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Monday, August 13, 2012

Batman Begins vs. The Dark Knight


**note** I wrote the following essay about a year ago, before the release of Rises.  A reflection on Rises and Nolan's trilogy as a whole is in the works.  Until that is complete, enjoy!

Before I delve into my reflections on these two films, I would just like to state for record that these are both great films.  Both are among the best comic-book films ever made, let alone two of if not THE two best Batman films ever made.  They are both favorites of mine, films I love every time I see them.  I say this just so that everyone reading this knows that the critique I am about to level at them both comes from a place of love, like a parent pointing out where their children make mistakes.

With that being established, I am just going to come right out and say it.  I think Batman Begins is better than The Dark Knight.  The Dark Knight made more money, was far more well-known, well-publicized, and is lauded by critics and film lovers as the greatest Batman movie ever made.  Being someone who is never afraid to hold controversial opinions or go in the face of conventional fads and what's popular (see my thoughts on Inglorious Bastards and Fight Club for further details), this would not bother me except for the fact there seem to be an inordinate number of people who have either not seen Batman Begins or aren't even aware of its existence.  Now, this is obviously just opinion after all, so while I am going to argue why I feel Batman Begins is the better film, my intentions for this article are not so much to alter people's opinions, but to simply make the case that it deserves a lot more attention than it gets.

I'm going to start off by talking about what's right with both of these films.  Since these are both Chris Nolan films, both of these films have great writing, great acting, great characters, great action, great filming, great music, and are just all-around great.  Nolan really knows how to draw people into a story and present great, memorable characters, and both these films show off his skill at this.  He is also a fantastic writer, able to blend great, exciting action with deep, philosophical reflections, and these films are shining examples of this as well.  In addition to the strong writing, filming, and casting, Hans Zimmer, who I still maintain is the next John Williams, provides fantastic and atmospheric orchestral scores for both films.

For me, the divergence really boils down to the plot, and there are three main things that, for me, set Batman Begins above Dark Knight.  The first is that, unlike any other Batman film in existence, Batman Begins actually shows the story of how Bruce Wayne, orphaned rich boy, becomes Batman, ass-kicking vigilante.  How he goes off to find answers and purpose, ends up in an Asian prison, and is released and then trained in the Himalayas by Ra's al Ghul, who later becomes the villain.  This takes up the entire first act of the movie, with the second act detailing how he returns to Gotham and establishes himself as a vigilante, slowly putting together the technological capabilities and police/business contacts to be a legitimate crime fighter.  Batman, in his "final form," doesn't appear until about halfway through the movie.  As a result, this is the Batman film that almost isn't a Batman film, and that makes it stick out a lot more in my mind.  More than any of the other films, you can really grasp Bruce as a human being and not just a character archetype.  Now, I realize a lot of people tend to scoff at the film for having so little to do with the Batman world (Bruce Wayne and NINJAS?), seeing the first act as a little too fantastic.  But, let's be honest folks, this is Batman we're talking about.  A millionaire dressing up as a bat and fighting crime.  That, in a nutshell, is this entire franchise.  And Nolan takes this admittedly silly premise and makes it about as realistic and believable as one possibly can by showing us the exact reasons why Bruce decided to use bats as his symbol, and it's pretty believable.  

The second point of difference between the two films is that Batman Begins is just more tightly written, whereas Dark Knight suffers from a number of plot holes, some small, some major, that only become more and more prevalent as the film goes on.  A prime example of this is the party scene.  Remember that?  Where the Joker is trying to kill off Harvey Dent and invades Wayne's party? Yep, that one. The first problem with this scene is the fact that Batman and Rachel fall off a massive building, hitting a taxi cab to break their fall, and yet neither of them have so much as a scratch. I couldn't buy that the first time I saw it, and I still can't. There are any number of ways Nolan could have had them be saved that would have worked better. Also, ever notice how we never see what happens at the party after that? The Joker is still in the room with all those innocent people, but it just cuts to the next day without resolving whether he leaves or stays and kills anyone else. Not a major point, to be sure, but still one that bugs me, and there are a number of them throughout the film (which, for brevity's sake, I will avoid here). 

The next major problem is the Joker himself.  The Joker always claims that he doesn't want money and that he doesn't have any sort of plan. However, pulling off the crazy hijacks he and his henchmen perform, especially at the end of the film, would require both ungodly sums of money and an incredibly detailed, well-drawn out plan that depended on huge numbers of henchmen and incredible luck. He suddenly decides to blow up a hospital. Within an hour. How does he manage to get past security and wire a massive hospital to be completely demolished within one hour? And, while I understand his little mind game to get people onto the boats, not only did he have no way of guaranteeing that one of them would be filled entirely with criminals, but how did he get enough materials, time, and security access to fully rig up both of those boats in addition to the hospital? And for that matter, why the hell does a massive city like Gotham only have two major ferries? That seems a little low for a city that's supposed to be such a huge metropolis. There's actually a video from the Youtube music video parody group Key Of Awesome that specifically points out the flaws in this part of the film (type in "Batman Is Confused").

