It took a recent re-viewing to reaffirm startling conclusions made months ago. Result? Indeed, summed up, Batman Begins is a marvelous movie, and it is the perfect "bookend" match to the Daniel Craig Casino Royale.
Batman Begins and Casino Royale reinvented both Batman and James Bond, both of which suffered severely in all of their earlier versions (with the exception of the first Sean Connery Bond). The Adam West 1960s silly Batman continued unchanged into the new series starting in the 1990s. All were "camp," "funky," and tongue-in-cheek. All were horribly alike, regardless who played Batman. The only decent characterization in any of them was Jack Nicholson as the Joker.
Our review of Casino Royale addressed an identical pattern with the James Bond series. Almost all of the 44 year Bond series languished under bored Sean Connery, clueless George Lazenby, constipated Roger Moore, unconscious Timothy Dalton, and fop Pierce Brosnan. Executives drove the Bond series into box-office quickies with poor stories, poorer scripts, and gimmickry which poisoned the series.
Both the Batman and the James Bond series have always had extremely high potential, but they required better executives, writers, producers, directors, and actors who "got it" about the potential of these characters and stories. None knew what made the characters so popular in novels and in D.C. Comics. So, these inhabitants of the intellectual shallows went for superficialities, as if the viewing public were too stupid to tolerate the real, romantic, value-pursuing essence of these characters.
Then, early into the 21st century, something happened. Two, completely unrelated production companies, reinvented Batman for one and James Bond for the other. Their "reinventions" restored the romantic essence of both characters and gave them plots and dialogue worthy of each. Is each "reinvention" just a flash-in-the-pan? It is too early to know. The potential is always there for returning them to schlock and dreck. Nevertheless, whatever their future course, nothing can take away the excellence of Batman Begins and Casino Royale.
Christian Bale, an actor new to us, created an outstanding Batman/Bruce Wayne. Michael Caine was a consummate Alfred, much more than any simple manservant. Morgan Freeman, Rutger Hauer, and Liam Neeson, all big names and highly accomplished stars themselves, skilfully portrayed supporting characters. The music added real grandeur and drama. Neither the music nor Gotham were as dismally dark as with other Batman films. (Danny Elfman's Batman music may well have been the best aspect of the earlier series).
Ian Fleming, in Casino Royale, his first novel of the Bond series, introduced James Bond, newly a "00" agent, to the world. Bob Kane created Batman for D. C. Comics, and Batman Begins re-introduces us to the Batman character. Both characters truly needed reintroduction in the 21st century, given what has been done to them. Pithy dialogue, totally appropriate to character and situation, added stature to these new, very strong characterizations.
"It's not who you are; it's what you do that counts," crystallizes the character of Bruce Wayne, a.k.a., Batman. This statement occurs first in the film when young adult Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham after "finding himself." Later, this statement defines the relationship Bruce will have with Rachel, childhood sweetheart, Gotham District Attorney, and woman desperately in love with Bruce Wayne.
The first part of the film concerns the growth, development, and consolidation of the character of Bruce Wayne. It begins with his childhood overexposure to bats in a cave under the Wayne estate, leaving him afraid of bats. Bats symbolize all the irrational fears we acquire growing up, the fears that stunt our lives and thwart our potential unless dealt with properly.
When his parents are murdered by a worthless Gotham street thief, the boy Bruce's life becomes very complex. As he grows up, he sets about trying to make sense of himself and his critical life events.
Young adult Bruce is next seen being rescued from a Chinese prison where he has been developing highly athletic survival skills. His rescuer is Henri Ducard, head of the League of Shadows, an ancient group that goes about seeking revenge for serious, important crimes. Ducard teaches Wayne that his father effectively killed himself when he, and Bruce's mother, tried to use "compassion" to dissuade an armed robber. By "compassion," the script writers meant "mercy," the opposite of justice and is the granting of the unearned materially or spiritually. The message from Ducard is: Do not give evil a chance or any kind of break, ever, because, when you do, you give it sanction, which always hurts you, others, and that which is good. The other lesson is never to let an evil act go undealt with; apply the corrective action immediately, every time.
Bruce struggles because the thought of eliminating "compassion" ties him up in conflict. In time, he learns that he should seek justice, not mercy nor revenge, and that part of justice involves respecting the principles and rule of law. He discovers that he cannot kill out of revenge--only a proper legal system should have the power to mete out death, after due process. Having conceptualized these critical principles, he works on mastering his fears, rejects the League of Shadows, and returns fully grown to Gotham.
Gotham has become a crime-infested city. Criminals not only have the upper hand, they also have most of the police in their pockets and in their employ.
One of Bruce's take home lessons from Ducard is the need to have a powerful, public symbol that catches the attention and imagination of criminals and good citizens alike. Consulting his own psyche, he relates the symbol to his fear of bats. He returns to the bat cave to face down his fear amidst thousands of swirling bats. In doing so, he completes his journey to find himself, discover his purpose, and define his public symbol. He will now be able to spearhead crime eradication in Gotham by embodying a symbol that strikes fear into criminals and inspires confidence in the law-abiding.
Having been sidelined as an orphan, even as titular head of Wayne Industries, which he inherited from his father, he discovers that his fortune is almost gone, and that he has been manipulated into having no position of any authority within the company. So, he takes a job--in his own company--working with scientist Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), who has been relegated to a caretaker role over truly advanced military and civilian products once innovated by Wayne Industries, under Bruce's father . He learns just what truly magnificent materials lie "mothballed." From these, he begins fashioning the costume and accoutrements of Batman, with the help of Alfred.
