Batman Begins ★★★★

With The Dark Knight Rises opening next week it seems like the ideal time to revisit Nolan’s previous Batman films and what better place to start than with the first (duh!) and the best in the series; so far. Although Nolan’s take on the character is grounded in reality (certainly more so than Schumacher’s Batman On Ice debacle) there is still an exaggerated Gothic quality to the world of Gotham City which is sadly absent in the The Dark Knight.

Many people complain about continually seeing comic book origin stories but in the case of Batman it is vital in understanding his character. Unlike most comic book heroes his origins are not confined to a single event, whether it be the moment they are given special powers or don the costume for the first time. Batman’s origins may be driven by the death of his parents but the creation of the near-mythical vigilante is a long and conflicted journey. It is testament to the film that this lengthy build-up to becoming Batman is just as engaging as when he finally becomes the familiar and iconic hero. His personal sacrifice and unwavering determination is brilliantly captured during his transition from rich privileged kid to rich privileged tough bastard.

At the film’s heart is a story about a lost boy looking for a father figure and here the film provides four distinct choices. Whilst Alfred, Fox and Gordon each provide a different attribute to the kindly father role it is his relationship with Neeson’s Ducard that is the most compelling. Although he is responsible for most shaping the man Bruce has become he is also completely morally at odds with the beliefs that Wayne’s real father instilled in him. It is an interesting conflict that, whilst far from explored in any great depth, is rarely seen in such films. It is also rare to see the villain in an origin story given so much personal importance to our hero. Whilst the story is very much about Wayne’s transition the film makes the antagonist integral to this journey. It is a shame that The Scarecrow is little more than a bogeyman but he, and Murphy’s portrayal, provides a nice bit of theatricality and colour to proceedings.

The cast, for the most part, are excellent. It is unusual (particularly in 2005) for a comic book movie to be full of such talented actors. Whilst you could argue their talents are somewhat wasted in these roles (Oldman only really gets to shine in the second film, for example) they all deliver strong performances that helps elevate the franchise above the competition. Wally Pfister’s cinematography is great, particularly during the Bhutan sequences and capturing the vertiginous Gotham skyline, whilst the production design is exceptional.

The film is still held back by niggling issues. Katie Holmes is the obvious weak link in a very impressive cast and the action sequences are often unclear. The latter is a deliberate creative decision and whilst it makes sense (it is supposed to reflect the fear and panic that Batman’s victims feel) it strips the set pieces of their real power. Bale also suffers a little in the film. His character has to go through many changes, both internally and externally, but he struggles to convince during the earlier scenes before he begins his training.

However, for me Batman Begins is still the best screen adaptation of the character and therefore one of the greatest comic book blockbusters there is.

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