Batman Begins ★★★★

In anticipation of The Dark Knight Rises midnight showing I attended last night, I watched the previous two Nolan Batman films beforehand. I wanted to be sure I was as contextually and thematically immersed in that world before I returned to it for the final time.

I vividly remember seeing Batman Begins in theater; it was a film I had absolutely zero expectations for, given the catastra-fuck that was Schumacher's "Batman and Robin" (also, I hadn't seen Memento or Insomnia at that point, either, so Christopher Nolan's name meant nothing to me), and I was absolutely blown away by it. It wasn't dark so much as it was murky; with it, we were given a window into the tortured psyche of Bruce Wayne, and watched as he slowly and methodically forges the mantle of Batman - and as that nocturnal visage slowly comes into focus, we gradually come to see the drive and tenacity Wayne possesses, and what he can (and can't) commit himself to in order to the keep primal harbinger of justice he's manufactured running.

Using Frank Miller's "Year One" (among the best, if not *the* best Batman story ever written) as a structural and atmospheric blueprint, and swathing a dank and rainy Gotham in a sepia shroud, Nolan and co. created an exhilarating cinematic genesis with Batman Begins; it straddles the line between gritty realism and comic book theatrics, but it does so with precision and finesse. In any other film, a device as comic-y and ludicrous as a microwave pulse emitter might raise eyebrows, but in Batman Begins, it's simply taken on faith - and it's a testament to the film's craft that it is.

Batman's origin here is derived from the aimless wanderings of a now fully-grown Bruce Wayne - a man who's cast away his considerable resources in favor of duking it out with common thugs in far away lands just because he can. Wayne justifies this as research into the criminal nature of man, but we know the truth; with no Batman to step into, this is the extent to which Wayne can focus his energies and derive the good he seeks from them. His abilities are limited by his vision. He's fueled by a thirst for vengeance, and little else, and consequently, his gutter tactics are all heavy on short game and light on long view. As he's courted by and trains with the League of Shadows, we witness his morality refine itself, and the first stages of Batman are complete. The film handles this transformation with efficiency and poise.

I could go on like this. There is, after all, a lot to like about Batman Begins. But there's two things holding it back, and those things are: Wayne's relationship with Rachel Dawes, and the diminishing returns the film's climax yields.

The first one is easy enough; although the film opens with Rachel and Bruce as children (and although they're supposedly each other's oldest friends), they don't come off as having a bond that's measurable in years; they feel like strangers around one another, and while that's true to an extent, there's a spark between them that's missing. Oddly enough, the scene in which they feel closest is when Wayne is masquerading as Batman and bringing Rachel back from the brink of a hallucinogenic psychosis.

The second bit is something I was blind to on my initial viewing, but which subsequent viewings have made undeniably clear: the climax of the film feels flat, especially when you consider how strongly it begins (with chaos and violence in the Narrows), and how limply it concludes (with a prolonged fight on a speeding train car that needs to be stopped, like, now). At the film's onset, the League of Shadows seemed to be an endless and unfathomable entity, and to see them take such an active role in their own dutiful dirty work robs them of much of their power. They seemed to be an organization that exists...well, in the shadows, as their name implies - as though they were more the power behind the throne and less the guards at the gates. To see them engage in fisticuffs on graffiti-ridden trains makes them feel ordinary, when they should be anything but.

While Batman Begins isn't perfect, it's still a great film - it's on par with Burton's 1989 interpretation, and it's certainly better than Batman Returns, and the two Schumacher efforts - but it pales in comparison to what was to follow with The Dark Knight.