Lets get a few things straight. A graphic novel is vastly more complicated than a cartoon strip. Compared to the 118118 adverts in the bottom of the Metro, Alan Moore is Dostovesky. Nevertheless we should not forget that all things are relative – compared to The Idiot most graphic novels might as well just be a 3 pane strip advertising a phone directory service.
The 118 strips are piece of daily visual flotsam for any Londoner using the tube. For some reason I found them stuck in my head when I finally got round to watching Batman Begins, a film that, by the standards of the genre, is well on the way to being a masterpiece.
Appropriately, I’ve come to Chris Nolan’s work in almost entirely the wrong order. Clearly the most interesting mainstream filmmaker of the day, he brings to a global audience ideas of a complexity, subtly and depth rarely found in blockbusters. Inception dazzled and delighted me. I saw it on a big screen and was smitten by its masculine mix of big explosions and big ideas.
I also liked the way that he’d framed his whole story with a device that enabled him to get away with anything. Inception makes sense because everything about it that doesn’t make sense probably didn’t happen. In fact, contrary to most films, the less sense the things that happen make the more sense the story makes. This does have a diminishing effect for some of the action sequences; despite a couple of frantically bellowed conversations along the lines of “even though this is a dream there is a sort of way we can sort of die so there is a sort of actual jeopardy for the next two hours sort of”. But I don’t need everyone to be in danger of death to care what’s going on and I was having such fun I mightn’t have even noticed this if they hadn’t all started shouting about it.
Inception drew me to pick up the two Batman films which events and laziness had led me to miss when they came out. Everyone I’ve ever spoken to seems to have adored The Dark Knight and I’d be a churl to disagree. It’s an expertly made action movie with a brilliant central performance from Heath Ledger. Overall though I did find it disappointing compared with Batman Begins, even if my reasons are perhaps not straight forward. If I admired the way Inception pulled sense out of chaos, then what draws me to Batmin Begins are all the things that make no sense at all.
Incoherence is something most blockbusters share. This is less of a criticism than it sounds. Most blockbusters are built around a climax of things exploding. I’ve never been witness to a real explosion but I imagine that the experience is oddly similar to the frantic, senseless, confused doing that characterises the end of most summer movies, especially those which were once graphic novels.
To be fair The Dark Knight is more coherent than most, definitely more so than its predecessor. Perhaps herein lies the root of my reservations about it. My biggest quibble is that when the Joker claims to be an agent of chaos, a “doer” rather than a “planner” he is clearly massively self deluded. It’s a great line and were it true it would set him apart as precisely the eerily amoral villain that the other bad guys in the film fear him to be. They are mere mobsters with hopes and dreams like the rest of us, in this they are both simpler and more complex than Ledger’s three dimensionally two dimensional cartoon terrorist.
The problem is that you don’t rig explosives by accident. The twists that provide the meat of the plot are not the sort of traps one sets on a whim. The whole middle section of the story, culminating in the twin explosions that consume Rachel and Harvey Dent, is clearly the Joker successfully enacting a really quite astonishingly complicated plan.
This may make me sound like a nitpicking spoil sport but I mention it really just to demonstrate my real point. For all the darkness of The Dark Knight, Nolan’s film is surprisingly clear. The streets may be gloomy but good writing and great performances leave the story and characters very well lit and this is not something that is always flattering in an action movie based on a graphic novel.
Like the mind experiment with the boats. A boat of criminals, a boat of “good folk”, both primed to blow and only able to escape destruction by destroying the other. It makes a great backdrop to the film’s climax, feeling as if a clever Milgram-esque experiment is being enacted at nightmare scale, but it is only a feeling. When you think about it, it sounds more like someone trying to explain one of Milgram’s experiments when they haven’t quite remembered all the details. What thesis is the Joker actually testing? What point does this actually make? These are not questions you really need to be asking of an action movie and in many ways it is to Nolan’s credit that this even bugged me… but somewhere here the layers of seeming complexity and crystal simplicity have gone together wrong and I’m left too aware of the holes.
Though again I’m not entirely sure if this isn’t part of Nolan’s intention. My favourite sequence in the whole film is the interview scene where Batman and the Joker finally face off in a very starkly lit white room. Here my point about the uncomfortable effect that clarity has in a film of this nature, is viscerally demonstrated and surely intentional. Up until now both characters have been shrouded in darkness, especially the Batman whom we have never before seen in such a shadowless setting. Finally there’s no hiding from it – he looks like a gimp.
