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Batman Begins and Fantastic 4

I wouldn't ordinarily combine commentary on two movies, but we saw them both in the same night, they're both based on comic books (from D.C. and Marvel respectively), they're both "origin" films which are hoping to launch (or relaunch) franchises, and they're both aimed at the same audience but take such entirely different tacks it's hard not to compare.

I'll say up front that I am not a professional comic book reader. For me, comics are something I enjoyed as a kid with a bowl of cold cereal on a Saturday afternoon. My brother, in contrast, has probably spent enough on comics and graphic novels over the years to have bought a good-sized truck. He can tell you how many versions of Superman's origin there are, who wrote which, what the villains have done, and which reboots have crossed over into what other universes. I'm still waiting to borrow the one where Supergirl dies just so I can read it. (I even offered to let him hold it and turn the pages with tongs so I wouldn't soil it. No dice.) So I'm not approaching either storyline with a nitpicker's magnifying glass to ask why so-and-so was written thus-and-such a way, mainly because I wouldn't know.

I'm... BatbatBatman Begins is definitely the superior film. Much like Spider-Man, Batman Begins spends almost 40% of its script on setting up how an ordinary man accepts the responsibility of becoming an extraordinary crimefighter. Familiar names are dropped (Lucius Fox, Joe Chill, Commissioner Gordon in his beat-cop years) and the murder of Bruce's parents is faithful to the standard story. But unlike Peter Parker, Bruce Wayne has no obliging radioactive mutant fairy godspider to grant him Matrix-like abilities. He has to earn everything the hard way: training. This verisimilitude is the major hallmark of the movie. Batman's story unfolds as though it could actually happen.

Told in an interestingly involuted fashion, a lushly Art Deco Gotham is revealed to be corrupt to its overripe core, and owned by a local crime lord; Bruce is haunted by the fear of bats and the guilt over his parents' murder. After many years of petulant lashing-out, he's finally tempted by Qui-Gon Jinn to join a League of Shadows, which is basically a very well-choreographed band of ninja vigilantes. (He was played by Liam Neeson with a similar li'l goatee, I never did catch the character's name, he was acting like an arrogant Jedi, and using a sword for most of his screen time. Qui-Gon it is.) The League of Shadows wants to be a League Of Justice Of Our Own. Bruce finds freelance executions to be icky, and leaves (but not before blowing up the temple-like house on the Nepalese hillside and saving Qui-Gon from burning to death). The crime lord has steadily bought up Gotham's cops (and robbers), and employs a pet psychiatrist -- a slithery androgynous fellow who looks like he's channeling Johnny Depp in Sleepy Hollow through Smallville's Tom Welling and adding a little Ed Grimley for spice -- to declare any of his jailed cronies "insane" so they can be safely shipped to Arkham Asylum. Rachel, the assistant DA who was Bruce's childhood friend, tries to object to this. Rachel is played by teenybopper nobility Katie Holmes with the dramatic impact of a Cabbage Patch doll, so the bad guys are understandably unimpressed.

Re-enter Bruce, on a mission to clean up Gotham. He builds his persona/outfit a piece at a time with the help of gadgetmeister Fox and clever butler Alfred. (I'm sure nobody will get the reference, but there was a old Wonder Woman comic where as a teenager, she had to find each piece of her costume in various risky parts of the world and could only earn each item by completing some dangerous task. I can't imagine the filmmakers are familiar with that story, but it's a nice parallel.) There are more similarities to Spider-Man here too, as Bruce has to find a symbol, design a costume, and learn the limits of his abilities and his toys. The gadgets are cool without being too unbelievable. (Except for the car. The Batmobile is reimagined as a Bat-tank, ugly and rough and with a strange firing sequence which requires 15 seconds of the driver taking his eyes off the road to get down on his elbows to shoot.)

Some of the dialogue, especially in the beginning when the crime lord is talking about fear to a college-age Bruce, is clunky and obvious, designed to push forward the plot rather than to sound like human beings talking, although that's how a lot of comic books read in the day. Once the expository speeching is completed, the real action gets underway, and that's much more interesting.

The Buddhist Jedi Ninja training makes Bruce rip apart each fear, each layer of guilt, and face it until he owns it so that it no longer interferes with his life. He rebuilds, re-creates himself psychologically to accept his past and to embrace his new mission. But it's his mission, not Qui-Gon's -- he won't murder or destroy on a whim or on someone else's command. So when he returns to Gotham, he's filled with his own purpose, ready to find the tools and allies to proceed.

Along with Alfred and Fox, those allies are the previously-mentioned featherheaded love interest Rachel and a completely submerged Gary Oldman as Officer Gordon. (Oldman is just fantastic at that kind of acting. He wore minimal makeup or latex, if any, and he didn't do anything special, and once I looked on the IMDb and realized who it was he clicked immediately. But not knowing it was him? I would never have guessed that was Sirius Black in the trenchcoat.) Gotham's good guys are way outnumbered -- Gordon's partner is openly on the take from the crime lord, or maybe he was a bad guy who openly rode with the cop -- but keep fighting even as they're drowning.

