20 April 2008

Batman Begins...Twice

I am really excited to talk about these films. Although I have to admit that I saw them both over a week ago and have been dragging my feet because I have no idea how to compose this. I guess I can't put it off any longer. So I hope you enjoy this rambling disjointed Batman movie discussion. Here goes. We are comparing Batman (1989), which happens to be my favorite comic book movie of all time, with Batman Begins, which I don't really even 
think of as a comic book movie. It's more like an   
action film about a crime fighter who also likes to dress up like a giant bat. One is the ultimate comic book film and the other is a great film that happens to use a comic book as it's source material. And I know that strictly speaking one is not a remake of the other. Actually they are both remakes of the comic book. But they both tell the story of the introduction of Batman to the world. So it works for me. Now let's do this thing!

PLOT: Batman - Story begins and Batman is already Batman. Crime Boss Carl Grism sets up his #1 guy Jack Napier, to get caught by the police. He doesn't get caught but instead is dropped in a vat of acid and becomes the Joker. He terrorizes the city as Batman attempts to thwart his efforts. Batman learns that the Joker is the same man that killed his parents years ago. It all ends in a showdown on top of Gotham Cathedral. Batman is victorious and the city accepts Batman as sanctioned crime-fighter.
Batman Begins -  Bruce Wayne as a child falls into a well and is surrounded by bats. He is very frightened. He later forces his parents to leave a showing of the opera Die Fledermaus. His folks are murdered by Joe Chill. At Joe's parole hearing years later, Chill is killed by one of local crime lord Falcone's thugs, preventing Bruce from killing Chill himself. Bruce is slapped around by leading lady Rachael Dawes. He runs off to the criminal underworld to explore crime so as to better fight it. He is offered a position in the League of Shadows by Henri Ducard and is to lead the League in the destruction of Gotham. He turns the offer down. Bruce returns to Gotham and takes on the persona of Batman to fight crime and in the process earns the trust of Sergeant Gordon. He puts Falcone behind bars and learns that Ducard has come to the city to destroy it. He manages to defeat Ducard in the nick of time but we learn that other criminals are coming forward, including a man who calls himself the Joker (BTW I can't wait to see The Dark Knight). Batman Begins probably has the better plot. It hurts to concede that but it's well thought through and things unfold very well.

STYLE: Batman - I call Batman the ultimate comic book movie because of the way everything is presented both with visuals and story. Everything is in starkly contrasted colors. The city of Gotham is dark and grey because it is seeing hard times. Batman is in black. He is the mysterious, messed-up-inside hero. Vicky Vale wears almost exclusively white. She is the embodiment of good. Like Tess Truelove in the Dick Tracy series. Then there's the Joker who wears all sorts of outlandish colors as he tears across the story line. Also everything is exaggerated from the Batmobile to the Joker's gun with the 3 foot long barrel. It's all like a cartoon come to life.
Batman Begins - This film takes a much more gritty realistic approach. It almost has an industrial feel to it. There isn't much for me to say other than everything in the film makes me think that, yeah this could happen. Gotham is relatable and feels a lot like Chicago. All the gadgets Batman uses actually work. Batman wins on style. It's really hard to say that since Batman Begins doesn't try to have a comic book feel at all. But they are comic book films and, what can I say? I love Tim Burton.

BATMAN: Michael Keaton - I thought that Michael Keaton gave a wonderful performance as the caped crusader. He just has that quality where you know he's a good guy and he's level headed, smart etc. But you also know that he's a little nuts and he could lose it at any time. And then of course there's The Line: "Who are you?" "I'm Batman." His deliverance of that line makes it an iconic movie moment. I get chills.

Christian Bale - 
He does a good job. But I can think of a few other actors that would have done as well. Not a standout performance but good. I think it bugs me a bit when he's Batman and he talks in his angry gravely voice. I'm pretty sure I laughed the first time. Michael Keaton wins this one because I can't think of anyone else who could have played the role. He WAS Batman, and I believe replacing his with other actors is a big reason the franchise started to fail.

VILLAINS: The Joker. OK anyone who has talked to me for more than 10 minutes knows that I believe that Jack Nicholson as the Joker is the greatest casting fit of all time. And I think he was robed for not getting an oscar nod. Go ahead and laugh. He plays an absolute creep as Jack Napier. But as soon as he becomes the Joker he almost takes over the film. He looks like he is having a blast and the audience can feel that. Not to mention his delivery. My two favorite lines are: "And remember. You! Are my number one uh-guy!" and of course the imortal "And where is the Batman? He's at home. Washing his tights!" I still use that line when people ask where someone is. In a very accomplished career I still see this as Jack's greatest work.

Ra's al Ghul/Henri Ducard - I really like Liam Neeson. And I think he does a fine job in this role. Again the idea was to go for a very human, very real villain. And this film produced it. He was cold, ruthless and deadly. But he wasn't very much fun. Maybe bad guys shouldn't be fun. Then our kids wouldn't emulate them etc etc. This is another case of a character that could have been played by several actors. Now I do have to give kudos for Dr. Crane/Scarecrow. That guy freaked me out. I think they used him because the villain side lacked theatricality. Batman wins this one. I don't even have to explain why.

Supporting Cast/Characters: Batman - This film has a host of forgettable performances. You wouldn't want to distract from the main show anyway. But the other big character is of course Kim Basinger as Vicky Vale. Yuck. I guess she's closer to Bruce's age but I've never really liked her acting in this or any film. I can't say much more than that. 
Batman Begins has a great supporting cast. Michael Kane is a great Alfred. Morgan Freeman is great in anything so he's welcome in this film. Rutger Howard has a very small roll, but come on! He's Roy the Replicant! Gary Oldman is wonderful as Lt. Gordan. And Katie Holmes makes for a fine Rachael Dawes. Strong, smart and beautiful. Batman Begins definitely has the stronger cast. I guess when you have Keaton and Nicholson you don't need anyone else.

