Some movies are great on their first viewing. Some movies take some time to marinate in the brain. Some movies you can only watch once. And some movies are forever great. Retrospective Review is a chance to see how some great movies held up after a bit of time. Once the excitement is gone and the hype machine has moved on what’s left standing.
2012 was the summer of the comic book. It started with the Avengers, quietly snuck in an excellent reboot with the Amazing Spiderman, and culminated with the end of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy with the Dark Knight Rises. It will be very difficult for 2012 to be topped for comic book fans. Of course, Nolan’s Batman movies are clearly the greatest comic book movie trilogy in my opinion. It is the one year anniversary of the Dark Knight Rises, I will be analyzing each movie in the trilogy over the next week. It all started in 2005 with Batman Begins. Of the three movies, it is the one I overlooked and underappreciated. Since 1989, there were 4 Batman movies before Nolan’s reboot. After Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, I had enough of the movies as it got really goofy, especially Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze and Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy. As such, I was less than enthusiastic about another Batman movie in 2005. Moreover, I was not a fan of Christian Bale at the time as I thought he was too much of a pretty boy playboy and incapable of showing the darker side of Batman. Although I have gotten use to his deep Batman voice, I originally thought it was over the top and a bit cheesy. I also had a poor experience the first time I saw the movie. I did not go to the movie theaters. However, I did watch it within a large crowd and could not hear some of the dialogue. As Batman Begins was more about great dialogue and character development than action and I subconsciously wanted to not like the movie, I did not hold Batman Begins in high regard after the first time I watched it.
After the near perfection that was its sequel, The Dark Knight, I accepted Batman Begins as the movie that I did not love but was necessary to set up an epic sequel. However, I was absolutely wrong. Eventually, I came to the realization that I missed and ignored the brilliance of Batman Begins. As the movies in the 90s became too cartoonish, Nolan had a great vision for the story he wanted to tell in a reboot. He took the Batman mythology established over the years, updated it, and modified it so it would be a realistic interpretation consistent with the real world. While we all know the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents was a primary reason he became Batman to fight crime, Batman Begins was the first movie to dive deep into the traumatic effect the murder of his parents had on Bruce and the long journey he took to overcome it. Nolan’s central theme for the movie is fear and immediately shows it in the opening scene with a young Bruce taking an arrowhead from his childhood friend Rachel Dawes. As he runs away from Rachel, he falls into a well. Alone and in the darkness of the well, bats fly out and the experience causes him to have fear for bats. During Bruce’s journey in the movie, he learns to control his fear of bats and uses the bat as a symbol of fear for criminals.
However, Bruce is actually having a flashback of falling into the well. He awakens in a prison. After a prison fight in which he badly beats six prisoners, the guards take him back into a cell to keep the other prisoners safe. In the cell, a man called Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) is waiting and says “The world is too small for someone like Bruce Wayne to disappear” referring to Bruce leaving Gotham and disappearing for 7 years to live life as a criminal to understand the criminal mind. Ducard is recruiting for Bruce to join the League of Shadows and is representing its leader Ra’s Al Guhl. Ducard points out to Bruce that he is truly lost as he has resorted to being imprisoned as his only way to fight criminals. As such, the League of Shadows offers Bruce an opportunity to learn how to truly fight crime and injustice. Of course, Bruce accepts. In Ducard’s closing arguments, he has one of the best lines in the movie and foreshadows Bruce’s coming journey in Batman Begins: “A vigilante is just a man lost in the scramble for his own gratification. He can be destroyed or locked up. But if you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can’t stop you, then you become something else entirely… Legend, Mr. Wayne”.
