Batman Begins…to Annoy Me (or Christopher Nolan Needs a Bullshit Detector)

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.

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32 Comments

Filed under Film, Gripes

32 responses to “Batman Begins…to Annoy Me (or Christopher Nolan Needs a Bullshit Detector)

  1. Pingback: Batman Begins…to Annoy Me (or Christopher Nolan Needs a Bullshit … | Batman

  2. Dave Abel

    What, SMA? Have you gone mad? Didn’t you know TDK =Plato (http://www.amazon.com/review/RZYZCYQ2VG2MO/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm ) ?
    Actually, I was going to say something to the effect of “a movie based on a funnybook should not be examined with the same rigor as other movies,” but actually, you’re right, that scene betrays a great, steaming, stinking pile of bullshit in the script.

  3. As I have become the recipient of the Versatile Blogger Award, I’m now passing that honor onto you.

    • Hey now! Thanks! Well, OK. I’m out of town this week so my blogging–both reading and writing–will be minimal. But next week I’ll do my duty! (And hopefully I’ll finally get around to posting a comment about your awesome post on future of film “education.”

  4. My one-line review at the time read “The best thing about Batman Begins is that it Batman ends.”

  5. Jansen

    You’re like my wife, always ruining my movie enjoyment by bringing LOGIC into the mix.

    Well, you’re right, of course. BUT….

    Well, I have to go with It’s a comic thang on this one.

    Of course that’s one of my favorite scenes in the film. ( As Todd would say, can we still be friends? )

    Let me pose a question to you? Do you feel the Tim Burton “Batman” is a better film? Or are they all nonsense to you? (I remember when we were at Purchase, everyone seemed to think it was the Bomb..I hated it.)

    I think “Begins” is far superior for a very simple reason. It’s true to the original Origin Story of Batman.
    Now I know this won’t change your opinion, because you’re clearly not of the comic ilk, but let me defend mine.
    Origin Stories are , usually, the most interesting part of any superheroes story. They tell you how and why they decide to spend their lives being freaks in tights. Even if you don’t agree with their rationale at least you know why they are doing it. You have some insight into why they behave in such a manner.
    Sam Raimi’s first Spiderman is arguably the most perfect and “true” comic book movie that has been brought to the screen ( with perhaps the exception of another Raimi film, Darkman )when I heard he was doing the film I gave a sigh of relief, and thought, he’s gonna get it right. He understands that it’s really about Mythology and the soul of the person behind the mask. It’s not about gadgets and muscles and fighting (well, it is, but if it’s only about that then it’s just pro wrestling)
    There’s a cheesy line that gets repeated in Spiderman multiple times : “with great power comes great responsibility” If you read the first Stan Lee Spiderman comic The final pane intones that phrase..Corny? Hells Yes! But, It’s the reason Peter Parker keeps being Spidey . He’s trying to live up to that idea. Because the line is included in the movie I at least know someone read the damn comic and thought about it a little.

    The most interesting thing about Batman, to me, has always been his twisted origin story. He’s a rich kid, why the hell should he give a damn about crime? He’s also a vigilante who’s trying to uphold the law? Why? Because he was forever scarred by the death of his parents. He watches them die, and he blames himself. He blames his own fear and cowardice..(hence the taking of the image of the Bat. Something that scared the hell out of him. “Begins” includes the fall into the well, which is one of the most famous images in comic history) And ultimately he blames the disease of crime itself. Not the man who did it. That individual (he decides later) is only a symptom of the disease. (I’m not anywhere the comic geek that some are. I gave up buying them years ago. So forgive me if some of the details are not exactly accurate) He declares at some point in the original comic “A gun is a cowards weapon, the weapon that killed my parents, so I will never use one.”
    He also rationalizes that although the law is a broken and corrupt system that it is only the rule of law that keeps society from descending into chaos. And, of course, his father believed in it, Which gives him an excuse to be a vigilante without being a total bad guy. Somewhere in the early Batman comics, maybe the first one, he uses that line “I will not be an executioner” Because that would put him above the law. Early on he never kills anyone, he just dumps them tied up in front of the police station. That changes later on of course, but that’s how the original Batman rolled.
    (That’s also why he can’t bring himself to kill the Joker in the sequel. )
    All this is actually addressed in “Begins”. To me, a minor miracle.

