The reviews are coming in for "Batman Begins," and interestingly the elite critics seem to be differing from the amateurs on the Web.
Take a look at Rotten Tomatoes, where so far there are just over 50 reviews, and over 80% of them are positive. That's a good start. But only 5 of 10 "cream of the crop," -- which is to say reviewers at mid- or top-tier publications -- liked it. Top critics like Variety's Todd McCarthy (who sits 50 feet away), the New Yorker's David Denby, and Time's Richard Schickel all disliked it and their common complaint seems to be that it wasn't fun enough. "Where have all the jokes gone?" asks Denby. "Psychological depth is all well and good," says Todd, "but it's an open question how much time you want to spend on it when the subject is a cartoon character."
Meanwhile, the Web geeks all love it. Geek site IGN Filmforce said "Smart and precisely crafted, 'Batman Begins' is the most accessible comic film ever made." Most other non-amateur reviews so far follow suit.
The first thing to say about this interesting disparity is that it's clear "Batman Begins" is a movie that's going to energize the fans at least as much as "Sin City" and more than any other big budget studio movie based on a comic book ever has. But elite critics who aren't really comic book fans and have a very different expectation for a comic book adaptation will be polarized, because they're expecting a fun big budget spectacle and won't get it.
In other words, the geeks read and loved Frank Miller's "Batman: Year One" and "The Dark Knight Returns" and are thrilled to see that level of charaterization and darkness on screen. Many critics have probably never seen anyone take Batman seriously and find the idea of giving a guy who dresses up like a bat pathos and a rich supporting cast to be beside the point.
The other thing to say is that critics like Schickel and Denby and McCarthy are wrong. Very wrong. "Batman Begins" is easily the best studio movie so far this year, the best comic book adaptation ever, and a film that should play broadly to adults who don't typically like big budget action movies even though it won't appeal to 10 year olds who loved "Star Wars."
I saw a screening this weekend and was really blown away. It hits on almost every level. Most importantly, everyone and everything feels real. As many have commented, the point of the movie is to make a guy who takes the crazy step of dressing up like a bat to fight crime feel like a real person, and Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale do that. But the rest of the cast is almost all brilliant. Gary Oldman gives the decent cop Jim Gordon who becomes a Batman ally real humanity mixed with uncertainty about working with a vigilante; Tom Wilkinson plays the cocky crime lord brilliantly; Morgan Freeman plays Q to Bruce Wayne's James Bond, but instead of going campy with the gadgets he lets us in on his motivation and how much he knows about what his boss is up to with just his face; and Michael Caine gives the devoted butler Alfred, who is usually played as staid and soulless, an actual point of view and depth of character that he has never before had in a "Batman" adaptation. Katie Holmes and Cillian Murphy aren't quite up to par, but they're not bad.
I only had two complaints. Nolan doesn't seem to have mastered shooting fight scenes, so when fists are flying it mostly ends up a jumbled bunch of quick cuts where you can't quite tell what's going on. Since this Batman relies much more on inspiring fear than on kicking ass, though, it's not a major concern. The only real problem is that the primary villain, whose plot is revealed near the end, is kind of lame and definitely nonsensical. It's wildly absurd that he would have the motivation he does and it doesn't make much sense that he would choose to accomplish his evil plot the way he does it. But the style and the acting and the characters are so fucking good that it's very easy to forget about that.
Some critics got it. I think Kenneth Turan's review in the LA Times today is the most dead-on take.
This is a movie that dares to treat something that could be absurd as if it's deadly serious and makes you understand the characters better than many documentaries. I'm a huge fan of Tim Burton's "Batman," which focused on style and mood and largely ignored characterization, but "Batman Begins" is simply the exact opposite approach and Nolan accomplished his goal at least as effectively (if not better) than Burton.
It remains to be seen whether enough elite critics will agree with me, and word of mouth is strong enough, to bring in the adults who would typically avoid this. If that happens, I think "Batman Begins" could be the mega-hit of the summer (after "Stars Wars," alas) and we'll get the sequel expertly set up at the end of this movie.