Debunking Entertainment Weekly’s terrible assessment of Batman Begins.

Christian Bale in Batman Begins. ©Warner Bros. Pictures.

Since the social media bubble burst to unexpected heights in the 2000s and 2010s, Batman has remained one of the most consistently trending characters in popular media thanks to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and the DC Extended Universe. With Matt Reeves’ The Batman swiftly approaching, pop culture webzines and robust journalism outlets are posting routine analysis and reappraisals of earlier films.

Some reviews so far have been solid, but then comes Darren Franich at Entertainment Weekly. He has published retrospective reviews for every major live-action Batman installment thus far, but his condescending superiority came out swinging with yesterday’s assessment for Batman Begins in “Batman Rewatch: How did we ever take Batman Begins seriously?”. Here’s what Darren Franich has to say regarding Christopher Nolan’s 2005 reboot, especially considering that Buzzfeed-tier headline, and why the majority of his points are false.

“Bruce Wayne! Fights six men at once, and wins. Bruce Wayne! Ascends a frozen mountain with no climbing tools. Bruce Wayne! Is the best ninja. Bruce Wayne! Climbs back down the frozen mountain, with no tools, carrying a Liam Neeson on his shoulders. Maybe it wasn’t six men; maybe it was seven? Hard to tell.”

Wow, what a surprise. Batman is someone who competently fights many criminals at once and typically wins; that’s difficult to grasp. Franich’s Cinemasins logic omits the fact that this scene establishes Bruce Wayne as someone whose raw combat skills, gradually harnessed from traveling the world for seven years, are going to be expanded upon in his training to become Batman. Henri Ducard/Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) clarifies to Bruce that he counted six men, and the frantic cinematography of that scene works in its favor. The frozen mountain that we see Bruce climb isn’t terribly tall, so the usage of professional tools wasn’t necessary. Bruce’s strength in carrying Henri Ducard works in his favor due to his immense strength and survival instinct after the destruction of the League of Shadows’ temple. It’s not much different from people who commit grand feats of strength in real life, firefighters being able to carry people out of burning buildings, or wrestlers picking up people nearly equal to their size. Bane in The Dark Knight Rises was able to lift Batman and dislocate his vertebrae due to being much stronger and heavier than him, which is comparable to the former scene in Batman Begins.

“When they rumble in the mud, the camera lurches and the editing chops. You can’t quite see what is happening, which is why certain learned people swear Christopher Nolan can’t film action. You have to remember, though, this was the new millennium. Everyone was shaken.”

“Certain learned people”? and “Everyone was shaken”? That’s quite some incompetent word usage for a writer working on behalf of Entertainment Weekly. Besides that, Christopher Nolan has proven throughout his filmography that he’s capable of filming action; many of his combat scenes can be aggressive and excellently staged, though they offer mixed results at times. Batman Begins’ shaky camera does become jarring at times (Batman’s final confrontation with Ra’s al Ghul) but other times the hard-and-fast editing works in favor of suspense and emphasizes Batman’s stealth and combat (his first appearance at Gotham City’s docks).

“Bruce Wayne, the only white guy in prison, is so tough, the guards have to throw him in solitary to protect his fellow inmates. “Can they kill me before breakfast?” is the first full sentence Christian Bale says onscreen. You could imagine that line coming from Tango or Cash. Of course, no one ever told Tango and Cash they had to become an idea.”

Sure, Bruce Wayne is the only white guy in the Bhutan prison, but it’s relevant to his experiences traveling the world and his imprisonment that’d motivate his quest for justice. His line “Can they kill me before breakfast?” might seem cheesy, but people talk like this in real life, and it was realistic for the situation given Bruce’s sardonic attitude that’s persistent throughout the film.

“By 2005, the lingering image of Movie Batman was a faded Xerox memory of Austrian raygun ice. It was a beneficial comparison, and the initial reactions to Nolan’s reboot took bites from the same word salad: Dark, gritty, realistic. (9/11, question mark?) None of that reads today.”

The zeitgeist certainly has shifted since 2005, but by the logic that Batman Begins supposedly doesn’t read today, then you might as well dismiss the majority of movies released before 2010 as being “dated”. Batman Begins doesn’t encapsulate the same timelessness that its sequels would seamlessly elicit, but it’s to be expected given this was a franchise starter. Movies can exist as time capsules of their time period and still be considered classics without adhering to every latter-day trend. The Dark Knight trilogy is set in a world of operatic scale with elements of hyperreality; realism in these films is relative, not absolute.