Now, in regards to this aspect of the movie, one could make the argument that the Joker as a character is less of a man and more of a force, a manifestation of the darker side of human nature. As such, he is just sorta able to be anywhere he needs to be and do anything he needs to do to push people to the brink. This would make the Joker's attacks seem less like coordinated, planned efforts of a single, human terrorist and more like a force of nature deliberately concentrating its fury on a specific group of people. While I could certainly buy that (it actually makes the Joker seem even more unstoppable and terrifying than he already is), I don't feel that that entirely saves the movie from itself because of the fact that one of the strengths of these films are how realistically gritty and visceral Nolan has been making them, turning the occasional campy-ness of the earlier films (even the Burton ones, let's be frank) completely on their head.  Dark Knight was actually that rare film that emotionally unsettled me the first time I saw it. However, these particular these flaws, while they never stop me from enjoying the film whenever I watch it, sort of detract from that by making it just a little too unrealistic, even for a Batman film.  Say the Joker is a force, okay, but that would mean letting supernatural forces enter into a world that's "supposed" to be based in reality.

One last point; another reason why I like Batman Begins more than The Dark Knight is what I call Sequelitis, or "Godfather Part II" Syndrome. This is what happens when two movies use the same characters and take place in the same universe, but are not necessarily connecting or dependent story lines (as opposed to the LOTR or Harry Potter films), where each of the films can be considered and enjoyed separately from the other film. The Godfather films are examples of this. Both of the Godfather films (the two that matter anyway) can be watched and enjoyed separately, and judged on their own merits. However, although they are both great films, it is not possible to enjoy Godfather Part II as much unless you see the first one, which sets up the main characters and their relationships with one another.

The same principal applies here to the Batman films. While the actual events of each film are not directly connected to each other, the characters and relationships are the same. As a result, while The Dark Knight can certainly be enjoyed on its own, unless you see Batman Begins first you can't appreciate the relationships or characters quite as well, since Batman Begins is where they were all introduced and established. This one is not so much a case of Batman Begins inherently being better so much as it is a case of order. Batman Begins came first and built the universe of the new films, Dark Knight came second and provided a continuation of them. As a result, when it comes to picking favorites I'm inclined to pick the one that came first and created the universe, like with The Godfather.

I realize it might sound like I'm being overly nit-picky with my criticisms of The Dark Knight, but understand that, if anything, this shows just how much I love the film. I only notice this many flaws or ask these many questions if a film has impressed or affected me enough to get me thinking. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are both fantastic movies. And as I said at the beginning, I'm not writing this out of some fanboy anger that people have the BALLS to like Dark Knight more than Batman Begins, just because it really bothers me how many people still have not seen this film. I'm working on that though. Batman Begins is on the list of films I am constantly promoting to people who haven't seen them (also known as Noah's "Movies I Never Shut The F*** Up About" List).

That being said, of course, Batman Begins is far from perfect itself.  The bit in the beginning with the ninjas does stretch itself a tad, and it's certainly a slower film as well.  Dark Knight is a lot more fast-paced and intense, and took the realism and grittiness of the franchise to new heights, painting the world of Batman in darker tones than ever before.  However, a lot of that intensity the film provides comes from the uncertainty of not knowing quite where the film is going to go next, with both the Joker and with the story in general (Rachel's death, for example, I did not see coming).  Erego, once you've already seen it and know what will happen, it loses a bit of its edge.  Things like the pencil trick drew a nervous laugh from me the first few times I saw it, but after the first 3 or 4 times it's just not as shocking.

Actually, on that note, while I like Batman Begins more in almost every way, there is one, single, glaring exception to this:  Rachel.  I do not like Katie Holmes.  I do not find her attractive in the slightest, and her acting in Batman Begins was unconvincing at best.  The absolute nadir of the entire film for me is the end, where she's talking about hoping there could be something between her and Bruce, and the look on her face is just flat-out dead (don't even get me started on the nipples shot).  Maggie Gyllenhaal is a better actress by leaps and bounds, making Rachel more serious and believable, plus she's a hell of a lot more attractive than little Miss Holmes.  But anyway.  That's really the one "bee in my bonnet" when it comes to Batman Begins.

In the end, of course, all of this is my opinion.   There are people who love both films, and people who love neither.  It's all good.  I don't care what your opinion is as long as you can explain it well.  And like I said at the beginning, if you see both films and still think Dark Knight is better, that's fine.  But if you haven't seen Batman Begins, do yourself a favor; hold off any declarations on Dark Knight being the greatest Batman film 'til you've seen them both.

Well, that's it for my rant on these two films (very good) films.  Please read, comment, and let me know your own thoughts on the franchise!  Full franchise review to follow!

-Judge Richard

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