Batman Begins

Batman is back.

After years of films so bad that the Batman legend seemed forever lost – a diamond ring swept down a drain into the labyrinth of a sewer system – the dark knight returns to us in director Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. All the key elements are in place in the new film, but they’ve been reconfigured in such novel and interesting ways that they appear new again without feeling compromised or revisionist.

Batman Begins is rich, textured and nuanced: Everything the last few Batman films were not, and a hell of a lot more. Nolan evokes Batman by diving into the wreck of the myth and returning to the primal weirdness of symbols and psychology. It’s a path not unlike the one Bruce Wayne himself follows as he digs deep into himself to find a fear sharp enough to use as a weapon, and there’s something uncanny and immensely satisfying about the journey.

This Batman is a real, tortured being, not a too-goofy-for-life camp object or a fairy tale brought to the big screen. The power to do great and terrible things is tempered by a fragile mind and uncertain moral core, and the dichotomy between Bruce Wayne, a lost man in search of meaning, and Batman – the incarnation of justice – makes this film feel like much more than a comic book translated to film.

After his parents are murdered, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) abandons a leisure lifestyle of wealth to try to uncover the nature of evil. He travels with criminals to learn why they feed on fear and eventually finds himself in a remote penal colony, where he routinely battles for his life. Broken, disheartened, and confused, he is rescued from a life behind bars by a shadowy man named Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson).

Ducard promises to teach Wayne how to harness his hatred and anger, revealing an unambiguous path toward justice. Traveling to a mountain monastery, Wayne is eventually indoctrinated into the League of Shadows, a strange and occult organization whose mission is cloaked in mystery.

Wayne learns to regain the will to act – the courage to be fully present – while at the monastery. Ducard tutors the young man about the nature of anger between sparring bouts on frozen tundra, and a sort of friendship develops. Sounding a bit like the Jedi knight he once played, Neeson tells Wayne that anger is power, but if you allow it it will destroy you. When their philosophies violently clash, Wayne leaves the League and returns to Gotham, where he forges his Batman identity.

Drawing on an early childhood trauma, Wayne descends into himself to find a symbol to embody this new persona. The processes is mysterious and slightly occult, the territory psychological and mythological, and the thing that comes out the other end only barely resembles the cliché omelet director Joel Schumacher served up in the last few films – scarcely resembles anything human, really.

Focusing his mind and body into a weapon, an incorruptible symbol, a figure of dread and terror, Wayne finds the certainty he had been looking for within. He risks his soul to rescue these symbols of terror, returning them to their primal place of significance, but he also loses something of his humanity in the transformation, and the film takes these issues seriously.

It’s not certain whether Batman is outside of Wayne – a kind of demon that possesses his body – or an internal, supernatural psychological hobgoblin. When trusty butler Alfred (Michael Caine) tells Wayne, “You’re getting lost in that monster of yours,” he shakes in anger and fear; anger that Batman is eclipsing his friend; fear that Wayne will not resist.

Released from Wayne’s unconscious, this Batman demon begins wrecking havoc on Gotham’s underworld, first taking down a major mob boss, then uncovering a sinister plot intended to bring the city to its knees. Confronted with the idea that the city is beyond repair, Wayne / Batman makes a personal commitment to save Gotham at any cost.

The city is himself: Lost, alcoholic, addicted, starving and mad, as deprived and broken as Bruce Wayne. Like Wayne – and like us – it needs to reclaim its symbols, reinvent its myths, recreate its superheroes. People need to believe in the words, symbols, and myths that support them, and Wayne’s dark voyage parallels our own.

Nolan makes us believe in Batman again.


