Screen gems...with M.V. Moorhead
Coming June 15: ‘Batman Begins’
Batman really began in May of 1939, with Issue 27 of Detective Comics. The “origin” of Bob Kane’s creation was explained the following year—“Gotham City” rich boy Bruce Wayne witnessed the murder of his parents by a mugger, vowed to spend his life fighting crime, trained his body and his mind to perfection while growing up, used his wealth to develop crime-fighting gadgetry. Finally, because “criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot” he decides to dress up in a bat costume, in the optimistic belief that it will “strike terror into their hearts.” Apparently it does, although there is never any shortage of crooks in Gotham City, many of them equally eccentric when it comes to personal style.
Also in 1940, Batman/Bruce Wayne acquired his own comic title, as well as a youthful sidekick, Dick Grayson aka Robin the Boy Wonder. By 1943, Batman had made it to the big screen, battling the Axis power in a 15–chapter Columbia serial. A second serial followed in 1949.
Then, in 1966, Batman became hip. TV producer William Dozier, in cahoots with a literate, pun-happy nut of a writer named Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and a hack actor named Adam West with a gift for deadpan, revived the Caped Crusader as the hero of a glitzy parody series in which he and Robin faced off against first-rate character players as “Special Guest Villains.” The result was a minor classic of silliness, an enduringly funny pop-culture gem.
Ironically, this goof on the legend was so successful that it may have done more than anything to solidify the Batman figure as what he surely has become—an authentic modern myth. Comic-book artists of the 1980s, notably Frank Miller, began to explore the character in serious, non-campy terms, and in 1989 Tim Burton mounted a visually exquisite film version starring Michael Keaton, surprisingly well-suited to the title role, opposite Jack Nicholson as the Joker, Batman’s most notorious enemy.
Since then, there have been four more expensively mounted live-action Batman films from Warner Brothers, each increasingly dreary, and a number of pretty good, graphically striking animated incarnations as well. And now we get Batman Begins, which purports to tell us how it all began, just like Detective Comics did back in 1940. The difference, of course, is that back in 1940 it took two pages of Kane’s lurid drawings and fevered words; today it takes more than two hours, millions of dollars, and innumerable computer-generated bats.
As with this summer’s other Jungian prequel, Star Wars, the publication date of the Wrangler and the release date of Batman Begins fall in such a way that precludes me from giving the film a full critique. But also as with Star Wars, I think I’m safe in saying this much—if, like me, you’ve found little to enjoy in the last few Batman pictures, you shouldn’t necessarily skip Batman Begins.
The film, though somber in approach, is leavened with great, witty actors like Michael Caine (as the faithful Alfred), Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Gary Oldman, Rutger Hauer and Tom Wilkinson, among others, who can be counted on to leaven the solemnity with sly humor. And very wisely, this movie is a separate entity from the earlier series, and it disregards much of what was most annoying in them, include the 1989 film’s great error in judgment—making the Joker, instead of some random thug, the killer of Bruce Wayne’s parents. Freud and Jung (as they learned for themselves) can’t always mix, and in a recipe like Batman, it’s Freud that leaves the sour taste.