Self-Help for Superheroes

Fortunate son: Christian Bale in 'Batman Begins'
Warner Bros.

Just before borrowing his industrialist father's military body-armor prototype and spray-painting it black, billionaire Bruce Wayne shares a first-class piece of social theory with his loyal butler Alfred: "People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy." It's a resonant line at a time when progressive action--in and out of the multiplex--ain't exactly drawing 'em like it used to. Box-office receipts are down; attendance at political demonstrations is, obviously, much lower still. Lots of us are jaded and bored: starved for dramatic motivation, desperate for a new hero--the sole heir of Wayne Enterprises, even--to show us the way.

Carrying the weight of Time-Warner if not the world on his shoulders, co-writer/director Christopher Nolan (Memento) begins his Batman as Batman does: with a deep sense of purpose and responsibility. Like Wayne, this young man of privilege is committed to improving himself, his corporation, his industry, maybe even the planet. As copious amounts of white powder threaten to subsume the entire city (Gotham, I mean), our hero is forced to separate his guilt from his rage, to grapple with the distinction between justice and vengeance, to check his voluminous Intro to Psych lingo against that of the studio's consulting shrink. The masked villain this time is no Joker, but he's witty enough to tell Batman to lighten up. (This bad guy might have been addressing Nolan--who was apparently too preoccupied to listen.)

A pretentious Batman was probably inevitable. Joel Schumacher flung his queer-camp phantom of the opera down the runway in the Clinton era; earlier, Tim Burton established the franchise as a gleefully neurotic freakshow, flaunting all that Reagan had failed to flush. Nolan's approach, not surprising from the inventor of literally backward noir, is a lot more self-conscious in terms of how it meets the times. As his Batman begins, liberalism is over--along with Bruce's do-gooder dad, gunned down in the street by the sort of hungry man whom the philanthropist had tried to help. But Nolan, an heir of sorts himself, hardly sees the American dynasty as beyond repair: Here, in fact, the fortunate son is our only hope against evil. Prior to flying in the face of mob boss Falcone (another winged creature?), the future Batman (Christian Bale) sets out to do good. He "lives among the poor" (i.e., he's shown giving overripe fruit to a little angel with a dirty face). He travels abroad to learn the martial arts (i.e., Warner Bros. has a gift for the Asian market). He comes home and wears black; he becomes what he fears.

Taking more than an hour to get his superhero into costume, Nolan dutifully pays for his transgression with the usual numbing spectacle. (Two-ton Batmobile jumps between rooftops! Without falling through them!) As for Bale, not even his odd overbite, nearly concealing what look like fangs, can help supply the requisite hint of bestiality (or black humor). Burton, who astutely claimed that his own Batman films were "about depression," would surely wince at the prefab uplift of Nolan's pop-psych refrain: We fall so that we may learn to pick ourselves up and start anew. My hunch is that the filmmaker takes this line not just as a metaphor for Batman's new beginning, but Batman's as well: Certainly the bottomless digital hole into which the blockbuster has tumbled taught Nolan to pitch his vision as "realist."

The new villains of Hollywood, the ones that inspire apathy in ticket buyers young and old, are videogames and DVDs--or rather they would be if those properties weren't almost identical to the movies and not controlled by the same handful of players. Likewise, Nolan's bid to cut back on CGI would be noble if he weren't determined to replace them with gratuitous car-crash stunts and self-help gobbledygook. As in the '50s, Hollywood's latest method of fighting small-screen foes is to make itself bigger--and indeed Batman Begins does look epic in IMAX. (The zoo theater's "DMR" print is vastly sharper than the Eden Prairie's digital presentation of the new Star Wars, which I must apologize for having recommended earlier under the false assumption that it would resemble what I saw in Cannes. Now I know: Even digital projectors are not created equal.) Titanic trendsetter James Cameron has vowed to make his next feature in high-tech 3D. No word yet on whether the blockbuster's imagination will be expanded as well.

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