First the new Star Wars, now Batman Begins, I can’t help wondering when did the entertainment world get so ridiculously literal and genuine? A little sincerity and skill is refreshing, especially as pumped into the dead and decaying Star Wars series. But Christopher Nolan has attacked the Batman series with a blunt adherence to Freud and, as is proudly revealed in the dialogue, Jung, in a put on kind of manner. The result is an overstated belief in rudimentary psychology that one usually only sees among 19-year old men in small campus coffee houses at 1 in the morning trying to seduce more attractive women who have just broken up with their jock popular guy boyfriends.
Yes, review Batman Begins on the merits of its storytelling or script and you don’t exactly come away with a winner. Yet one can still recommend the new Batman movie more highly than any other superhero feature, based entirely on the performance of its actors. First of all, there are outstanding performances by all the European actors involved in this most American of stories—yes, Christopher Nolan, an Englishman, has placed Brits and an Irishman in key roles, and they have all demonstrated that they are far better at being gutsy and charming Americans than Katie Holmes or anyone of her ilk. Charisma-despite-lines performances by Cillian Murphy and Gary Oldman continuously drive the film, and when those two are on the screen, the movie goes well.
Christian Bale, playing the title character, is not quite so fortunate—he has to be on the screen during some dull moments, especially during a surprisingly lame plot sequence with Liam Neeson. Still, Bale’s Batman is a commendable, if Sisyphean, performance. Not only does he throw heaping gutfulls of psychological depth into the character, not only does he genuinely seem like a man who would put on a black cape and beat the crap out of you, but he also pulls off humour and wit. Bale’s ability to portray the bored billionaire alter-ego of Bruce Wayne and make him entertaining—even moreso than when he is Batman—is remarkable. There are two decisive moments in the film that should have been throwaways in which Bale is asked to entertain the audience and the actors on screen simply by being nonchalant; one can’t imagine what the direction on this was, other than “We’re going to hang you out to dry here.” Instead of being hung out to dry, these moments when Bale has no gadgets or even decent lines prove to be the most memorable of the film.
This is a case of a film saved by fearless actors, but Nolan will probably get a lot of credit for reviving the Batman franchise. He shouldn’t. Nolan co-wrote the script, which leaves no heavy-handed clichéd psychological observation on fear or power unstated. He also must have had something to do with the camera placement, which, during the many fight sequences, shows only Mr. Bale’s wrists, teeth and eye-liner. When Nolan has to deal with the obligatory explosion, he seems completely out of his element—which makes Iceland’s opening role in the film disappointing. Iceland’s Svínafellsjökull and Vatnajökull are the site of ninja fights and a random series of explosions so lame, that in the audience full of proud Icelanders with whom I watched this film, I counted three people SMSing out of boredom, and two more got up to take a bathroom break, though the film had only been going thirty minutes.
The truth is that Christian Bale, Gary Oldman and Cillian Murphy, with help from Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, could stand in front of a camera and read the Lawrence Kansas phone book and make it interesting. Nolan didn’t give them much more than this.
Sin City, which has a late release date in Iceland, is essentially the product of the same writer: Frank Miller revived the Batman series, though the films he inspired have never given him due credit. The new film of his non-superhero series credits him as much as possible, and keeps every quality the comics boasted: ambiguity, guts, style. Whereas Christopher Nolan presents an obvious good guy overcoming psychological turmoil in Batman Begins, Frank Miller presents crazies as less logical, and problems as less solvable.
And yet, Sin City is not a rewarding film because it is only a comic book on the screen. Whereas Nolan features his actors overcoming bad lines and bad camera angles, Miller and co-director Robert Rodriguez show actors as stylized and two-dimensional. Without allowing the actors to charm the screen, you basically get a Xerox of a comic on the big screen.
To understand the possibilities of comic books on the big screen, it may be best to take a good look at a collection of Batman or Spiderman comics, and listen to some jazz. Batman and Spiderman origins get retold almost yearly, drawn over and over again with different artists. As the melody, or story, becomes more and more familiar, artists have stretched the possibilities’ representation.
This is what we have to look for in films of comic books: a familiar story with either a director like Tim Burton, or actors like Christian Bale and Gary Oldman, who throw some life into the melody. The enormous number of constraints that a comic book movie forces on its creators can make for stylized and impressive acting or directing. But it doesn’t look like complete films will be coming out of this genre.