Conclusion: I really like both of these movies a lot and it is hard for me to see which is better. Batman Begins probably tells the story of how Batman came to be better. But Batman is just more fun to watch. So how to settle all this? Musical Score: Danny Elfman's imortal Batman themes stomp all over the sufficient and forgettable score for Batman Begins. Also, I just like Batman more. So there.

OK tell me what you think! 
Now on to the May movie of the month. Steve Snow (who suggested the Batmans) has appropriately suggested that we reprise the category of Charlton Heston films. I whole heartedly agree. I am submitting Ben Hur, which may not be my favorite movie of Chuck's but I must say it's probably his best. So don't forget after you comment on Batman to suggest a Chuck Heston film. Remember that the person whose film is chose will pick next month's category. And Jon, I'm instituting a 2 movie per person limit. 


Chapman Family said...

Boooo! Batman really does stink. Sorry. Everyone it thinking it, I'm just saying it. I voted for this one because I think Batman Begins is phenomenal (maybe just because I had such LOW expectations given the other Batman movies)and that there is a complete 360 of the quality of the films. I agree with the gravely voice. I still remember what I said when I heard it, "What the?" But I guess there has to be some cheese in the movie. Heck, it was based off of a -BAM! POW! WHACK!- comic book. (which I like MUCH better than the movies. . . even the black and white versions.)

P.S. My movie that I voted for actually won!

The Snows said...

The Agony and the Ecstasy - Although I have not seen this film (yet) I am sure it is amazing. The book is one of my favorites.

The Snows said...

Oh, and Batman, the original is amazing. The music, the Joker, it is one of the best. I am a little surprised that credit was not given to the Symbol who added to the soundtrack. How can we forget "Trust" with the Joker dancing around?

joN. said...

while batman begins isn't EXACTLY a remake of batman there were still some really great similarities. both of them had corrupt cops as supporting characters i was actually kind of bummed that flass and eckhardt didn't have the same name. they were both chubby, greasy cops bought by the criminal underworld. both movies' plots involved the gassing of gotham. both departed from earlier, campier versions of batman in favor of a darker vision. personally, i found the most interesting similarity between the two was the initial evolution of gotham's crime from organized crime to a more "theatric crime."

unfortunately and inevitably, we need to proclaim a winner between these two great films.

as much as i adore batman begins i have to say that watching the "original" batman was way funner this time around. perhaps because it's been so long. its mood, though, is truly unique. i remember well how big of a deal this was in '89 and it was awesome, but watching it this last time i'm sort of surprised that it worked so well as a summer blockbuster. there actually wasn't an incredible amount of action in it. i guess at the end of the 80s the kids just latched onto the darkness and the dark humor.

its real charm was in the strange gotham world that tim burton and co. were able to bring to us. it's a weird setting where there's art deco everywhere, all the dudes wore dress hats in public and yet the main character owns a personal combat jet. what era of history could that have possibly been? this concept could have gone horribly wrong, but under burton's direction it achieved a wonderful sense of timelessness.

i also really liked how the concept of superhero sort of turned on its side. they really fleshed out the idea that batman himself could be psychotic just like the joker. in the imdb trivia it talks about how one idea for this particular reboot of batman is that in his flashbacks he remembers the villain he's fighting at the time as the character who originally killed his parents. a few comics in the 80s explored the idea of mental illness and public perception of superheroes (watchmen is a wonderful wonderful example). anyway, i noticed in this batman there were a couple of scenes that pointed at the michael keaton batman being a bit less stable than the christian bale one (leaving the meek thug at the beginning and leaving the warning with the rotten thug, and i'm pretty sure batman could have saved jack napier (he's totally strong enough), but probably dropped him on purpose).

i certainly wish danny elfman got a lot more love for the music because it's a lot better than i remember. probably his best soundtrack work. i'm surprised prince got so much credit. as much as i totally love the purple one, there were really only two prince songs in the whole movie.

yeah, so batman begins is pretty awesome too, but i think i'll let someone else elaborate its merits.

i'll just quickly say that cillian murphy as scarecrow was delightful (where the heck did he find that glorious steed at the end?).

the one thing i hated about batman begins was the creepy wide-eyed kid he meets in the slums who takes his grapple.

joN. said...

oh, and once again i insist on nominating the ten commandments.
"water lily! to me you are a lily! and i want water!"
"will not the nile itself be enough to quench you you?"
"you! water girl, come here."
"it is not for water that he thirsts."
"beauty is but a curse to our women."

Swint said...

You know I really agree with your assessment and breakdown of the movies. Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson win hands down, but even so, I still like Batman Begins WAY more. In fact, i have no desire to see the original Batman again. Whereas I will watch Begins multiple more times.

Chapman Family said...

Amen to Swint. I nominate Ben Hur!

marianne said...

I like many many things about batman. Most of them you already named. However, the one thing that really sticks out in my head is the song by Prince. Don't boo. I had a big crush on Michael Keaton too. yuck. old guy. This review makes me want to watch Batman now. I wonder if I'd still like it.

Sarah said...

You say that Batman is more comic booky than Batman Begins, which is true, but you need to remember that Batman Begins is based more on Frank Miller's graphic novel Batman Year One. I think they wanted to get away from the whole comic booky image that eventually ruined the first batman movies. So, if you're comparing the movies to the books, you can't compare BB to a comic book -you have to compare it to a graphic novel. And you have to admit, they did a great job of mimicking the dark grittyness of Batman Year One.

J.R. said...

Never read the graphic novel. So i will take your word for all of what you said. I still like Batman better.