Tone n: A general quality, effect, or atmosphere.
Tone is the single most important thing to get right when making a film derived from a comic book. Set the right tone, and the film can be a critical and commercial success, pleasing even the most die-hard fans of the source material. Strike the wrong tone, however, and the movie will be shredded to pieces, injected with the most poisonous critical venom; utterly alienating the fans of the source material.
Of course, there are other factors that are almost as equally critical to a comic book film’s success as tone. Casting the right actors to give life to the characters is a huge one, as is choosing the right director and screenwriter to adapt the material. But tone is where the heart of the picture lies…it is the mysterious, intangible force that can pop these pulp heroes off the page or bury them in a dusty box.
Some examples of comic book movies that have gotten the tone completely right: Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, Hellboy, X-Men, X2: X-Men United, The Crow, and, to a certain point, Superman (1978), and Batman (1989).
Some examples of comic book movies that have the completely wrong tone: Daredevil, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Hulk, Elektra, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, Batman & Robin, Superman III, Superman IV, and from the looks of it, the upcoming Fantastic Four.
Last night, I went to check out Batman Begins, and I only have one word for the tone of this film:
Absolutey nailed. Blasted out the park. A grand slam.
The folks responsible for this adaptation of the Dark Knight simply “got it.” 100%.
Batman is a persona that was created to inspire fear into the hearts of criminals. A creature of the night that hunts from the shadows, strikes without warning, and vanishes into the darkness like a nightmare. The character is never meant to be seen by the general public, he is merely meant to exist in their whispers, an urban myth that is talked about in hushed tones throughout Gotham City.
Batman does not have a “Bat Credit Card”, and he doesn’t attend charity auctions or debutante balls. He doesn’t drive around the city streets in the Batmobile in broad daylight, waving to cheering citizens. He doesn’t have a “Bat Phone” that connects him to the commissioner. He doesn’t wear a costume with rubber nipples or operate vehicles with spinning neon turbine engines and open cockpits. He doesn’t crack jokes like, “It’s the car, right? Chicks dig the car.”
All of these things are wrong, wrong, WRONG…and this movie understsands that. It understands that and washes all of these injustices away until they are nothing more than a faded bad memory. Screenwriter David Goyer and director Christopher Nolan have given us a film that treats the character with respect; a loud, thrilling masterpiece that doesn’t insult your intelligence or bombard you with inappropriate campy antics.
Christian Bale gives us a Batman that will scare the living shit out of you. His voice is a gravelly, menacing sound, and when he yells at some poor schmuck to get some information, it’s downright terrifying. He swoops out of darkened alleys, hitting fast and furious. He’s brutal, cold, and calculating. In short, he’s everything that anybody who ever put that cape and cowl on is not. Perfection.
The villains are also amazing, but a huge part of their contributions to the overall brilliance of the film is their failure to dominate it. The previous Batman movies were plagued by these cackling idiots in ludicrous costumes who pushed Batman to the back burner. In Batman Begins, we finally get to spend some time with the hero, learning who he really is behind the mask.
Not to imply that the villains are poorly fleshed out or inconsequential to the story – quite the opposite in fact. Cillian Murphy is a very effective Scarecrow, turning in a subdued, but intensely creepy performance as a warped psychiatrist who uses fear gas on his victims, unleashing horrifying hallucinations. Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai) is a shadowy Tibetian criminal warlord named Ra’s Al Ghul, who watches over young Bruce Wayne’s training with Ducard, played by Liam Neeson. But things are not what they appear with this situation, and a shocking twist comes into play towards the climax. The rest of the cast is solid, especially Gary Oldman, who finally gives us a competent, intelligent James Gordon.
Essentially, the movie is about fear. Confronting it, learning from it, using it, and conquering it. It’s a dark, serious film that leaves little room for humor, but some sneaks through in the form of some witty exchanges between loyal butler Alfred (a brilliant Michael Caine), and Bruce Wayne.
This movie is awesome and a complete triumph for DC, Warner Brothers, Nolan, and everyone else involved.. Run, don’t walk, to the theater. Amazing.