After Bruce scales a mountain to reach the temple of the League of Shadows, Ducard takes Bruce under his wing. The League of Shadows and Ducard teach Bruce how to be a ninja, tools he will use as Batman. In the words of Ducard, “You know how to fight six men. We can teach you how to engage 600. You know how to disappear. We can teach you to become truly invisible.” Moreover, he notes “Theatricality and deception are powerful agents. You must become more than just a man in the mind of your opponent.” Ducard and Bruce also discuss the death of his parents. In a flashback, the Waynes are at the theater. Since the play contained actors dressed as bats, Bruce is petrified and they leave the theater. In the alley outside of the theater, Joe Chill robs and kill’s Bruce parents. As Bruce’s fear of bats is the reason they left the theater, he feels guilt and responsibility for his parents’ death. However, Bruce admits to Ducard that his anger outweighs his guilt. In response, Ducard shares with Bruce that he once had a wife but she was taken from him. Ducard notes that his anger almost destroyed him. As such, Ducard is teaching Bruce to confront his anger and guilt before they destroy him. The scenes of Ducard training Bruce are excellent. One of my most favorite scenes in the movie is when they are sparring with swords on ice. Ducard is clearly more skilled. He incenses Bruce by suggesting that Bruce’s father is responsible for his parent’s death for his inaction. In response to the suggestion, Bruce gets aggressive and gets the upper hand on Ducard. However, Ducard notes that “You haven’t beaten me. You have sacrificed sure footing for a killing stroke.” Next, Ducard breaks the ice and Bruce falls into the freezing water. Lesson: mind your surroundings. Liam Neeson is a star in Batman Begins. I was a fan since he was Qui Gon jin. Similar to that role in Star Wars, he is excellent as a wise master training his apprentice. He is very charismatic as Ducard and delivers his lines and role perfectly.
While Ducard is instrumental in training Bruce for the physical skills he will need as well as helping Bruce confront and overcome his fears and anger, the simultaneous flashbacks of Bruce’s past show the key people in his life that are critical in helping him grow into a great man who is uncompromising in his morals. The first person is his father, Thomas Wayne (Linus Roache). While Thomas is a billionaire due to the family wealth, he is a humble man and a doctor. He owns Wayne Enterprises but allows businessmen to run the company while he works in the hospital. He is an inspiring man for his good deeds and is Bruce’s hero. When Bruce fell into the well at the beginning of the movie, Thomas uses a rope to belay down to Bruce. Instead of being angry with Bruce, he uses it as an opportunity to teach his son to understand “And Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” Even when he is shot and dying, he cares only about his son and tells Bruce “Don’t be afraid”. After the death of Thomas Wayne, his loyal butler Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) takes the void left by Thomas and is a father figure to Bruce. Michael Caine is brilliant throughout the trilogy. He is perfect as Alfred and comes off as witty, funny, and genuinely caring for Bruce as if he is his own son. Alfred’s role in Bruce’s life is perfectly illustrated in a flashback when Bruce has been kicked out of Princeton for poor behavior and returns home to attend Joe Chill’s parole hearing. Bruce is still very angry about his parent’s death. In a juvenile temper tantrum, he screams that he would tear down Wayne Manor if he had it his way as the mansion presumably reminds him of his parents and the pain of losing them. Moreover, he berates Alfred for caring as it is not his family. As such, Alfred responds “I give a damn because a good man once made me responsible for what precious to him in the whole world” and “I wouldn’t presume to tell you what to do with your past, sir. Just know that there are those of us who care about what you do with your future.” As Thomas Wayne was a great man, Alfred feels obligated to honor him by taking care of Bruce and guiding him to be a great man like his father. It is a role that Alfred is completely devoted to throughout the trilogy.