The scene hinges on the Joker’s creepy identification of himself and Batman as two of a kind, a pair of freaks. The emotion is nicely played, not least by the crowd of police officers who clearly look stupefied that their boss has just locked their chief suspect in a room with a man in an armour plated bat costume. We are not meant to ignore this. Nolan is clearly inviting us to look at our hero and have a good hard think about how much we should be identifying with a man clearly who uses “hiding his identity” and “protection” as slim cover for dressing up, wearing make-up and putting on a silly voice. It is no accident either that in Nolan’s films the character is always referred to with the inclusion of the prefix. He is not Batman, bold and brave, he is always the Batman. Apparently this is a nod to the original comic but totally conscious or not, it has an oddly distancing effect – Batman, Superman, Spiderman, the Batman, the bin man, indeed the Joker. Something in that the really gives you pause.
Nolan is deliciously aware of the fundamental silliness of his main character and whilst this often feels like a simple case of embarrassment, it also gives these films a fascinating internal conflict. This is naturally far more apparent in the first film. Whilst The Dark Knight merely sets out to show that the Joker is crackers, Batman Begins has to try and make us believe that Bruce Wayne is a hero, a task Nolan does not seem to relish. As a result whilst Batman Begins is that rare thing, a film less good than its sequel, it is also a far more fascinating film. It’s a mess, but revealingly so.
In Batman Begins Nolan almost says the unsayable in that his ultimate foe, the ineptly named Ra’s al Ghul, does not represent some form of criminal corruption but instead is the head of a super charged crime fighting militia. In this film the ultimate evil is not crime but an unthinking, unquestioning obedience to a strict sense of right and wrong. This is clearly a brave attempt to question the very core of the Batman character and put the dilettante vigilante’s ethics under scrutiny. We may be delighted when Batman beats up a hood, but when Liam Neeson tries to destroy the entire city because they’re all past saving, we suddenly have to think about the source of the moral authority behind Batman’s own random acts of justice.
Sadly the resolution to this is a prime example of action movie incoherence. Finally defeated in combat by his one-time student, Neeson taunts Batman, questioning if he has finally learnt the importance of striking the decisive, fatal blow. Batman hesitates, then growls “I’m not going to kill you. But I don’t have to save you.” He then swoops out of the carriage of the monorail they were fighting on, leaving Neeson to hurtle to his death as it crashes to the city floor below.
It’s a great line and a thrilling moment but it wouldn’t take a good lawyer moments to point out that even if he didn’t actually stab Neeson in the guts he is still entirely culpable for the man’s homicide; the only reason the train crashes is because Batman had asked his friend Gordon to blow up the last section of the track. I imagine it precisely thisquandry which we see pass briefly over Neeson’s face before the final massive explosion.
Of course I’m nitpicking again but not without reason. The suggestion that Neeson’s character (whatever his name is supposed to be, he is only ever a rather bored looking Liam Neeson) views Batman’s occasional acts of mercy as weakness is, I presume, intended to make us feel like it is precisely this mercy that gives the caped crusader the moral authority to dress as a gimp and throw guys off buildings. That’s pretty shaky ground in the first place but in not saving Neeson isn’t Bruce Wayne just proving that he’s just an angry mental guy who lacks any sort of moral compass and really should be locked up for his own safety?
Watching the train engulf the screen the flames I couldn’t help but feel the only ethical stance less justifiable than Neeson’s was Batman’s. The logical conclusion to this story is that Bruce, confronted with Neeson’s planned metropolicide as the logical end point of his own vigilantism, gives up on the Batman as an ethically unsustainable dead end in the fight against crime… clearly not a conclusion any director could give a film which was always going to be the start of a franchise. Beneath all the mess and explosions there seethes a fascinating discomfort with the central character and the moral standpoint of the superhero… unresolved in the film, perhaps unresolved in the director, perhaps unresolved in our society as a whole.
This discomfort seethes all the more compellingly beneath Nolan’s main essay in Batman Begins – the nature and role of fear. Again I find it almost impossible to criticise Nolan’s work without first praising it. Few action movies make any attempt to discuss any idea or concept beyond love and punishment and so building his first genuinely huge movie around an investigation into the nature of fear is a bold move. It works because it makes perfect sense of the character, perhaps too much sense. Here is the young son of an entirely perfect multi-billionaire who after witnessing his father’s death turns himself into a phantom from his own childhood fears to stalk the streets and spread terror into the underclass that he blames for his father’s death. Fear, irrational but all consuming, drives our lead character and it seeps into every corner of the film… except… seemingly… one.
The other theme that Nolan keeps coming back to in Batman Begins is economics. This comes from the original character, though the need to show Bruce Wayne being able to afford to assemble all of his bat gear in undue haste has pushed his personal wealth to slightly preposterous proportions. His father was the perfect philanthropist, modest, generous, wise, giving to the poor and trying to provoke his fellow financial luminaries into similar good conduct. His financial legacy runs through this story and in almost every frame of this opulent film we are reminded quite how much money Bruce has at his disposal. Then Neeson pops up and makes some wild, entirely unsubstantiated and historically inaccurate claims about how his organisation have destroyed previous corrupt civilisations and how they have been waging war on Gotham using economics. This statement makes little sense and we’re all supposed to nod and move on, aware now that money can be bad as well as good. This maladroit speech is as bad a piece of meaningless bluster as “I’m not going to kill you”, but does it merely serve to distract the eye from the film’s real message?