    In the Tim Burton version, when he searches his memory about the night his parents were killed, he realizes it was…. THE JOKER! That Bastard! He killed my parents!! He even used a corny one liner so I’d know it was him later on! ooooh, now it’s REVENGE!!!!(something Batman struggles not to be a part of)
    To me that was the ultimate crime. They took an obvious, cheap, and ridiculous short cut and committed a comic book sacrilege in the process. They stripped Batman of the very essence of his identity! They robbed him of his entire rationale. I was appalled and aghast! Aghast , I say!

    Now, I’ll grant, if you don’t dig on comics, all of the above is an epic moot point. So be it. Apples and Oranges. I just felt the need to defend my Orange.

    SOOOOOOOO your right that when he kills all those ninja guys he’s kinda going back on that, and it makes no sense in the immediate context of the action, but hey ,man, it’s self defense at that point. Ducard says they’re gonna smoke him if he don’t kill that dude, You dig? BUT>>>> you’re wrong
    because………… someone finally got it right!

    So, that’s why I like Batman Begins.

    I’ll spare you why the first 45 minutes are perfect…
    and the rest of it SUCKS…Hans Zimmer being a big part of it. There were actually two composers on that film, a good one , and the consistently annoying and obvious Hans Zimmer:The Michael Bay of film composers. My guess is the studio said,
    “right, very thoughtful, now were going to do the big boring action sequence at the end, we need Hans !!”

    Are you sorry you posted about Batman Begins, Now? Admit it…Say you’re sorry, SAY IT!

    • Hey, Jansen…

      Thanks for your passionate and intelligent defense of your “Orange.” Between you and Vikki, you did more good for my perception of the film–and Mr. Bale’s performance–than any other review I ever read. Obviously, it won’t change my gut opinion, but it does clue me into what others see in these latest Batman films.

      I’m not a comic book enthusiast which made me leery of writing about this film. It’s value to so many–for reasons I regard as completely valid–makes it a slippery slope to criticize it unless I’m very precise about the point I want to make. I think I was, but you may have noticed that I didn’t dig into any other issues at play in that scene, much of which is wrapped up in Batman lore. My base feeling is that solid, character-driven writing would remove my need to know that back story. Case in point: I never knew that Batman’s “I won’t be an executioner” line is a nod to the comic book–a reference that gives Nolan more clout (like you said about the “falling in the well” story), but what Paul said in his comment (“Hollywood demands a body count”) is probably where the contradiction lies. In that case, the fault isn’t Nolan’s script but rather his eagerness to have his cake and eat it, too: include Bat-details for the fanboys and the pile of scorched, dead bodies the rest of America wants. Or, if I wanted to really emasculate Nolan, I’d say he’s backing down from the aesthetic challenge of having “his” Batman behave true to the source–and NOT kill anyone.

      I think you’re totally on the money about the impact of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight. It definitely was a game changer.

      • Jansen

        Thank YOU! I love Peel Slowly, Gets my film geek blood pumping.

        I hope I make clear that you’re whole premise is completely correct. I think people get passionate about this film because at least it tries to get to some of the truth of the character. All the previous “Batman” films are pretty much exercises in camp. I mean C’mon, The Schumacher stuff is a bad cartoon. It’s taking it’s cues from the tv show and not even doing that very well.

      • Jansen

        Well After speaking to my homie, Joe, who is much more fanboy than me..I was wrong on a few key points. Batman was always hardcore and kills at will. ( I was confusing with Daredevil) And he agrees the executioner line is bogus. Spiderman, never kills anyone. just a nice guy trying to do right. Daredevil, bound by his conviction in the law, rarely if ever kills. batman, apparently since the beginning, cold vigilante.