Another central character in Bruce’s life that also serves as a moral compass is Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes). Rachel is his childhood friend and they grew up together at Wayne Manor. She moves out shortly after the death of Bruce’s parents. However, she grows up to work for Gotham’s district attorney. As such, she is involved in the parole hearing for Joe Chill and returns to Wayne Manor to try to explain to Bruce that they are striking to deal with Chill. He shared a jail cell with crime boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) and can provide testimony that can convict Falcone. Nevertheless, Bruce’s anger from the murder of his parents rages and he intends to go to the public hearing with a handgun to kill Chill himself. However, Falcone sends an assassin to kill Chill before Bruce can. As Rachel is also at the hearing, she consoles Bruce after he witnesses the death of his parents’ killer. Bruce admits that he wanted to get justice for his parents by killing Chill. However, Rachel explains to him that justice is “harmony” and not about revenge. She also drives Bruce around Gotham to show him how desperate and corrupt the city has become as organized crime has taken it over. Moreover, she makes a plea to Bruce to be the great man she believed he could be before his life was derailed by tragedy: “What chance does Gotham have when the good people do nothing?” However, Bruce tells Rachel that he is not one of the good people and shows her the gun he was concealing. Distraught that Bruce has been consumed and destroyed by pain and anger, Rachel slaps him and says that his father would be ashamed of him. In my opinion, this moment is the most significant scene in the movie. At this point in Bruce’s life, he is faced with a decision to go down the wrong path or change direction and be the man his father would have wanted him to be. As such, Rachel’s role is critical as she is the person Bruce loves and the one person that could get through to him. Katie Holmes does a solid job as Rachel. While she does have moments where she is a little stiff, she does a very good job playing an incorruptible idealist. She also has her great moments and this scene is one of them.
Bruce is faced with a similar decision at the end of his training with the League of Shadows. Ducard and Ra’s Al Guhl (Ken Watanabe) reveal to Bruce that they intend to destroy Gotham because it is so corrupt that it is beyond saving. The League of Shadows does not tolerate evil whatsoever. It does not believe in any country’s justice system and believes that evil needs to be completely eradicated by any means necessary. In the words of Ducard, “Crime cannot be tolerated. Criminals thrive on the indulgence of society’s understanding.” Since Bruce has influence and connections in Gotham, he will be instrumental in their cause. To test Bruce’s commitment to the League, they ask Bruce to execute a murderer via beheading. However, Rachel had already steered Bruce away from this path. As such, he betrays the League of Shadows, burns its temple down, and Ra’s Al Guhl dies in the fire. However, he does save Ducard.
Afterwards, Bruce contacts Alfred, who arrives on a private jet to bring Bruce home to Gotham. During the flight, Bruce explains to Alfred his plans to fight crime. However, he will not do it as Bruce Wayne. As he learned from the League of Shadows, he needs to become more than a man: “As a symbol, I can be incorruptible.” In a comical exchange, Alfred asks if the purpose of the symbol is to hide Bruce’s identity to protect the people he cares about. Bruce asks Alfred if he is referring to Rachel and Alfred answers that he is thinking about himself. Nevertheless, Alfred agrees to help Bruce with his plan and is his right hand man. When they return to Wayne Manor, Alfred shows Bruce the caverns beneath the premises, where Bruce encounters and faces his fear of bats. Consequently, he decides to share his fear with criminals by becoming Batman. Alfred is side by side with Bruce as they build the Batcave and acquire the supplies needed for Bruce to become Batman. More importantly, Alfred offers sage advice along the way. For example, Bruce is so obsessed with becoming and being Batman that he forgets the responsibilities of being a Wayne and the need to still be Bruce Wayne. Since Bruce is a Wayne, he has certain etiquette expected of him by the public. Near the end of the movie, Bruce is dismissive of his birthday party since he is solely focused on his duties as Batman and wants Alfred to send all the guests home. However, Alfred reminds him that “Those are Bruce Wayne’s guests. You have a name to maintain. It’s not just your name, sir. It’s your father’s name. And it’s all that’s left of him. Don’t destroy it.” While Bruce pretends to be apathetic and selfish, he starts to understand the importance of his family name near the end of the movie. Alfred also wisely points out the need for the Bruce Wayne persona as an alibi. Bruce needs to be visible and have a social life so that people do not deduce that he is Batman. To this end, Alfred suggests that Bruce “Drive sports cars, date movie stars. Buy things that are not for sale. Who knows, Master Wayne, you start pretending to have fun. You might even have a little by accident.” Ironically, when Rachel sees Bruce masquerading as a playboy, she is disappointed and tells him that “Bruce, deep down you may still be that same great kid you used to be. But it’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.” Her words are very powerful lines in the movie. As noted above, the purpose of Batman is to be a symbol defined by his actions and not by the person performing them. It is a point that is reinforced during each film of Nolan’s trilogy.
