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From Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mappo

Mappo, 末法 Jp.: mappō

The "degenerate" Latter Day of the Law. A time period supposed to begin 2,000 years after Sakyamuni Buddha's passing and last for "10,000 years"; follows the two 1,000-year periods of 正法 Jp.: shōbō and 像法 Jp.: zōhō. During this degenerate age, chaos will prevail and the people will be unable to attain enlightenment through the word of Sakyamuni Buddha.

I had no expectations for this film. I like Morgan Freeman, and I knew he played some role in the production. I enjoyed Memento, but much of the appeal of that film, I have to admit, resides in its narrative gimmick which wouldn't work twice, so the fact that Memento director Christopher Nolan helmed this new take on the Batman myth didn't particularly inspire me. I had actually formed the intention to go see Steven Speilberg's War of the Worlds today, but two movie reviews by Roger Ebert prompted me to see Batman Begins instead. Ebert's review of War of the Worlds (2 out of 4 stars) cut the film a new orafice, and in his review of Batman Begins (4 out of 4 stars) he heaped the film with a shocking amount of praise.

I said this is the Batman movie I've been waiting for; more correctly, this is the movie I did not realize I was waiting for, because I didn't realize that more emphasis on story and character and less emphasis on high-tech action was just what was needed. The movie works dramatically in addition to being an entertainment. There's something to it.

I enjoyed this film, though I found its first act (which I imagined would amount to the film's first half so credible and engaging that I feared its credibility would crumble once Bruce Wayne got around to putting on the familiar Batsuit and battling criminals in Gotham's trash-strewn back alleys. As Bruce Wayne learned the ninja's arts and grappled with his personal demons on the roof of the world, the film-makers allocated so much screen time to his training and, with lengthy flashbacks, to the childhood trama of his parents' murder, that I didn't think enough time would remain to allow the finally-formed Batman a full-blown first crime-busting outing. I mis-pre-judged.

The film-makers (and I when I write "film-makers" I have in mind mainly Dirctor Christopher Nolan and screen writer David S. Goyer) avoided my anticipated pitfall by, first, weaving the elements of the Batman's first outing as big league crime fighter into the story with subtle economy from nearly the film's first frames, and, second, by tacking nearly an hour onto a film that I expected to run about 90 minutes. (Runtime: 141 min)

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this film. I loved the casting (Gary Oldman actually gets to play a good guy for once). I loved the gadgets and gear, particularly the batmobile. I loved the moody and intentionally un-precise visual composition. My only complaint involved the depictions of hand to hand combat, which the film features in abundance. Any Batman movie presents the film-maker with an obvious temptation, namely that of putting an accomplished martial artist in the batsuit and then pulling way back to give the audience a picture-perfect exhibition of fine-tuned combat reflexes, flexibility, speed and acrobatic competence which the actor playing Bruce Wayne clearly does not possess. Director Nolan went to the opposite extreme with Batman Begins. He puts his camera in so close to the fighting that we see nothing but a scramble of blurry forms, and then Batman stands amid of scattering of downed foes. Given this directorial treatment, Adam West could have fought with the same degree of credibility that Christian Bale did here.

The Gotham of Batman Begins surpasses any previous (cinematic) Gotham city in its desperation and decay. Watching the film, and noticing Gotham's perpetual state of poverty, corrupt officialdom, and violence, I thought of the Buddist notion of Mappo, the degenerate age in which the teachings of the Buddha no longer suffice to deliver desperate souls from the cycle of death and re-birth. Such a period requires an active saviour to deliver the souls unfortunate enough to inhabit it to the Pure Land and enlightenment.

In Mahayana Buddhism, Amitabha, the Buddha of Limitless Life (無量壽佛) plays this role. So too does Gotham have its Batman, and while desperate Gotham needs its savior, Batman absolutely depends on the overwhelming entropy and despair of Gotham for his existence. Without a degenerate age in which to battle externalized demons, Bruce Wayne would amount to nothing more than a pathetic figure, consumed and crippled by unresolved feelings of guilt and rage. How fortunate for him that he lives in a world conveniently populated by gangster cops, maniacally villianous psychiatrists, and ancient secret societies bent on causing misery on an epic scale.

While the film takes a contemporary setting, it must ground itself in an alternate history to acheive its required Mappo milieu. The America of Batman Begins suffered its Great Depression in the late 70's and early 80's. Far from enjoying an Internet gold-rush in the roaring 90's, the early 21st century of Batman Begins depicts an America that has limped into the new millenium as a walking wounded refugee staggerring away from an economic Armageddon from which it never recovered.

The world of Batman Begins also seems to lack a 9-11 in its recent history. While we, in the real world, have an ever-expanding and ever-penetrating national security state, the fictional world of Batman Begins has no federal government at all. Gotham exists as an autonomous city-state ruled by local crime lords and their pet officials. It has no department of Homeland Security, no blank check Patriot Act, no ever-expanding domestic surveilance apperatus, no DEA or FBI.

Batman could not do his caped crusading in Singapore. That sort of spotless micro-managed social order has no need of his services, nor could he operate in the corporate theme-park environment of the post-Giuliani, post 9-11 Times Square. An era defined by an encroaching central authority, economic expansion, ubiquitous surveillance technology and a populace mollified by cheap and plentiful consumer goods and expensive but seemingly essential high tech communication and entertainment services would not provide a suitable habitat for a shadowy masked avenger.

Despite the presence of cell phones and flat panel computer monitors in the Gotham of Batman Begins, modern communications technologies have not coaxed the public conscious to new levels of organized self-awareness and complexity as they have for us. Indeed, while TV news broadcasts featured prominantly in the first Batman movie nearly two decades ago, newspapers seem to provide the only reflection of public perception in Batman Begins. Communications technologies exist, but they seem to play no role in how any faction in this newest Batman universe conducts its actions. The world of Batman Begins seems, by necessity, to lack flash crowds, chat rooms, blogs and the sense of civic participation and empowerment that contemporary communications technologies engender. Batman requires an America that has more than half slipped into third world status and one in which communication technologies fail to lift social discourse beyond that exhibited by our America in the 1940s.

If it seems as though I'm running the movie down, let me repeat that I thoroughly enjoyed it. I simply realize that, in spite of its acheiving a much higher level of seeming reality in terms of the psychological depth of its protagonist, this movie requires a particular kind of dystopian fantasy world for its setting. In a time of increasing central authority, unprecedented material abundance and falling crime rates, to participate in a fresh retelling of the Batman myth, we must accept a view of the world characterized by impotent civil authority, growing material lack and an unchecked spiral of casual violence.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 5th, 2005 01:58 am (UTC)
It sounds like they did a good job of interpreting the society required.

One thing that has struck me recently (past five years or so) about the superhero genre is that government has to be much less powerful. It's actually implied by supervillains that law enforcement can't stop.

That's different enough to rate some careful thought.
Jul. 6th, 2005 07:55 am (UTC)
I, too, enjoyed the movie. My only complaint was that there was a single scene, towards the end, that was beyond my ability to disbelieve. Since it is near the end, and I don't want to spoil it for anyone, let me just say "train" and leave it at that.

Mind you, for an action movie, a single complaint is a big compliment. And it was certainly the best Batman movie thus far.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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