    • @Jansen

      I see you have retracted a few things below but there are so many incorrect facts in your argument above I felt someone should respond with a few corrections.

      In his earliest adventures (1939) the Batman occasionally uses a gun but not all the time. The “Batman never uses a gun” thing started a little later, I think in 1940. It gradually grew out of the character’s convictions that criminals use guns because they are “a cowardly lot.”

      I don’t think Batman ever said “I won’t be an executioner” in the comics. It’s certainly not an element of the Batman myth.

      The Batman was originally a “cold vigilante” as you say below. He was a killer too. His first appearance in Detective comics #27 May 1939 he stopped the bad guy by punching him through a railing into a vat of acid. The Batman’s comment? “A fitting end for his kind.” Two issues later he leaves a guy to burn to death in a fire. Next issue after that he steps on a guy’s neck and kills him. You probably shouldn’t mess with the Batman.

      “The fall into the well” wasn’t part of the original Batman story. That came WAY later I think in an ’80’s retelling of the Batman origin. Or maybe even later than that in Batman: Year One. I’d have to look it up.

      Anyway I really don’t want to nit-pick through your entire argument. You’ve said some things above that I actually agree with. Just thought some facts were in order.

      @saltobello

      Yea, that scene is bogus. The reason it doesn’t bother me that much is that I really hate Ra’s Al Ghul as a character. I’ve hated him since back in the day in the comic books. Personally I just ignored all the parts with him in Batman Begins and I took the rest for what it was worth. It’s not a great movie but I think it’s a very important step in the evolution of “comic book movies.”

      Batman Begins basically proved that superhero comic book movies didn’t have to be watered down for the kids to make money. I remember when Tim Burton’s Batman came out there was a big to-do because there were movie promotions on McDonald’s happy meals. Parents didn’t like the violence in the movie and Warner’s was all scared about losing ticket sales. I think that mentality is over now which is a positive step. Since Hollywood is so obsessed with comic book superhero movies at least lets get some good ones made for adults. (I’m thinking Watchmen here.)

      Batman is my favorite comic book superhero and for me The Dark Knight has probably been the best portrayal. It was still a bit of a mess though. What’s this obsession of having multiple bad guys in Batman Movies? The Joker’s not enough? Why take a great villain like Two Face and present him as a sidebar? Why does Scarecrow have one line then disappear?

      Hopefully the Batman movies will eventually become more like Batman in today’s comics. It’s an extremely versatile character. If you walk into a comic book store today and picked up five different Batman titles they’ll all be totally different in tone and style. That’s what we need, lots of different re-imaginings of movie Batman. Then there will be something for everybody.

  6. Origin stories are the scourge of superhero movies. My basic question about their necessity has for a long time been “Who goes to see a film called Spider-Man and doesn’t know it’s about a guy with spiderlike superpowers?”

    • Jansen

      I hear you, but i’m talking more about mindset than he was bit by the spider, etc. I think that’s why the first Iron man worked so well and the new one, not so much. It’s about his character. And once again fairly true to the original.

  7. I think the inherent flaw in all of the Batman films and the origin of the executioner twaddle is that Batman DOES NOT KILL.

    The problem is that Hollywood demands a body count…

    • Jansen

      Indeed..
      What confuses it for everyone is Frank Miller’s Dark Knight, which had a huge impact on the brand. Batman is nuts in that. Carries a gun, goes ape. But there’s a very important element to that that is always left out of the lifts and the discussion. The most revolutionary thing about Dark Knight is that Batman is OLD. He’s in his late fifties sixties. Superheroes never age in comics.

    • This is so crucial–I wish I had brought it up myself!