His first foray as Batman stops the number one criminal of Gotham and grabs the imagination of criminals and public alike. As he gains experience and knowledge, he sets his sights on the unidentified archcriminal who plans complete destruction of Gotham and its citizens.
Two pieces of dialog near the end of the film summarize his character, role, and mission. The first is when Ducard (now exposed as the archcriminal) and Batman are riding to certain death. Ducard tells Batman that he does not have the fortitude to kill him. Batman tells Ducard that he does not have to kill him (to achieve justice), but he also does not have to save him. He escapes and leaves Ducard to certain, immediate death.
In another scene, Batman is presented with evidence of other, very significant Gotham criminal activity, filling the vacuum left by criminals already done in. Future police commissioner Gordon shows Batman the "calling card" of a new criminal, a joker playing card. Batman says matter-of-factly, "I'll look into it."
Christian Bale portrays Batman as a man of values, who takes life, himself, and others seriously. His Batman comes across as a strong character who uses high intelligence, deeply held principles, and appropriate actions to outwit criminals, achieve his goals, and moblize the forces for good in Gotham. He is as good in Batman Begins as is Daniel Craig as James Bond in Casino Royale.
In one important sense, It is much harder task dramatically to make Batman characterization per se stand out than it is for James Bond. The difficulty comes from the presence in Batman Begins of so much extraordinary technology, which can easily compete with and overwhelm his other attributes of intelligence, dedication, and perseverance. The Bond character in Casino Royale, on the other hand, does not use extra-ordinary technology which substituted for story, plot, characterization, and acting in the other Bond films. The fact that most of the 44 years of Bond films relied so much on gadgetry seriously undercut the extraordinary integration of intellect, skill, and athleticism that made Bond so great.
Had Christian Bale played Batman tongue-in-cheek, and if the writers had made his character subordinate to the gadgetry, Batman Begins would have become "Batman Ends Forever." The difficult task of employing the Batman technology was successful because it was so relevant and so contextually appropriate. Rather than shifting the focus to the technology, the technology served to highlight the character, his principles, goals, and actions and not the reverse.
As another comic book creation brought to the screen, Batman has met with far greater success than all of the other comic book characters, except Superman (and maybe Spiderman). All of the other comic book character movies and television productions have been wretched, like X-Men, etc. Aside from truly poor stories and scripts, the biggest factor seems to be metaphysical.
The "rule" for success for superheroes is that they must be super characters, possessing super principles, purposes, and actions, which flow only from their mission, vision, and philosophies. Most of the wretched comic book productions present only action-action-action, to the point where they may as well be silent films, with characters that turn into flames or have knives coming out of fists, and so on; such metaphysical absurdities appeal mostly to teenagers, and those fixated at that psychological level.
One swallow does not make a spring, we all have heard a jillion times, so the quality of future iterations of Batman and James Bond cannot be foretold. Will future Batman and Bond films stay in this new, proper characterization, or will production executives ruin them too? Stay tuned.
If film executives, writers, and directors really understand the "whats," "hows," and "whys" that made Casino Royale and Batman Begins so exceptionally good, we could rest reassured that they would remain excellent. If "bottom line" driven, unconceptual executives get their usual way, then good productions will go away, and we will back to the schlock and dreck.
"Bottom line" oriented people have all the vision of garden slugs who can live only in the perceptual "now." They seem incapable of grasping how great wealth can be earned by keeping Bond and Batman in their reinvented states. However, short-sighted, "bottom line" executives hold the financial reins that can either kill these golden geese or breed more. If they could develop empathy for their viewing (and paying) public, they would see the insatiable craving in them for romantic film art. They would see a public that never tires of good plots, good scripts, and good acting from larger-than-life moral figures. Holding the range of a four-dimensional view, they would see that the "bottom line" would become extraordinary as well as having the potential to change film history, film culture, and could have enormous impact for the better on the culture at large.
Cheesy, degraded films may make a few bucks today, but they will be quickly forgotten with the march of history. Crap sells, but quality sells better and for longer. Gone With the Wind and the Wizard of Oz, just two examples, from almost 70 years ago, remain perennial "must-see" films.
There have been so many abortive starts toward any level of romantic film art: The Miracle Worker, Star Wars, Close Encounters, Return of the Jedi, ET, the Indiana Jones films, and Dr. No are just a few that come to mind. The fact that we so few is one reason why some of these films, including ones not cited as well, which are not really a very high form of romantic film art, seem so much more glamorous than they really are. To this list of "better" but not yet "bests," we can add Batman Begins and the new Casino Royale.
It is time for these fitful starts finally to crank up and sustain the motors of romantic film art, which sells big. Of course, romantic art requires the right values and philosophical ideas, and these are in short supply in the halls of Hollywood right now. We will have to wait longer for the motors of romantic film art to hum because we cannot reverse cause and effect.
Still, the fact that some of these films are being produced right now tells us that there are some people who have enough of the right stuff to do good pictures. That alone makes these rare souls national treasures.
We will always have banal, "ballast" movies and television dramas. We will always have so-called (dour) "art" movies seen only by the self-anointed "literati." At no time, present or future, will we ever have enough, and certainly never too many, romantic art movies. Just as Batman Begins and Casino Royale were reinventions of romantic film art, let us "go crazy" demanding more and more and more "reinventions."
To understand the nature and power of art, please read Ayn Rand's monumental volume, The Romantic Manifesto, easily available in bookstores.