Batman's goal is clear: he wants to make Gotham clean and honest again. He goes after lower-echelon punks and works his way up the scummy ladder, passing evidence to the police and getting the criminals arrested so they can go through the actual justice system. This is important to Bruce. He's not a mere lone hunter; he's trying to help the law enforcement officers who are overwhelmed.

In keeping with this very realistic Batman universe, one of the "bad guys" is a garden-variety boardroom shark, played by a square-jowled Rutger Hauer. The head of the Board works through the film to take Wayne Enterprises public, and to invest in sectors like weapons research, to assure the future and profitability of the company. Of course, no comic-book movie would work without some costumed nutjob, and the Scarecrow makes a small but important appearance.

And it is a comic-book movie, for all its plausibility. Gotham cop cars get flipped and battered and torn and bashed in the misguided pursuit of the Bat-tank, which, given Bruce's commitment to rule of law, kind of bothered me. Parking garages, buildings, and apartments are torn apart without consequence. (One cop car is skidding across a roof gouging up the tiles, and all I can think is "oh my god all that slate! That's going to be insanely expensive to replace!" Gotham City Council is going to have to increase its repairs budget exponentially.) The League of Shadows claims responsibility for sacking the empires of Rome, London, and the current Yankees lineup.

What makes Batman Begins so rich is that it takes itself seriously. The characters move from point A to point B as genuine people would, without narrative gimmicks or shortcuts. (Other than infinite cash, but even that gets an attempted explanation.) It feels honest. The acting is strong throughout, with the exception of Holmes, who wasn't annoying, merely pointless. Gotham feels gritty and sad. We see the beautiful WayneTrain, swirling with curves and shiny with chrome and promise after the Depression, rattling through bad neighborhoods and covered with graffiti like it just escaped from Fort Apache the Bronx. The details matter. Alfred nags Bruce to keep up the family name and reputation -- to stay a visible playboy, to take up a sport to explain his bruises and strange hours, to cover his purchasing tracks for the Bat-accoutrements. The film is well-paced, taking just the amount of time needed for the protagonist to become a hero, and then the hero has a proper adventure.

Mediocre 4

The "proper adventure" is something missing from Fantastic 4. It's technically as much of a "beginnings" movie as Batman Begins or Spider-Man, but everyone spends a lot of time Becoming and precious little Being. The four heroes bicker, whine, argue, nag, complain, snipe, show off, and generally try to dodge the great responsibility which has come with this great power. It takes the moron of the movie, Johnny Storm the Human Torch, to be the cheerleader for being superheroes. "Am I the only one who thinks this is cool?" he asks his petulant sister Sue Storm and worrywart geek Reed Richards (the Invisible Woman and Mr. Fantastic respectively).

The Storms, Richards, and pilot Ben Grimm join another rich scientist type, Victor von Doom (who knew orbital engineering was so profitable?), on von Doom's personal space station to observe the effects of a Plot Complication Cloud. (Okay, so only those five were up here? No redshirts, no NPCs, no lab assistants on a highly technical and complicated scientific mission? On a space station big enough to have gravity plating, shields [I have to assume they were talking about metal, not forcefields], and a Bridge, there wasn't even a janitor to sweep up the cosmic dust from those cavernous hallways?)

Moving on. The five start sprouting gifts, or problems, depending on your point of view. Whiny, self-doubting, spineless Reed becomes rubbery, allowing him to be infinitely flexible in his desperate attempts to squirm away from anything involving adult emotional responsibility. Sue has two entirely unrelated tricks: she bends light around her so she can't be seen, and she can create and hold force fields. Johnny can hit something like four thousand degrees Kelvin and can fly, which sounds to me more like he should have been called the Human Roman Candle. Ben, the salt-of-the-earth Brooklynite, becomes a walking pile of rock. (The Hulk should be so lucky.) Victor lives up to his potential as tin-plated dictator and slowly morphs into living titanium.

If any of these sound vaguely familiar, it's because The Incredibles did this much better last year. (We will now pause for a moment as everyone matches up the Four with the Parrs.) The difference is that, like Batman Begins, The Incredibles believed in itself. It had a story to tell, and a universe which hung together. Fantastic 4 just sort of shoves it all out there and asks us to accept it. Reed is famous but bankrupt, according to a magazine headline, yet can still afford a four-story penthouse apartment in Manhattan and can have a cosmic-storm simulator and resonance chamber built in a week or so. The Four are mobbed in the streets but nobody's figured out what building they're all living in. Engineers and scientists can make gazillions with their inventions, and can be unmade overnight.

