Batman Ends

Where to begin? Unbelievably ill-conceived. That’s it. A film that tries to be everything to all people, and ends up being nothing as a consequence.

An important point to establish up front is that, hysterical claims to the contrary aside, the film is *not* an adaptation of the comic character in any more than the most superficial of ways. The filmmakers simply altered the fundamental elements of the character to far too great a degree. The film, then, must be judged on its merits as a film, not as an adaptation.

So how is it as a movie? This one had a lot of potential, and it was hard to watch it fall apart as it went along. Some grumble-inducing moments notwithstanding, it’s actually quite good in the early going. It’s engaging, well-constructed, and, despite a lot of high-fallutin’ monologues about the psychology of fear, never comes across as overly pretentious. The first indication of trouble, however, occurs in this early part of the movie. Bruce Wayne, our future Batman, has been in training with the League of Shadows, a ninja-style group led by Ras al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). Upon his “graduation,” Ras explains his master plan. His “explanation” is an utterly incoherent rant about “destroying Gotham,” Bruce’s home city, for no apparent reason other than that it is “corrupt.” As Watanabe rambled, I started giggling. That the film, in standard Hollywood tell-you-what-you’re-supposed-to-think-about-what-you’re-seeing fashion, presents this as a very somber, serious moment only added to the joke. Bruce, having listened to this, then turns to Ducard (Liam Neeson), the man who’d recruited him into the League, and asks, totally deadpan, if he really believes in all of this, and my giggles turned into outright laughter, shared by others in the theater. It’s an embarrassingly idiotic moment that immediately took me out of the mood that had been established.

The film bounces back fairly quickly from this early misstep, though. Back in Gotham, uber-boss Carmine “The Roman” Falcone is very well established; he’s a guy who runs everything in a corrupt sewer of a city. A scene wherein he threatens to shoot Bruce in a restaurant full of city officials, convincingly explaining that he could do so and get away with it, is certainly a keeper, and promises much more to come. Why the filmmakers bothered spending so much time and energy setting him up is anyone’s guess, though, because nothing much ever does. They could have built a movie, or an entire series of movies upon Bruce’s efforts to clean up the town, as they’d established it, but, instead, the mighty Falcone is decimated by the Batman in mere minutes, in ludicrously implausible fashion, none of his power helping him a bit. This is to get him quickly out of the way so the movie can radically switch gears, and the new gear it falls into is near-complete idiocy.

This gear-switching is so jarring because of the two diametrically opposed–and irreconcilible–directions in which the filmmakers tried to take “Begins.” The end-product is a cut-and-pasted mess, drawing, almost equally, from great and solidly grounded Batman material, like Frank Miller’s “Batman: Year One” (which should have been this movie), and very bad, very dated, and embarrassing comic book stuff from yesteryear featuring motiveless, pretentious, overblown, super-villains with some incredibly idiotic (and laughably inefficient) plot to “destroy” something. When it kicks into this second phase, every minute of the movie seems to be worse than the one before.

The movie essentially disintegrates from the moment Bruce dons the Batman mask. Sitting in the theater, you can almost physically feel the film’s IQ drop. Christian Bale, who had done an admirable (if largely unexceptional) Bruce Wayne, never comes close to getting a handle on his characters’ alter ego. Indeed, his Batman voice and persona suggest the actor had picked up his direction on how to play the part at the Keanu Reeves School of Acting. When Bruce becomes Batman, all he has to do to rid Gotham of the mighty Falcone is rough up a dozen of his men who are, at that time, in the middle of completing an illegal drug shipment, then attack Falcone and leave him chained and beaten senseless at the scene of the crime. This, we’re told, will send Falcone away forever. Uh huh. Then, the filmmakers get to the story they really wanted to tell: Ras al Ghul returns, still looking to “destroy Gotham” for no real reason. His means of doing so is the most ludicrous item in a film filled with ludicrous items, and the final hour of the movie is dedicated to a lot of empty standard-issue Hollywood sound and fury, as the plot plays itself out. Unforgivably, the film’s last scene is a straight steal of the great ending of Frank Miller’s “Batman: Year One,” which only serves to rub salt in the wound the film has created by spoiling the scene for some future filmmaker who may one day want to make a real Batman movie.

I have no tolerance for this sort of thing anymore. If I hadn’t been with a friend, I would probably have left long before it was over In the final analysis, “Batman Begins” is inferior, in pretty much every way, to the original Burton flick, and is even less of a Batman movie. For my part, I hope it’s going to be ending, rather than beginning, a Batman franchise. I’m rather fond of the character, and have had quite enough of Hollywood dragging him through the mud.