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Pondering Batman Begins

The first choice to be faced when making a Batman film (or any other superhero film) is to whether it should be played for laughs or played straight. This Batman film tries to play it straight and I think that is the right choice. It is harder to play a superhero film straight but that is the spirit in which the stories were written and enjoyed.

Critics will not tend to like a straight superhero film (for example they hated the Bruce Willis film Unbreakable, which I would argue is a very fine film indeed), but it is the way to go, and the Spiderman films showed that critics and public can accept it (sometimes). The character of Batman is less difficult to present in one way, in that he is a superhero with no superpowers.

So one is left (in the comics) with a man of great inherited wealth, who is man of practical invention, physical action and great public spirit. Well John Walton (who died a few days ago) was a man of great inherited wealth who choose to join the army and served (as a medic) with U.S. Army Special Forces in Vietnam, he was also an inventor (no sneering about how he died in an aircraft he built himself – his stuff was good quality), and a man who administered the Walton family charitable activities. Of course John Walton did not go out and fight crime, in the big city, in an armoured suit shaped to scare the criminals (for a start he did not like big cities), but the rest of his life story shows that the Bruce Wayne character idea is certainly not “unbelievable”

Batman Begins decides that all of the above is too much for one man and so has Mr Wayne helped by a scientist in his company – but again that is hardly an absurd position. Where the film does stain belief is that Mr Wayne owns his company and in these days of inheritance tax and capital gains tax, having a man inherit control and keep it even after a determined effort to “take the company public” (i.e. hand over ownership to the pension funds and other financial institutions) by the hired manager… that strains belief. A man may build up a big company from scratch (in spite of all the regualtions and taxes) as the first Mr Walton of Walmart showed, and has such men as Mike Dell or (for all their faults) Warren Buffett or Bill Gates have shown – but it is a full time job. Also a family that does not own a majority of stock can still try and make its presence felt, but again it is a full time struggle.

The modern “business model” is for hired managers to boost a companies profits by borrowing vast sums of money to fund investment (and just about everything else), boost the stock price and then move on (having cashed in their stock options) before the matter of paying back the loans becomes pressing. Their pay and perks are secure because such things (for hired top managers) are decided by committees of other hired top managers (and they sit on their remuneration committees).

Should a family member start to worry that products are unreliable, and that asset buying orgies (and…) have been financed by building up vast debts he will find it a major effort to try and regain control. The example of Henry Clay Ford springs to mind – such journals as the “Economist” are still outraged that the wicked Mr Ford turned against the hired managers on the grounds that the cars were unreliable and the company had been loaded down with debt.

The idea of a man inheriting a vast company, still being in control of its broad line of policy, but having time for very intense private interests smacks more of late 19th century or early 20th century America when taxes were lower and the eldest son of a big businessman was more likely to find himself the true owner of a concern, than to find himself a “trust fund kid” with enough money to live his life in idealness, but not enough for a very expensive undertaking (such as Batman’s war on crime).

The film does make one nod to this reality. In talking of Batman’s father one of the characters (and a good guy character at that) does make the point that the late Mr Wayne’s efforts to help the poor almost bankrupted the company.

The late Mr Wayne had told his son that he did not work in the Wayne Tower (he works in the hospital). In such an environment the hired manager has to take over – and if he is not perfect, the man who choose him (the late Mr Wayne) is partly to blame.

Generations of Waynes (like generations of Du Ponts) have built up vast company with enough top quality products and top quality people to let them use some of their time to do other things – but even in fiction a man who neglects his company is doing more harm to the poor than any amount of work in the hospital or building a mono rail is going to balance out.

The leading bad guy in the film tells Bruce Wayne that his father was responsible for his own death and for the death of Bruce Wayne’s mother – because he would not fight. The late Mr Wayne tried to reason with the criminal (after all he was a poor victim of the depression), but sometimes there is no reasoning with people and the “reasons they are doing this” simply do not matter.

The argument is cruel (after all, the late Mr Wayne was unarmed and untrained – as his son points out), but it has more than a grain of truth in it. And the film is right to expose the flaws in the late Mr Wayne – he is less of a cardboard cut-out that way.

However, to spot all these points is difficult as (at times) the film makes the standard modern Hollywood mistake of indistinct speech. Dialogue is no good if people can not hear it, and I am not prepared to accept that is just because I am middle aged man. After all I can hear every word of Hollywood films made before the last few decades.

Not having the camera on the person who is speaking is dumb (and it does happen sometimes), as is not pushing down background noise when someone is speaking. Certainly such a thing is “unrealistic” – but this is film, and it is an accepted artistic convention of film (or used to be) that explosions and shooting go quiet when someone has something important to say. This is because we are not actually with the person and can not say things like “what was that?”

And of course a few of the actors fail to project their lines (this is better than most modern Hollywood films, where many of the actors fail to project their lines). The arch non-projector is Katie Holmes. The final lines when she states that the reason she can not be with Bruce Wayne because his face is a mask (the real face being the face of Batman), should be powerful – but their power is undercut by the fact that they are so poorly delivered.

Katie Holmes is indeed (as the reviewers have pointed out) more of a milk monitor than an assistant D.A. No adult could regard her as a threat (regardless of her taser) and she would be more likely to inspire mirth than plots to kill her. However, at one point Holmes is let down by the film. Her character is drugged with a chemical already shown to drive people insane with terror, and she is given a super strong dose – which makes her stare a bit whilst being a passenger in a car chase and then makes her a bit sleepy (sorry she is about to die, accept that it does not seem like that at all).

