of Bruce Wayne. I thought they made particularly strong use of his refusal to kill, which if mishandled can of course seem groanworthy. Rewatch this film. No, really.