After all, the link between the film’s themes of fear and economics has already been made in a far more compelling moment thanks to the far superior talents of Tom Wilkinson, the underused mob boss who steals every frame he is in. One of the film’s finest scenes is his interview with the young Bruce Wayne in which the Mobster talks of his own impoverished back ground. It is perhaps not meant to be such an important scene as it feels, he’s a minor character and certainly no Super villain but there is such deep resentment in Wilkinson’s performance, such a sense that this man has struggled to be the powerful man he is today, such a sense that he knows what Bruce never can (no matter how much he goes off and slums it in Asia), it really worms into your mind. Twinkling in Wilkinson’s jet black eyes is a childhood marked by the fear of poverty, the fear of powerlessness, the fear of being unaccountably born into the bottom of a society where the richest live in the clouds high above even the multi-story monorail.
Like the Dark Knight, Batman Begins is visually full of darkness, but unlike the sequel, the story too is full of black spots and barely spoken ideas. For most of the duration the essay on fear is built with consummate skill but the constant ringing of the money bell creates a question the film never openly acknowledges. What is the role of fear in economics? It clearly plays one, in a society built around the need for us all to keep buying any tool that can provoke a purchase is valid. In this context fear is a vital commodity.
It’s here that the first Batman film really made me think of the 118 cartoon strips in the Metro. For those of you who don’t regularly use the tube or live in Britain, 118 118 is a telephone directory service which branded itself with the rather odd conceit of a pair of super-helpful twin brothers both called 118. They are skinny, shaggy haired, moustache wearing marathon runners, all attributes presumably supposed to create the impression that they are geeks who know too much but are willing to go the distance in their quest to help you find what you need to find. For some time now this service has been advertised in the Metro, a free newspaper you can pick up at any of London’s tube stations. These are simple, badly illustrated three panel strips which generally attempt some weak joke in order to demonstrate the way in which you could use 118 118. Recently this advertising space has been shared with 118118’s parent company, a business labouring under the odd name of KGB Deals, which seems to be set up to scour the country for cut price deals and then sell them on. This sharing has taken the form of the 118 brothers starting to date a pair of women from KGB (though presumably not the KGB).
It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that I hate the girls from KGB. I despise them with a passion I can barely write about. I admit that this bile that is probably unnecessary for a pair of badly drawn cartoon characters but to me they represent pretty much everything that is wrong with life and if the Metro ever published a cartoon in which they were found murdered in a phone box I would cut it out and stick it on my wall. Sadly the worst examples of their behaviour don’t exist online and the ones I’ve found recently don’t quite give you the full picture. Trust me though, they are needy, demanding, cold hearted, materialist and without a moment’s care for anything except deals.
Gone is the 118’s previous care for everyone else. Now every day it’s just these two women talking about what they can buy and what slim saving they can make on the transaction, as if saving £20 on £100 worth of stuff you don’t need to buy is any sort of saving at all. But there they are, needling their partners for more and more. There’s no sense that the KGB girls love the 118s for anything other than the fact that they’re an easy touch. Their relationship is a tragedy that makes the 118s seem like a pair of hopeless Prince Myshkin’s who despite their innate goodness are fit only for an asylum.
Yes, I know it’s not intentional but due to the cracks forced in their dialogue by the need to sell a service five times a week, the 118 ads have suddenly taken on the power of Dostoyevsky. I open the Metro on the Coffee Break page and I see an unwittingly savage dissection of our debt ridden, misery filled society. In precisely the same way Batman Begins is at its most compelling when at its least coherent.
What Batman Begins dare not say, yet implies with every passing frame, is that the real force of evil in Gotham was any society that allowed the Wayne family to draw together such a massive personal income whilst people were living in slums. If it is fear of crime that drives the good folk off the street at night then it is fear of poverty, fear of a life stuck at the bottom that drives men like Wilkinson to take to crime. Most clearly it says to me that if Bruce really wants to deal with crime he should simply start investing his obscene personal wealth in better social infrastructure for the rest of the community. You know, like his Dad did. Watching a man who can afford to buy his own tank and build a secret bunker under his mansion, beat up guys who have never known a tenth of his comfort is an oddly rancid experience.
Is this anti-capitalist message deliberate? Is Inception the perfect film for a nation obsessed with living in a dream? Is Christopher Nolan a witty satirical genius with the blackest sense of humour… or is he just confused? Is he the master or merely an idiot savant? I honestly have no answer to this question but I can’t wait to see the third Batman film to again try and work out if this is a complex man attempting to keep it simple or a simple man getting unwittingly tangled.