“Neeson gets to play a big twist, and the film’s success careened his career into a road well Taken. But Ra’s al Ghul could be any random 24 bad guy, a zero-sum Ultra bin Laden shorn of any actual geopolitics. Here’s an Irish guy with a fake French name and a (real?) Arabic name who employs at least two Asian body doubles: I dunno, dude.”

It’s implied that, given the existence of the League of Shadows for hundreds of years, Henri Ducard inherited the title of Ra’s al Ghul from the leader who came before him. As seen in The Dark Knight Rises, he was initiated into the League of Shadows after being released from The Pit, took leadership of the League, and freed his daughter Talia al Ghul along with Bane; thus his Arabic name is not his real name. It’s also implied that all three of them are of Middle-Eastern descent. Ra’s and Talia don’t necessarily require Arabic accents. Where else was your point supposed to go? Moving on.

“The screenplay was co-written by David S. Goyer, who is awful. So I feel confident giving Nolan all the credit for the most interesting layer Begins adds to Batman.”

Given how nitpicky and obtuse this review is, credit can be given that David S. Goyer is not a masterful screenwriter. Rarely does he truly slam dunk, but Batman Begins is a noteworthy exception, especially since Christopher Nolan assisted. Jonathan Nolan’s input alongside his brother on The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises retroactively rendered Batman Begins the weakest in this trilogy, but given Goyer’s track record it’s nothing short of a miracle that this film is as consistent as it is.

“Keep in mind, the actor has complained about the Bat-suit: A neck that won’t turn, that very catchable cape, layers of rubber corset, zero peripheral vision. You cannot see straight or move painlessly. The bathroom requires backup. That is Batman realism.”

This is also a valid point. The restrictions of Batman’s suit cause its value to diminish in his first appearance in The Dark Knight and led to the creation of his new suit which is far more flexible, agile, and suitable for a ninja crusader. Contrary to what petty fanboys have stated, being bulkier doesn’t automatically mean that a leaner Batman is bad (a complaint that apparently only gets directed at Batman in the Dark Knight sequels). Sometimes, less is more.

“This is not that. Bruce Wayne is a handsome hero billionaire who knows Jiu-Jitsu and learns swordplay, and then he tries out a Tom Waits impression in a futuristic battle suit.”

Ah, more flexing on your indifference (or resentment?) towards the essentials of what Batman is as a character (minus the voice, which is a more subjective matter).

“In death, Bruce’s parents become society-rescuing martyrs. “Their murder shocked the wealthy and the powerful into action,” Alfred tells Bruce. Is it cynical to assume that, in real life, the murder of two well-heeled wealthies would actually inspire the wealthy and powerful to fund law-and-order campaigns from their summer homes?”

Not exactly. Many wealthy people and philanthropists have been investing in the welfare of society for centuries, but due to countless reasons and circumstances in and out of their control, society continues to fluctuate in prosperity, crime, and misery at the expense of the middle-class and the poor. For the universe of this trilogy, the murders of the Waynes inspired many wealthy people to take more action, but they didn’t affect much in the long run due to Gotham City still being depressed and crime-ridden from after the deaths of Bruce’s parents all the way to when Bruce returns to Gotham and becomes Batman; much of this is thanks to the rampant corruption of the wealthy and judicial system, which were in the hands of the Falcone crime family in the first two films. Gotham’s welfare only visibly improves in The Dark Knight than superficially in The Dark Knight Rises; as shown in the latter film, many of the wealthy are actually detached from the struggles of the lower-class, which comes to a head when Bane and Talia al Ghul’s faux revolution punishes and executes a number of them for this, etc. This trilogy doesn’t side with the wealthy; Bruce Wayne/Batman isn’t always in the right either, but it’s not due to bad screenwriting, it’s because the films explore the flaws of every character and aspect of Gotham’s society.

“Ever-serpentine Murphy had to play decoy duck for the big Neeson twist, which relegates him to henchman status.”

Cillian Murphy’s Jonathan Crane is the least compelling of all of the major antagonists in the Dark Knight trilogy, but his status as a secondary antagonist is irrelevant and doesn’t diminish his key role in the overall plot, Bruce Wayne’s arc, and the film’s central theme of fear. His sophisticated usage of science in favor of diminishing the citizens of Gotham City towards eventual genocide is fascinating.

“Tim Burton’s Gotham was unknowable, with an expressionist backdrop never quite in focus. Its citizens were lonely and sarcastic. In Batman Begins, even minor characters have been briefed on our hero’s internal struggle. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) is not just the last honest cop in Gotham, he’s the last honest cop in Gotham who wrapped Thomas’ coat around freshly grieving Bruce.”