Batman also needs allies to help fight crime. Rachel plays an important role in the prosecution of criminals because she works in the DA office and is the only person with the courage to proceed with prosecutions while everyone else is afraid of the mob since it has control of the city. Another key ally is Sergeant James Gordon (Gary Oldman), who is the police officer that comforted Bruce when his parents died by putting a jacket over him and telling him that everything will be okay. Accordingly, Bruce already trusts him. Moreover, the police department is corrupt and a lot of its officers also work for or take bribes from the mob. For this reason, it is important for Batman to have a police officer on his side who he knows is not corrupt. Oldman is a strong supporting actor and distinguishes himself as the iconic Jim Gordon. He is one of the best characters throughout the entire trilogy. Another great supporting character is Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). Fox was previously on the Board of Directors of Wayne Enterprises. However, CEO William Earle (Rutger Hauer) removed Fox from the Board and into Applied Science so he could not cause any more problems on the Board. While Earle is certainly not a villain, he is definitely trying to maximize the profits of the company. While his decisions are not unethical, they are certainly not in line with the beliefs of the Wayne family nor would they be decisions Thomas Wayne would have even considered. First, he has Bruce declared dead during his 7 year disappearance so he could take the company public. Moreover, he brings Wayne Enterprises into the defense industry. As Fox is an idealist with the highest moral and ethical standards, it is clear that he acted as a Devil’s Advocate when he was on the Board and challenged every decision Earle made. Nevertheless, Fox is also a brilliant biochemist and mechanical engineer. When Bruce returns to Gotham, he builds a strong relationship with Fox. Fox helps Bruce build his armory which includes the Kevlar suit, cape that allows Batman to float, and the Tumbler (Nolan’s version of the Batmobile). Another great attribute of Fox as a character is that he always has wise cracks. For example, when Bruce initially gives phony reasons for why he needs the items and pleads for Fox’s discretion in keeping it a secret, Fox responds “Mr. Wayne, if you don’t want to tell me exactly what you’re doing, when I’m asked, I don’t have to lie. But don’t think of me as an idiot.” Freeman plays the character flawless in the trilogy and turned a lesser known character into an iconic one. With these three allies, Batman starts his war against crime with the first big catch being the arrest of Carmine Falcone.
While the League of Shadows and Ra’s Al Guhl are the antagonists of the first part of the movie, Dr. Johnathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), better known as Scarecrow, is the antagonist in the middle of the film. Nolan and Murphy did a good job in developing a realistic portrayal of the Scarecrow as opposed to the cartoonish one. In this universe, Crane is the head psychiatrist of Arkham Asylum. He is corrupt and works with the mob. As a result, he consistently testifies that Falcone’s men are insane so he can move them into his Asylum to avoid jail time. Consistent with the movie’s theme of fear, Crane’s weapon of choice is a fear and panic inducing toxin, which Falcone is unknowingly smuggling into Gotham for Crane in return of his favors. When Falcone is arrested and facing prosecution, Crane sprays him with his toxin so he can declare him insane, move him into his Asylum, and keep him from talking to police. However, Rachel consistently challenges Crane in the movie. As she is furious that Falcone is avoiding prosecution by being admitted to the Asylum, she goes to the Asylum to investigate and Crane realizes she will soon lead the authorities to his Asylum and ruin his plan. Before she can leave, Crane shows her that they are dumping his toxins into the water supply before spraying her with a lethal dose of it. However, she told Bruce she was going to be at the Asylum and he followed her as Batman. When Crane realizes Batman is in the Asylum, he orders his men to call the police. It is a brilliant tactic because the police can no longer stop the plot and has a better chance to take down Batman. As the police surround the Asylum, Batman uses a device to call on a swarm of bats to cover his escape while Gordon helps carry Rachel outside to Batman’s Tumbler. It leads to the best action sequence of the movie as the Tumbler tramples cop cars, flies on top roof tops, and evades the police on the freeway. Batman successfully returns to the Batcave in time with Rachel to give her the antidote Fox developed when Batman was poisoned by Crane earlier in the movie.