Batman is built on the classic structure of the Hero's Journey. The hero starts out in familiar surroundings, something happens to set him on his quest, he leaves and undergoes many trials with the help of a wise mentor, he achieves his quest, and brings back to the familiar surroundings the prize and knowledge. Fantastic 4 should follow this pattern as well -- but it doesn't. There is almost no growth from anyone until the last 10 or 15 minutes, when the three male heroes get over themselves. The bad guy just becomes more evil and demented, losing what little subtlety and sophistication he had. Sue doesn't change at all; she just waits for Reed to get his act together. They don't examine themselves or look too deeply into why each one morphed as s/he did, or try very hard to fix their underlying personality problems.

There's one thirty-second montage where the Four are sort of shown having adapted to their abilities -- Reed stretches across the hall for toilet paper, he walks in on Sue when she's inexplicably invisible after a shower, Johnny pops a Jiffy-Pop in his hand. What we should have seen is a growing accumulation of scenes where the Four (or five) are actually getting to use their powers on a daily basis, coming to understand these new parts of themselves, and getting a taste of what it might be like to enjoy living like this instead of rushing back to boring normality.

Frankly, though, they're fairly boring even as mutants. Poor Ben -- the man made of stone -- is the only one with any personality. (Michael Chiklis does a very good job bringing the big costume to life. Excellent decision to put a guy in a suit rather than CGI.) His wife abandons him, even after seeing the good he can do (Bitch.), and his mourning for her becomes part of his misery at being trapped in a body only capable of blunt force. Reed is a math geek. Um, and that's about it. Johnny is a young daredevil. Um, and that's about it. At least Torch tries to have some kind of fun with his flame and flying, but he does it in such an irresponsible way that I wanted to slap him around.

The Four only join forces to combat badness when it affects them directly -- when von Doom, who's been spying on their pathetic lives, unFantastics the Thing and kidnaps Reed. (Which, if nothing else, is a refreshing change from the girl getting kidnapped all the time.) Then he takes on the others, in an increasingly ridiculous shower of SFX which heaps another round of abuse on New York City. (At least the first thing the Four do is save a ladder of firefighters and their Dalmatian. Anyone who rescues the FDNY can't be all bad.) But they don't ever seize their destiny as crimefighters. They're just mutant astronauts in matching suits. Johnny yells "What if we were given these powers for a reason?" The line would have more resonance if he hadn't just come from a bike rally where he proceeded to use his powers to make a flaming spectacle of himself.

The attempts at humor are juvenile, even below what used to be considered "comic book level." I realize that the movies are staying true to their source materials, but come on -- in Fantastic 4, even the names aren't trying very hard. Storm? Grimm? von Doom? (And as an ENT fan, hearing "Reed" repeatedly as a first name was distracting.) The Cute Chick ends up nekkid a couple of times. Johnny's ego-trips, which I understand are accurate to the character, are tiresome.

Fantastic 4 isn't a great movie in and of itself. Seeing it just after Batman Begins, it really looks poor.

As heroes, the Four hardly match up. Individually and collectively they have more power than any of Fox's widgets could accomplish, but they focus on...uh...popcorn and bike flips. Bruce Wayne already is a billionaire, and could live his life in comfort and decadence, jetting around the world if Gotham gets too stale. He devotes eight years to training himself to be a Jedi Ninja so he can take on Gotham's criminal underworld practically by himself, because it's the right thing to do for the innocent citizens of Gotham.

Contrast billionaire businessmen Bruce Wayne and Victor von Doom. When a jerky Chair of the Board takes Bruce's company public, he uses numerous technical vehicles to buy up the lion's share of the stock to seize back ownership secretly. When von Doom's stock goes belly-up, his Board gives him a mere week to turn things around, and his IPO tanks because he's too busy zapping light sockets and picking staples out of his forehead. Bruce goes swimming fully-clothed in a hotel fountain to prove a point and lives in an elegant castle going back to the Civil War. Von Doom whines about the cameras only shooting him from the left side on Larry King and has an enormous ego-stroke of a V made into the decor of his apartment. And speaking of the hotel fountain escapade, compare playboys Bruce and Johnny. The Torch collects grungy fangirls at a motorcross rally. Bruce Wayne has a pair of European supermodels.

Sadly, however, the two main women have much in common: they're both invisible, literally or figuratively. As happens so often to comic-book women, Rachel is overpowered and kidnapped by the bad guy and must be rescued by the hero. He gives her a macguffin, which she must then take to one of the other male heroes to help save the day. Sue Storm can become visually transparent, but her standard clothes can't -- so she has to strip down until she's naked and barefoot to escape. Twice. It's played for laughs, but I was so humiliated for her I had to look away until the scene shifted. (But her spacesuit becomes entirely invisible, just as Reed's stretches and Johnny's doesn't burn. Do the suits have built-in boxers and support panels, or do they all have special space dainties?)

Both films are set up to allow for sequels. Given the quality of writing, I'd be just as happy to leave Fantastic 4 on the slow boat back to obscurity and do a few more rounds with the Bat.