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Judge Dan Mancini • Location: Tucker, GA
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The Dark Knight Arrives
June 20th, 2005 6:08AM

Bats.

We've finally got a Batman movie with bats. And lots of them.

Seeing the scene from Frank Miller's Batman: Year One in which a cornered Dark Knight calls in a thick, roiling cloud of bats as backup recreated on the big screen was one of the most thrilling moments of Batman Begins, and just one example of how Christopher Nolan and company have finally delivered a Batman movie that captures the atmosphere of the best years of the comic book. Finally.

I've only seen it once, but Batman Begins may be my favorite film adaptation of a comic book ever. My initial reaction, anyway, is that I liked it more than either of the X-Men movies. A lot more. And, unlike Richard Donner's mostly excellent adaptation of Superman, I liked it from beginning to end.

Critics are going on and on about how Begins is darker and more somber than the Burton/Schumacher series. That's true, but what impressed me is how perfectly they nailed the character of Batman/Bruce Wayne. As in the earlier series, there's a fine psychological line dividing Batman and Gotham's villains, but it's a clearly delineated line, one of which the Dark Knight is fully cognizant. Nolan and screenwriter David Goyer have returned Batman's nobility. No longer a Burtonesque wackjob seeking vengeance on behalf of his parents, he's a man pursuing justice, viciously but with a moral clarity capable of winning the trust of Gotham's only good cop, Jim Gordon. That Nolan and Goyer were able to rediscover Batman's nobility while shaping a characterization more complex than the Burton/Schumacher take is what makes Batman Begins so great. It flies in the face of the current comic book movie vogue that heroes must be weak, conflicted, morally confused. Batman/Bruce Wayne is strong and focused (though occasionally unsteady as he learns his trade), yet far more compelling a character than, say, Wolverine, or the quirky/nutty/disturbed Wayne of the previous Batman flicks.

On a technical level, Nolan does something incredibly interesting and thematically resonant. He gives us long looks at the individual pieces of Batman's costume -- we see lingering shots of the body armor, the mask, the gauntlets -- but he hides the caped crusader in action. Draping him in shadow, he keeps the camera a step behind as though the action sequences were shot by a documentarian unable to keep up with the Dark Knight's quick and unpredictable movements. When Batman's stationary, he's presented either in iconic silhouette, or tight close-up -- either way we never get a good look at the full costume on Wayne. As noted in various reviews, Nolan and Goyer establish a fairly firm logic to Batman's outfit and tools, and how he acquires them. What's not noted is how effectively this serves Nolan's expressionistic approach to presenting the crime fighter on the go. The whole man is bigger and more mysterious than the sum of his parts, and for the first time in a Batman movie we understand why criminals fear him. We had to take it on faith in Burton's version, but not in Nolan's. In Begins, Batman is a terrifying monster, and Nolan uses a lot of subjective camera work and sound design to emphasize the criminals' experience of him. Batman's Gotham debut takes place on a shadowy dock and feels like a scene from Alien; the criminals sweat bullets as they hear the inhuman skittering sounds of something moving all around them, and their cohorts are devoured by the dark. Later, when Batman questions Gordon's corrupt partner, Flass, we hear our hero's voice not as it is, but as Flass hears it -- and it's absolutely terrifying.

Batman Begins is the epic tale the character deserved, three hours of story squeezed into two by tight scripting and Nolan's honed skill at manipulating narrative time. Best of all, it feels like the Batman comics I read as a kid in the '70s: shadowy, mysterious, a little scary, and with touches of the surreal.

We finally have a Batman movie with Batman.


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