July 15, 2006

Batman Begins

It's no Spiderman, but Batman Begins certainly belongs in the upper echelons of comic book adaptations. It's a movie that surprises you by getting so many things right. Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine are pitch perfect. Christian Bale is plenty good enough as Batman (Michael Keaton does remain the definitive Bruce Wayne).

Liam Neeson reprises exactly the same role he played in Star Wars, and it's a revelation to see what a decent actor can do with exactly the same (hackneyed) material when it's NOT written by George Lucas. Rutger Hauer certainly deserved more than minor minion status. The one big casting mistake is Katie Holmes, who looks like she skipped cheerleader practice to make it to the set. Kirsten Dunst she ain't.

The Batmobile is the best ever, but what really makes the whole thing hum is Gotham. Finally, a make-believe city that looks like a real live city, sort of Manhattan crossed with Sydney. Tim Burton's manic-depressive art deco gloomscapes really did get old fast.

There is still a dumpster-sized hole in the plot, though it's easy to ignore given the movie's other merits. Still, it's annoying. It's the perpetual problem with the superhero narrative: coming up with a plausible supervillain. And worse, coming up with politically-correct supervillainy. Anthropologists in the distant future examining our time will no double wonder why we Americans so feared guys with British accents.

At least in Die Hard 1 & 3 and every other Bond flick, the guys with the British accents were doing plausibly villainous things, like robbing Fort Knox or stealing nuclear weapons. But when it comes to dark forces fanatically aligned against and dedicated to the downfall of western civilization itself, guys with British accents are not at the top of my paranoia list.

There are real villains out there. Yet, despite it featuring the superhero-supervillain face-off most germane to the real world, I doubt True Lies could be made today. And when the Soviet Army invaded Afghanistan, it was up to Rambo to stand cinematically alone against the red tide. Good grief, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger as the moral centers of the geopolitical universe?

So Liam Neeson went over the dark side of the Force and, lacking a Death Star, settled on destroying Alderaan Gotham, instead, with some kind of way-too-complicated nerve gas. That makes more sense than whatever he was up to in Batman Begins. But it was far more enjoyable watching Liam Neeson battling Batman in Batman Begins than watching Liam Neeson playing Batman in Star Wars. Go figure.

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