Cinderella Man

Is Hollywood trying to tell us something?
Releases like Seabiscuit and the new Ron Howard / Russell Crowe vehicle Cinderella Man seem to be preparing us for an economic disaster of epic proportions, not just the loud fart that was the bust. The patriotic myth of the downtrodden making dueTM has a long history, of course, but there’s a hysterical, hypnotic work to these films that makes them feel like manipulative propaganda.
The hero of Cinderella Man is Jim Braddock (Crowe), a simple man fond of saying things like, “Let me take them on in the ring, at least then I know who’s hitting me.” Facing the bleak realities of the Great Depression, Braddock is a perpetually injured fighter on the skids. His decline from a happy middle-class professional boxer to just another face in the soup line is glossed over in just one fade, leaving Howard to tell the story of his Horatio Alger-like ascension from the bottom up.
The post-Depression Braddock has made a career of losing matches. Attributing his numerous injuries – and, by association, the plight of the middle class during the Depression – to a string of “bad luck,” he goes to work at the docks after being disbarred as a fighter. The docks, an imperfect pre-configuration of Labor Ready where faceless corporate bosses pimp workers out on a day-by-day basis, are hard on Braddock, especially since he has a broken hand, but like all good Americans he never complains.
Things are not going well at home, either, though wife Mae (Renée Zellweger) is as uncomplaining (and uncomplicated) as Braddock, at one point dismantling a billboard to burn the timber as fuel when power is turned off. The couple lives with their three uncomplaining children in a basement apartment surrounded by other hearty, stalwart folks. 
I trust I won’t ruin your surprise by telling you that Cinderella Man is obsessed with the American Dream, our quaint national fairy tale. Nuance doesn’t survive in this myth, and this is fine with Braddock, since the has-been boxer doesn’t struggle with the underlying causes of the Depression. Complaining and critiquing are meaningless to him and he never questions the fat-cat world around him, where he has been put out of commission like a machine that no longer works.
(That particular job is left up to a minor character that is brutally killed when he moves into Hooverville and begins spouting communist rhetoric – the pinko! Desperation is a powerful work incentive, but futility has a way of backfiring, creating revolutionaries out of ordinary wage slaves just when you need a temp to sort your file cabinet.)
Crowe excels at this role, saying more in a simple expression than Howard’s legion of flimsy mouthpieces. Here is a body that has been beaten against the wheel and left for broken, rising up time and time again.  Using the film’s sparse dialog to his advantage, Crowe saves the film from sinking under its own rhetoric with simple gestures and expressions.
Zellweger, on the other hand, is simply outclassed as Mae, Braddock’s dutiful wife. The film is insulting when it plays lip service to feminist critiques, and Zellweger’s hysterical, over-the-top performance as a hysterical, over-the-top wife feels contrived. The couple’s children remind me of the starry-eyed kids you see on velvet paintings, and I half expected one of these three-dimensional cartoons to talk in a faux Brit accent and adopt crutches to complete the Tiny Tim impersonation.
Braddock’s manager, Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti), is a sick weasel that ends up having a big heart, and how Giamatti can pull the role off with a straight face is beyond me. When the going gets tough, Gould dresses up, relying on his ostentatious digs and spacious apartment to keep the façade of success alive, but he turns out to be as everyman as the boxer he represents.
If Braddock, his wife and family, and Gould are models of success and patriotism, Max Baer (Craig Bierko), the boxer Braddock must beat in the final quarter of the film, is definitely the bad guy. Young, brash and Jewish, he symbolizes the carefree, decadent days of the roaring ‘20s. Where Braddock is happily married, Baer has multiple female lovers; where our hero is humble, simple and uncomplaining, Baer is a braggart and is flamboyant. 
The only problem with presenting this clear dichotomy is that these characters are based on real people, and while the conceit of the film has Baer boasting about the man he killed in the ring, the real boxer evidently suffered an emotional breakdown following the death of Frankie Campbel in a boxing match and was tortured by the memory for life.
(Ah, but see how real life muddies the symbolic play of propaganda?)
Maybe I’m being overly cynical about this movie, but when the fairy tale of our generation is told in 80 years will Mike Tyson be the man wearing glass slippers? And if so, what facts will be left out to complete the satisfying portrait of a good American?

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