(I never thought I’d dip back into this well, but then life happens and there you go.)
Heath Ledger notwithstanding, I think it’s fairly obvious that Batman Begins is the better of recent reboots. Nolan structures the first film not around an admittedly ingeniuous performance, but around a modified classical dynamic, by which I mean, he abides by his Aristotle. It opens with the most incentive of incentive moments—a boy watching his parents murdered before his eyes—then proceeds to a classic peripeteia*—that moment of reversal when the boy who witnessed his parents’ murder decides to forsake revenge and fight all crime instead the responsible criminals. It need not bear mentioning, I don’t think, that the deus ex machina, which Aristotle would otherwise despise, in this case fits within “the unity of action,” because it has “an air of design” that’s well-nigh indisputable.
The real crux is the film’s anagnorisis—or “revelation” in the I-murdered-my-father-made-kids-with-my-mother-sense—which occurs at a time Aristotle would’ve approved of, but not in the way he’d prefer. You’ll remember that, early in Batman Begins, the recently returned Bruce Wayne takes his horny butler’s advice and invites some models to go swimming in a restaurant with him:
Nolan’s use of a medium-long shot there is deceptive, as these aren’t really women so much as beards:
I’m not saying they’re all legs and hair, the cropped medium shot notwithstanding—but for the purpose of the plot, Nolan certain reduces them to as much. (We’re just going to skip over the scene of them skinny dipping, you know, for the kids.) The point is that these women are props, mere things Alfred suggests Bruce Wayne should acquire should he not want to be discovered as the Batman. So, then, anagnorisis avoided … except:
The love of Wayne’s life can’t even look at him—and not just because I caught bad capture. She’s just watched him escort two soaking models from a hotel she’s about to learn he bought, so she shouldn’t want to look at him. But when she does, he makes a plea:
Which you can tell, because he’s wearing his best “plea” face, insisting that he “is more,” whatever that means (“I’m the Batman”) but also because previously Nolan kept him, however blurrily, in frame with Rachel Dawes when she spoke:
But when he needs to say something? The camera centers on him and her dark hair turns into an inhuman column:
In this shot-reverse-shot sequence, he’s clearly the focus. Granted, he may be out of focus on the reverse shots, but he’s still recognizably him, whereas when the camera flips, she becomes another dark image plastered on a theater wall. The irony of this portrayal is significant, though, as she’s about to utter the most important words in the film:
“It’s not who you are underneath,” she tells him, “but what you do, that defines you.” Note that from the beginning of this exchange to the utterance of this line, Nolan’s moved from a medium, to a medium close-up, to a close-up on Rachel Dawes. He’s not letting the words carry the weight here alone: his camera’s actively abetting in the creation of their significance. Just in case you didn’t catch how her words diminished him, Nolan lets his camera hammer it home:
He reverses the cut-pan into Rachel’s face with a slow-cut-pan away from Wayne’s. The audience has been convinced of her importance by the camera’s movement towards her. It’s been convinced of his insignificance by it’s movement away. But!
Extreme close-up of a glove being put on!
And of personally autographed toys being picked up!
Followed by a long shot of a “car” being driven with anger! THIS MAN WILL NOT BE DIMINISHED! Nolan knocked Wayne down above, but as the film proclaims, repeatedly, people only fall to get back up. But “getting back up” isn’t enough for this genre. Wayne must GET BACK UP, which entails all the criminals being set free, a poisonous gas clogging the air, and every cop in Gotham already having been deployed and incapacitated. Because this is what it takes for the Batman to GET BACK UP:
“WE HAS NO MORE HELP!”
“WAIT! THE FOCUS JUST RACKED SO THERE MAY BE SOMETHING MORE IMPORTANT THAN MYSELF BEHIND ME!”
“WHAT IS IT?”
“COULD YOU BE MORE SPECIFIC?”
At which point, Aristotle’s very happy about the way the plot’s coming together, but we’ve not yet had a moment of sublime anagnorisis. It’s all well-and-good that the Wayne-Gordon-Batman relation is being sewn up, but that’s neither who you are underneath nor what you do that defines you. If only Rachel Dawes was stuck on that island—
Excellent! Maybe with that kid from earlier in the film, too, to wrap it all—
Even better! Good thing we cut from that medium shot on her to that close-up on him, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to see the pain in his face when he says “Batman will save us.” Because he won’t. It makes narrative sense, but Aristotle would roll if Batman literally dropped from the sky deus ex machina-style and saved these two from the island of unlocked prisoners—
Those were Bat-thighs, descending from above, like a Greek god, to save this child and the love of Bruce Wayne’s life. Total coincidence. It’s not like he’s about to—
BATMAN SAID WHAT?
“It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do, that defines me.”
Someone has anagnorisis face, and rightly so, because it’s been a long time coming. All the close-ups on the faces should’ve alerted the audience to the fact that a revelation was on its way, as there’s no reason to resort to so many in a row if the audience isn’t supposed to key in on faces. Plus, all those humanizing close-ups make the following sequence all the more moving. First, a very brief long shot, which breaks the rhythm of the close-ups:
It also interrupts the conversational rhythm with the abruptness of his flight, emphasizing, yet again, that the Batman is very fast. But it also adds to the melancholy characterizing the following long shot:
The little boy he’s just revealed himself to be is alone in the sky, delving into certain pain and possible death, for reasons which the audience knows as well as Dawes. And he’s doing so alone. I know italicized-worthy-alone from different circumstances, but in some respect, so do we all. Even if we don’t, though, Nolan frames this final image in a way that makes any and all final leaps sink into our chest irrespective of whether we’ve ever been unfortunate enough to have to make them.
When I say film’s the most manipulative meduim out there, folks, I’m very rarely kidding.