Everyone else who is given the drug (including Batman) has terrible visions, but Katie Holmes character does not seem to have any visions at all – at least there are no special effects for her (as there are for every other victim),

Another place where special effects (or at least some ordinary scenes) would be useful, is near the end of the film where we are told (again indistinctly – this time by honest cop Gordon) that although Batman has saved most of the city from the gas that drives people insane “we have lost the Narrows”, i.e. the district where the gas was first released.. As the bad guys wanted, the people have turned on each other in the horror of their madness.

However, we are not shown what is left of the Narrows – and that would bring home to us that Batman’s victory has not been total (nor should it be – Batman is the ‘Dark Knight’, not a fairy godmother who can fix everything by waving a wand).

Lastly the chief bad guys themselves.

These are not organised crime (although they are certainly an evil force in the city), or even corrupt businessmen (the chief hired manager at Wayne Enterprises does not really do anything really evil at all – he just tries to cover things up and protect his own backside, he may have side-lined and then fired Wayne Industries’ best scientist – but he does not want to kill anyone). It is even confessed near the end of the film that the economic problems of the city (the depression) had nothing to do with greedy businessmen. True the film does not say “the depression was created by the Fed, generating a boom-bust credit bubble cycle”, any more than it says “lawyers are more important in modern corporations than engineers, because of all the regulations and corrupted tort law” – but one can not have everything.

The chief bad guys are a nice choice (for all that they are sneered at by the reviewers).

The “League of Shadows” are what the “Sith” should have been – bad guys who seem to be good guys.

They rescue you from despair, they train you in the arts of combat, they stress their absolute devotion to justice. And only when you have killed for them do you find out that they are prepared to tell any lie and make up any story to further their power – and that are prepared to destroy anything that does not live up to their standards.

The City is corrupt? Fine, destroy it utterly (killing millions) and do so in such a way that will inspire horror all over the world. Do not use a stolen microwave weapon to kill everyone – no, they use it to set spread a gas that will drive them mad so they kill each other. A love of horror for its own sake and for a practical purpose – to inspire fear.

One can snear that this is “unrealistic”, but actually it is a very realistic mindset indeed, one we have seen all too often.

6 comments to Pondering Batman Begins

  • The Riddler

    Wouldn’t it be polite to put ‘spoiler alert’ at the top of this article.

  • snide

    I think the title makes it pretty obvious that the movie is going to be examined and so anyone not wanting to know the plot should avoid clicking “read more”

  • The Happy Rampager

    Everyone else who is given the drug (including Batman) has terrible visions, but Katie Holmes character does not seem to have any visions at all – at least there are no special effects for her (as there are for every other victim),

    Not true, when the Scarecrow first blasts her with the gas we get a lovely POV shot of the Scarecrow’s mask wriggling with maggots. Batman soon arrives to rescue her, and she’s fortunate enough to only have visions of the view outside the speeding Tumbler’s window.

    Pedantry. Sorry!

  • Brendan Halfweeg

    I completely agree with your review, this has got to be one of the best movies I’ve seen in a while. Katie Holmes had the weakest character, but you can’t fault Tom Cruise for his taste in beautiful women.

    Did anyone else notice the overwhelmingly British and Irish cast? What is going on in Hollywood, they run out of Australians to play Americans?

    I never did understand why the CEO was so demonized, all he did was defend his position and make redundant the manager of an unprofitable department, hardly evil. If he’d conspired to sell the microwave weapon to the Shadows guys, well maybe, but he didn’t. Floating a company and sacking people is hardly a stringing up offence.

    My only grip was that they seemed to take all the gothic out of Gotham City, something the original movie had in spades.

  • It should be noted that John Walton’s father was only a successful local businessman at the time John was serving in the military.

  • Paul Marks

    John Walton could have got out of military service (at least service in Vietnam) and his miltary record was a fine one.

    However, I accept that I gave the impression that Sam Walton was a big businessman back in the 1960′s – and I apologize for giving such a false impression.

    I also apologize for forgetting the visions that Katie Holmes’ character has. However they are not enough – we should have been shown more of the character’s experience of the car ride.

    Spoiler alert? On reflection, perhaps so. I assumed that anybody who read the piece would know I would discuss the plot – but it is often wrong to assume things about people.

    On the Gothic point: The choice of Chicago has been attacked by many.

    I can see it both ways, on the one side it might have been nice to have a more Gothic city. But on the other side there was a clear desire to make the city a believable modern place.

    Still if the film people wanted the city to be a believable modern place why not go the whole hog and just have the Sears Toiwer as the H.Q. of Wayne Industries?

    On the C.E.O. – yes I agree he is not really a terrible man. I suppose that viewers (and reviewers) are so used to the corporate manager as bad guy, that they just assume the C.E.O. is a big bad guy on a sort of reflex.

    There is also a commercial point here. Far more potential customers (people who might want to go and see the film) have been fired than have done any fireing. True such people have also been HIRED – but we all tend to assume that we have a right to be hired , and that being fired is an insult. So hearing a C.E.O. being fired in an off hand way (“did you not get the memo?”) is a chance for people watching the film to get back at some past boss who has crossed them.

    Unjust yes, but a lot of people like to see the mighty brought low. And at least the film has a the owner of a big company (Bruce Wayne) as its main hero – this is not common in Hollywood.