  8. Vicky

    So, here’s the thing… I love Batman Begins. Now, I’m no Fangirl, but I do love a good dark movie… It’s interesting that you chose to dissect a scene that reveals something very important about Bruce–he’s dark, he’s conflicted and oh yeah, he’s human. And I may get some flack about this, but I actually think Christian Bale is a good actor (see: All the Little Animals, American Psycho) and perfect as Batman in this movie. And, in some cases, I’m a Christopher Nolan fan, too. (I actually liked Memento.) I was not a fan of the Batman franchise prior to this one. Those movies weren’t dark enough, they were actually silly to me. But Begins captured me from the moment it started to the very end AND left me wanting more. That being said… sometimes movies are just movies. Sometimes, in order to enjoy the entertainment value, we have to shut off our own “bullshit detector.”

    • rakesh

      “sometimes movies are just movies. Sometimes, in order to enjoy the entertainment value, we have to shut off our own “bullshit detector.”

      @ Vicky
      I really liked the above line….
      I dont think that single scene killed the entire movie(i loved the movie) as it was not so fatal which wud hav damaged the total entertainment value therwise.
      Try to be reasonable, YOU CANNOT HAVE “bullshit detector” AND LIVE IN THIS WORLD or go to a movie .
      Please let me know if you have seen any movie in this life time which doesnot have any “mistake” in them…

      • Rakesh, you loved the film and I didn’t. For me, there was no “total entertainment value” but some scenes/moments were worse (to me) than others, which is why I focused on one point only.

        As for being “reasonable,” seeing the film more than once–and having the same reaction–is being very reasonable to a filmmaker whose work I didn’t already like.

        As for being “reasonable” about my request for a functioning bullshit detector, I should be clearer about what it is: the logical honesty I’d like the character to have will ground me in whatever reality the filmmaker wants me to believe. I certainly don’t sit in a film and say, “That’s not true. No one would do that. I’m outta here!” I’m more than willing to suspend my values and expectations when watching a film–I love doing it, in fact–but I believe strongly in the unspoken contract between viewer (Will you take me somewhere?) and filmmaker/artist (Yes, you can trust me for the next few hours).

        Since you’ve commented, Armando’s provided a long list of illogical missteps Nolan makes in both Batman films, all of which seem geared to lengthen the film or inspire yet-another action scene–but rarely providing a consistent logic that will keep us grounded.

        As for any film “which does not have any ‘mistake'”? This very post sites Wilder’s The Apartment as a film that, since it began with a solid script, every aspect is satisfying to me. Every. As for other films that I think hold together, deliver the goods, and fulfills the “contract” I just referenced, I suggest looking elsewhere on my blog. Most of my posts are about Films/Music/Things I Love and endeavor to explain why; my Griping posts are less frequent since writing them gives me acid indigestion. I also don’t write “snark” as well as others do, so I tend to stay clear from always-trendy “I’m ripping apart this film because I have some great outtakes from All About Eve that I’d like to quote” writing style.

  9. Boone

    I haven’t even gotten past the first few sentences of this post. I definitely will finish it, but must first offer my weeping gratitude for an article that aspires to flatten those two blights against cinematic pleasure, BB and TDK. And I like almost everything else Nolan has done. His Batman films are among the laziest, ugliest, most bloated, hateful and self-satisfied Ho’wood blockbusters of all time.

    Well.

  10. Jafar Al-Hassan

    You make some good points, but why are you so focused on the executioner line? Batman Begins is a deeply flawed film for many reasons. Stilted dialogue, choppy editing, messy third-act and a flat performance by Katie Holmes. I think Nolan’s weakness is staging action sequences. He doesn’t seem to know to to comprehensibly shoot moving bodies and edit them. Two examples are the hand to hand fight scenes in Batman Begins and the sonar scene in The Dark Knight.

    I say this as a Nolan fan, actually. I like The Dark Knight and I love The Prestige and Memento (which I think is one the best films of the past decade).

    Anyway, good post and a very discussion-worthy topic.

    • Thanks for the kind words–and nice to meet you!