Of course, we find out that Crane is only a pawn when he reveals to Batman he is working for Ra’s Al Guhl. When Bruce returns home to entertain his guests at his birthday party, Fox informs Bruce that Wayne Enterprises had a microwave emitter stolen that can vaporize a water supply. As a result, they deduce the method for which the League of Shadows will release the toxins into the air so the inhabitants of Gotham will destroy themselves and their city. Moments later, Bruce is introduced by a guest to Ra’s Al Guhl, which is Ducard’s true identity. Seeing Bruce’s stunned reaction, Ducard says “But is Ra’s al Ghul immortal? Are his methods supernatural?” In the comics, Ra’s is able to live for ages because of Lazarus’s Pits that act like a Fountain of Youth. In the trilogy, Nolan gives a realistic interpretation of that concept with Ra’s having decoys and successors. After Bruce pretends to be a spoiled brat and insults his party guests so they leave thus saving their lives, Ra’s laments to Bruce that “You were my greatest student. It should be you standing by my side saving the world” before setting Bruce’s house on fire and leaving him for dead similar to what Bruce had earlier done with Ra’s temple. Nevertheless, Alfred saves Bruce. As Bruce watches Wayne Manor burn, he is distraught that he allowed his family legacy to be destroyed and finally understands what Alfred was trying to protect all these years. However, Alfred reminds Bruce that “The Wayne legacy is more than bricks and mortar”. He also reminds Bruce the most important lesson his father thought him: the reason we fall is so we can pick ourselves up. Reminded of those lessons and inspired that Alfred has never given up on Bruce, Batman eventually stops Ra’s and the League of Shadows with the help of Gordon. Ra’s dies in the end when Bruce does not make the same mistake again by saving Ra’s again. As a result, Batman finds a loophole in his belief of not killing.
During the chaos in the Narrows when the toxins were being released, Rachel saves a boy from Scarecrow by tasering him. For Game of Thrones fans, that boy was played by a young Jack Gleeson who currently plays Joffrey Barontheon. Nevertheless, the League of Shadows also released all the inmates at Arkham. After Batman neutralizes some inmates to save Rachel, she asks what Batman’s real name is in case he dies. In one of the best moments in the movie, he responds “It’s not who I am underneath but what I do that defines me”, cryptically revealing to Rachel that he is Bruce. As Rachel watches Batman fly away to save the city, she has look of surprise and pride as she realizes Bruce is still the great person that she knew as a child and has become him again. Like the two sequels, Batman Begins has a great ending. First, Bruce buys a majority of the shares of Wayne Enterprise that went public and appoints Fox as the CEO replacing Earle. Consequently, Bruce ensures that his family’s business is run by a man who will further his family’s vision as well as aid him in his fight against crime. In the burned out chars of Wayne Manor, Rachel embraces Bruce and apologizes for the terrible things she said when Joe Chill died. However, Bruce thanks Rachel since he needed to hear those things. Bringing things in full circles, Rachel happily admits she was wrong and that his father would be proud of Bruce. Moreover, she tells him that “I never stopped thinking about you. About us. And when I heard you were back, I started to hope. But then I found out about your mask… Your real face is the one that criminals now fear. The man I loved… The man who vanished… He never came back at all. But maybe he’s still but there somewhere. Maybe someday, when Gotham no longer needs Batman, I’ll see him again.” These comments will play a key part of events in both sequels.
Finally, Batman meets with Gordon, who gets a promotion from sergeant to lieutenant. In their conversation, Gordon warns of escalation as the criminals always respond with more extreme measures. He hints at a new threat: “Now, take this guy: Armed robbery, double homicide. Got a taste for the theatrical, like you. Leaves a calling card.” Of course, that calling card is the Joker card reveals the villain for the sequel, The Dark Knight. When I originally saw that it would be the Joker, I got really excited as the Joker is one of the greatest villains and Batman’s greatest enemy. Then, I immediately felt depressed as I thought it would be impossible for Nolan to find someone who could play the Joker better than Jack Nicholson did. Of course, Nolan [with the help of Heath Ledger] would prove me wrong again.