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A British Accent is the New Black

Just saw Batman Begins. Passable summer stuff, and definitely better than any Batman film since Burton left the director's chair. My only real comment, sadly, is a spoiler, so it's below the cut:

Update: Above the cut, since it's not relevant to the spoiler below, let me just say that I disagree with Ann Althouse's review (or rather, her favorable quote of another one). On the one hand, it gets a few things right: the fight scenes are shot too close and too quick, and some of the dialogue--mostly what was given to Katie Holmes--is wooden in the extreme. But Batman Begins seems to be an attempt to restart the franchise, to put the horrible George Clowny years behind, and thank goodness. Althouse apparently approves of the idea that "the filmmakers haven�t developed an adequate villain for [Batman] to go up against." Thank goodness the filmmakers didn't follow such advice: one breath of fresh air in this film comes from the fact that it is about the hero. I can't sort out the names of the other Batman films, but remember them by their villains. This one I won't have to.

As for Althouse's assertion that "crazy-making steam" would be a good plot-line for a B-movie, she was aware she was going to see a Batman movie that had the Scarecrow as the main villain, right? Scarecrow's a one-trick pony, and "crazy-making steam" was practically a given.

Update 2: Actually, I see that Althouse has written her own review:

I noticed a right-wing edge to some key statements: "Criminals thrive on the indulgence of society's understanding." Take that, you Gitmo critics! And it was quite clear that we were supposed to think about the criminals as al-Qaeda. Here was this "League of Shadows," based in Asia, bent on destroying "Gotham." We were nudged constantly to make this connection.

OK, look, can I make a deal with folks like Prof. Althouse? If we leave things like the First Amendment in their bailiwick, can they please not drag their politics into our comic books?

Ra's al Ghul started off as a Batman villain in the early '70s, long before anyone had even considered something called al-Qaeda. And far from shoving an al-Qaeda riff down our throats, the movie does everything it can to move the film away from anything vaguely Islamic. He's played by Ken Watanabe, for crying out loud. The scenes with him in it (or, see spoiler below) seem to be set in Nepal instead of Arabia. And the "Society of Shadows"--a fanatical organization devoted to his will--is part of the character of Ra's and has been, so far as I know, since his creation.

Frankly, Ra's had all the attributes that Althouse complains of as "nudging" her towards al-Qaeda in the early seventies, and far from shoving the connection down our throats, the scriptwriters seem to have done everything humanly possible to remove the character from such associations, going to the strange length of making him a Japanese ninjitsu expert. (As I recall the character, he was more of an Arab version of an evil Sherlock Holmes, or maybe a Moriarty.)

Maybe Althouse is saying that Christopher Nolan specifically chose al Ghul as the villain in order to make right-wing points, but Occam's Razor suggests that Joel Schumacher ran through all the A-list villains in his run on the franchise, and when good ol' R.A.G. was next in line, they bent over backwards to make the connection as weak as possible. It's not the writer's fault that the character of Ra's has a lot in common with another ideological maniac, and certainly I made it through the whole film without once making the connection.

(Incidentally: that line about criminals functioning on the indulgence of society is actually a bit of a right-wing drift to the character, but not in the way that Althouse suggests. In the film, al Ghul seems obsessed with cleansing society of villainy and injustice, whereas the original character was, to put it bluntly, an ecoterrorist who approved of saving the earth through the death of humanity. Both are omlette/eggs worldviews, but the latter is not normally a part of right-wing politics.)

Discussing the movie with a friend before I saw it, I voiced my annoyance at one nonsensical aspect of Hollywood "multiculturalism." Hollywood knows the difference between whites and minorities, but I've often wondered why no one who makes blockbusters can make any distinction once the skin tone leaves off white. The main villain of Batman Returns is Ra's al Ghul. The name is supposed to mean "Demon's Head" in Arabic, but take that for what it's worth: comic book translations are often bad, and I don't know enough Arabic to guarantee it's accurate. Nevertheless, throughout the entire run of the character, on in comics, on TV, and even in his very name, he's always been an Arab.

Which is why it makes perfect sense for him to be played by Ken Watanabe, right? (Hint: For Watanabe to be an Arab name, the Mongols would have to have conquered Japan and all of Persia, and then decided that they were the Arab nation. Needless to say, they didn't, not even in the fanciful world that includes Gotham City.)

So, OK, Ra's is now an expert in ninjitsu. We can all be a bit baffled by that, or as to why the first words out of Bruce's mouth when he meets Ra's isn't, "Al Ghul my ass, Oni no Atama is more like it." But having seen the film, it's even worse: although it's uncredited, Ra's al Ghul actually hides his identity by having Watanabe's character--a mook with no real name--pose as him. You'd think that maybe the script--which spends some tedious minutes explaining such things as why Batman's cape allows him to fly, even though the explanation lends no element of credibility to the over the top special effect--might recover by having the real al Ghul show up as a man of the proper ethnicity.

Unless Liam Neeson has some lineage we don't know about, such hopes are in vain.

This is a new low. I mean, I can shrug off Sean Connery playing a Russian sub captain who happens to have a strong Scottish accent. I can shrug off Alan Rickman in Die Hard (or worse, Jeremy Irons in Die Hard III) playing German villains with accents bare miles from the Channel. But the man who played the eponymous lead in Rob Roy is suddenly Ra's al Ghul? If Hollywood is going to insist that all villains be played by British actors--and they should, because Britian makes good actors and any good movie should have a good villain--then can't we at least make said villains British?


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Tony: the reason I say the crazy-making steam would be good for a very low budget movie is that it's the cheapest special effect ever. I'll respond to some of the other things in a post.
I'm sure that this is contra the comic books, and I tend to think superhero movies should hew very closely to their source materials, but I do have to say: If I were a crazy ninja nihilist whose main defense is the fact that I am disguised as the second-in-command of myself, I would be sure to pick a crazy ninja name that deviated from my own ethnicity. Minor misdirection, but surprisingly effective. (Similarly, if I were Ken Watanabe, I would go by "Jack McCoy" or something similar, and have my decoy be a white guy.) The points about the conflation of Asian cultures are very well-taken though, as is everything you say in response to Althouse.
Doesn't Ra'as al Ghul neatly deviate from both Watanabe's and Neeson's ethnicities? You come in expecting standard Arab terrorist and ... it's a Japanese guy! No, wait, a white guy! (In the top secret sequel, it will be revealed that al Ghul *actually* is a South Asian programmer gone mad from too much coding.) Heck, if there's any politics in the movie, I'd say it's a warning against ethnic profiling.
Unless Liam Neeson has some lineage we don't know about department: Neeson is Irish, northern. Are the Irish British? I suppose Ireland is one of the British Isles, but I'm unsure on the usage. I don't see a lot of movies, but your review leaves me more likely to see this one. You might also get some of the credit for the many hours i've wasted on webcomix in the last year.
Last I knew, Northern Ireland was part of the United Kingdom. I suppose there's probably some bitter angsty discussion available on whether you can call the Northern Irish "British," but frankly, that wasn't the point of the post, so I didn't bother.
Arbitrary aardvark, the Irish are not British, they're Irish. That's why they're called 'Irish'. And Ireland is not part of the British Isles. Off topic i know, but as an Irish person i find that comment extrememly annoying. Thank You :)
Ireland is part of the British isles; people born in Northern Ireland are British citizens. These are facts - get over it.

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