Comparisons between Tim Burton’s Gotham City, for all its merits, and any other version of Batman’s world are irrelevant because many versions have their own sense of identity for better or worse. Granted, Batman Begins perhaps does place too much emphasis on Bruce Wayne’s status in the city, but it was necessary to establish for the sake of this film, and it’s organically built upon in the following sequels. James Gordon’s isolation as one of the few honest police officers in the GCPD not only serves Batman, but his integrity as a man who serves justice (which is subverted and challenged in The Dark Knight Rises). Removing Gordon’s connection to Bruce Wayne as a boy would rob them of their personal connection throughout the trilogy in addition to their cathartic farewell during the climax of The Dark Knight Rises. All three films acknowledge that the world is more vast than Bruce himself. (Especially since he’s not recognized outside Gotham City; how many European billionaires can you recognize in public?). It’s made explicitly clear from Batman Begins through The Dark Knight Rises that Bruce’s role as Batman would only be temporary, so he dedicated all three films to committing what he can of his body and soul to saving Gotham before his reign expires.

“The patriarchal thing is not subtle. Martha (Sara Stewart) barely speaks, whereas Thomas gets the full-blown This Is Us treatment, so many quick cuts of happy memories. Bruce calls Wayne Manor “my father’s house.” Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), the worrisomely forgettable childhood-friend-turned-lawyer, tells him: “Your father would be ashamed of you.” “It’s not just your name, it’s your father’s name,” is how Alfred chastises Bruce.”

This is mostly warranted. Martha Wayne should’ve been given more screentime, but her integrity as a benefactor to Gotham’s welfare and her role as a mother isn’t forgotten in the least (especially in The Dark Knight Rises). There are only a minimal amount of flashbacks to Thomas, and they place necessary emphasis on him due to his close bond with Bruce before his death alongside Martha, and the lessons that Bruce learns from him that [retroactively] pay off in The Dark Knight Rises. Keep in mind that apart from the flashback to Thomas using his stethoscope on Bruce, the only flashbacks to Thomas and Martha take place in one day. Martha’s death and significance are no less important than Thomas, if not emphasized enough in dialogue. (For the scene where Thomas Wayne tends to Bruce in his bedroom after falling into the well of bats, the writers should’ve swapped out Thomas with Martha.)

Is it rude to admit that I think Thomas and Martha are just boring? The movies’ constant fascination with their deaths seems more cheap than empathetic. (The best Bat-films barely mention them at all.)

“The best Bat-films barely mention them at all.”: Sure, let’s discount one of the most crucial aspects of Bruce Wayne’s backstory in favor of other characters or antagonists such as The Joker, and we know how much fans can’t get enough of him after countless portrayals that outnumber weightier depictions of Bruce’s parents like that of Batman Begins. (According to the doctrine of certain fans, The Dark Knight Rises’ entire identity is ruined by the Joker’s absence and Heath Ledger’s unfortunate passing, as if he has more supremacy than every other character including Bruce’s parents.) Unlike the films of Tim Burton, Joel Schumacher, or other incarnations of the characters, Bruce’s parents are given urgency towards the state of Gotham, Bruce’s life, and (while not entirely successful) individualism as characters rather than people whose claim to fame in the Batman canon are that they’re already dead. If there are any shortcomings to The Dark Knight, the lack of references to Bruce’s parents (and even the League of Shadows) unintentionally gives it the trappings of a stand-alone sequel, whereas The Dark Knight Rises embraced the legacy of Bruce’s parents and both of its predecessors.

“I think a better defense of Begins would steer into that Oedipal skid. Here’s an adventure film about a boy who wants to kill his father, and succeeds. All subconscious, though just barely. An orphaned wanderer finds a new paternal mentor. The climax fuses his two papas into one: See Ra’s al Ghul, on Thomas Wayne’s train, aiming his disaster weapon right at the tower with “your father’s name” looming stories high. So what does Batman do? He gets daddy’s train blown off the rails and lets his dark father die in the wreckage. This isn’t a tragedy. It’s Mission Accomplished.”

Concluding this review with more petty trivialization towards Bruce’s backstory and his parents’ deaths is partly what makes Darren Franich’s assessment less of a genuine review and more of an ill-informed attempt at clickbait. If this was his subconscious goal, though just barely, then mission accomplished.

Independent filmmaker and writer of and on cinema.

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Hunter Smith

Hunter Smith

Independent filmmaker and writer of and on cinema.

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