Full disclosure: I’m not a fan of Christopher Nolan’s 2005 franchise re-boot Batman Begins.
Fuller disclosure: I really tried, having seen it one-and-a-half times. (I walked out mid-way through my first screening of it, and then, in the wake of the over-whelming praise of my peers and their cries of “What are you on crack?! That shit rocks!!” and “What an asshole you are for not loving it!” and “This friendship is over,” I revisted it, with eyes more open than the first time. But to no avail. I spent the whole time wishing I could Memento my ass back to a time before the film began. 1
It’s comforting to know that there’s a smart backlash to the structural messes known as Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, but looking at the box office receipts (the true indication of a “great” film), we’re still a minority, albeit an angry one. (And, yeah, I know, I’m a few years late on this post, but, hey, I’m still a rookie!)
I’d rather not give overviews of either film or a thorough breakdown of what bores me about them. Instead I’d like to do what I’ve been doing regularly on my blog: dissect one moment, a standout moment for me, which I think typifies the whole kit and kaboodle.
In fact, the moment in Batman Begins I’m going discuss is the one that prompted me to turn to my wife in the theater in 2005 and say, “OK, I’m done.”
A third of the way into the film, Bruce is in Ra’s Al Ghul’s “boot camp,” about to be given his final test, with Henri Ducard by his side. Here’s an abbreviated version of the scene…
Look, I have no qualms about Bruce Wayne killing every non-Caucasian in the room—or even saving Ducard—but I hate that he says (twice!) that he won’t be an “executioner.” I’m not going to dilly-dally over the finer subtleties what he meant with that word (he will not kill anyone unjustly) versus what he does (kill with just cause) OR that it’s Nolan’s way of showing Bruce’s inner conflict and tortured soul. Screw that.
To me, it’s simply a case of bad dialog. Not bad like, “Your eyes are pools I’d love to swim in,” but bad like when I heard it, I thought, “OK, so Bruce Wayne’s not an exectutioner. I can dig it.” But when he started killing everyone in sight, I asked, “Wait. But didn’t he just say he wasn’t going to do that?!” And that’s the kind of questions that yank me right out of a film, and in the case of Batman Begins, I was yanked out for good.
Back in college, I had a writing teacher named Howard Enders, and he advocated nurturing what he called your Bullshit Detector. That was the alarm in your head that would go off whenever you wrote anything that was false in spirit or intent. It’s along the lines of “Maybe you can bullshit the reader, but do you really want to bullshit yourself?” In fact, if your Bullshit Detector worked well when you were writing your script, then you stand a great chance of maintaining a sense of truth for the rest of your filmmaking process.
And Howard’s impact was so profound that to this day, I have a Bullshit Detctor for watching films, and when something doesn’t feel right, off it goes. (Thanks, Howard. I mean it.)
So, does the blame fall on the script? Hard to say. There’s a draft of Batman Begins on the internet, one credited solely to David Goyer, and the word “executioner” doesn’t appear once in the script. (True, there’s a scene that strongly resembles the one above, but Ducard asks Bruce to blow out a candle, not kill someone.) So, I suppose that Bruce’s tortured soul line entered the picture when Nolan wrote his draft of the script. Muy intersante.
Would the scene be perfect–or even better–without the word “executioner”? Probably not. 2 But is it too much to ask the filmmaker and his cohorts to vet their script for sore thumbs that might cause confusion? I wonder if anyone in the process said, “Y’know, Chris, I get what you’re saying with the ‘executioner’ lines, but then why does Bruce kill that guy who’s tied up. Y’know, the one he said he wouldn’t ‘execute’?” Well, if anyone did bring up this point, he or she was outvoted.
I’m bugged that I’m writing a whole post that does nothing but bitch about a film I don’t like. The more I write these things, the more I realize my stronger posts tend to be about what I love, not what I don’t. (Maybe it’s my Bullshit Detector at work.) So, I’m going to end this post on an up note!
In Cameron Crowe’s book Conversations with Wilder, writer-director Billy Wilder repeatedly says that if you have a strong script you’re likely to have a strong film—but it won’t happen the other way around. (Weak scripts will always make weak films.) And regarding The Apartment (perhaps his most “perfect” screenplay), he says its strong script made every subsequent step in the filmmaking process easier, a no-brainer:
“The idea behind shooting it is getting everything that is written on the screen. Everything, making it clear…I just tried to be careful that one thing led into the other thing…We did The Apartment in fifty days and edited it in less than a week. We had three feet of unused film. Why? Because the story was good.”
I can’t elaborate on that sage advice. It’s as succinct as, well, a screenplay by Billy Wilder. But, I’ll add this piece of naïve optimism: I saw Nolan’s Batman Begins even though I didn’t enjoy Momento (aka the World’s Longest Twilight Zone Episode). And even after those two missteps, I still saw The Dark Knight, which I thought was dreadful. And yet, I’m sure I’ll see Inception this summer. And if I think it blows, I’ll send Christopher Nolan a copy of Conversations with Wilder.
BACK TO POST 1 My alternate joke: But to no avail. I spent the whole time wishing it were called Batman Ends.
BACK TO POST 2 I tried re-cutting the scene without the word “executioner,” but it was still a bore of a scene so I gave up.