      There’s a couple of reasons I fixated on the executioner line. For starters, I think it sums up a lot of issues for both films. I don’t know if there’s a name for it, but I’ve always been partial to scrutinizing a shot/scene/line/etc in lieu of covering the whole film–or even chunks. Which bring me to my second reason for fixating on one line from Batman Begins: insecure, lazy & time-restrained. I don’t feel like my writing/critiquing chops are up to reviewing or dismembering a whole film; it’s too much work to something like that (I’m trying to keep a 3-posts-a-week pace); and I’m trying to find a job, help raise a kid, live a life away from the computer, blah, blah, blah. And the last reason I did is all about positivity. I think it sucks to wallow for too long on what I don’t like. Puts me in a bad mood!

      • Jansen

        Awesome! I was gonna ask how you find the time to peel slowly. I think you have the chops to review a whole film, without question. But I hear you about time, baby. And to do it to a level that satisfies you. Well, I love you’re stuff. Always have.keep going!

  11. armando

    You are right, that scene is completely wrong,
    Batman learned everything from them, but when it comes to actually do a sacrifice for them, he doesn’t and starts killing them, imagine an FBI cadette did that, he would be considered a traitor and would go to jail.

    There are a lot of fake moralizing scenes in both Begins and TDK:

    – Batman doesn’t run over the joker(for the very same reason of:”I won’t be an executioner”), instead he prefers to crash and get unconscious, Notice at that part in the movie batman doesn’t know the joker doesn’t want to kill him, SO, getting inconscious 30 mts away from the joker = DEATH

    – Batman has to catch the joker from his fall. but he had to throw him in the first place to save the people in the boats, and then makes an impressive physical effort to save him, NOBODY would say that batman MURDERED the joker, only batman himself.

    -The civilians in the “good” boat cannot press the buttom because that would be MURDER, and all the murderers and rapist in the other boat deserve to live as much as them. so they have to wait to be murdered by the criminals or the joker, if they wan’t to continue to be good people.

  12. armando

    – Batman doesn’t have to save Ra’as al ghul (Liam Neeson’s character), but HAS to save the Joker, who is far more evil, and saves him twice.

    -Of all the evil people in both movies, the only one batman ends up killing is Harvey Dent, a person totally deserving of a second of even third chance in life
    and if it was physically impossible to save Harvey Dent and Gordon’s son, wasn’t also impossible to save the joker from his fall?

    – In both movies Batman tortures people, but when he finally, finally captures the joker, Batman simply stands there listening to him instead of beating the crap out of him (because of murdering Rachel)

    -Batman doesn’t save the joker so he be punished for all the extremely evil things he did, (punished by batman or by prison time), Batman just saves him because he “won’t be an executioner”

    • Armando, you gave this all a lot more thought than I did! Though I do remember when watching TDK feeling an awful lot of moral confusion: why did he do this but not that? Those kind of questions, the answers of which normally meant there was now a logical excuse for an action scene to begin or to end. At least I’ll grant Nolan consistency.

      • armando

        I have the seen the whole movie again, and in that very scene, they in fact tell him they plan to kill every single person in Gotham City, but still it is a contrived scene. Bruce should at least ask to see the evidence against that guy or see how brutal the murder was.

  13. Pingback: …Unless It’s Tuesday: My Reaction to Inception « Peel Slowly

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  15. George Claire

    Bruce went on a rampage because he had just heard that the League of Shadows planned to raze Gotham. If you were in the same position, and had the ability to perform the stunts that he did, what would you have done? He stated his intention to not be an “executioner”, but I believe the ensuing revelation would have been a bit overwhelming no matter how resolute he was in conviction not to kill. The theme of Bruce becoming like the League of Shadows is raised in that scene and followed up upon in the next two movies. Also, he does not kill the man who is tied up. He may not have saved him, but he did not kill him with his own hand, which may or may not have been intended to bring Bruce’s intentions further into question.

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