Batman Begins

Batman Begins ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

If films absolutely must be made from comic books, graphic novels, and television series, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins is the way to do it. In his first outing with the Caped Crusader, Nolan treats the Batman legend with just the right degree of reverence. Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns offer an effective mixture of the gothic and the comic. With Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, Joel Schumacher nearly killed the franchise with a heavy-handed dose of camp. Nolan eliminates camp altogether, offering only a modicum of the gothic, while emphasizing the mythic qualities that attract audiences to such heroic characters.

Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is a flawed, tortured hero. As an eight-year-old (Gus Lewis), he sees a homeless man (Richard Brake) murder his parents (Linus Roche and Sara Stewart) and blames himself for their deaths. As an adult, he journeys to Asia to become a criminal so that he can better understand the criminal mind. Bruce is rescued from prison by the mysterious Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), under whose tutelage he undergoes extensive martial-arts training in the Himalayas. Ducard wants him to join the vigilante ninja army run by Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanbe) to fight evil by being evil. Bruce declines, in a spectacular fight scene, and returns home to Gotham City after seven years of exile.

Bruce has two more mentors, Alfred (Michael Caine), the butler who raised him after the death of his parents, and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), an inventor working for Wayne Enterprises. With their help and the training regimen he has learned from Ducard, Bruce transforms himself into the masked crime-fighter Batman. Around an hour of Batman Begins passes before Bruce dons the famous costume, as Nolan and co-writer David S. Goyer slowly establish the protagonist and his quest.

Batman first sets out against Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), who runs organized crime in Gotham City, buying off judges and policemen, having his enemies murdered. One of the many clever touches is having Falcone superseded by an even more dangerous villain, Dr. Jonathan Crane, aka Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), who plans to release a hallucinogenic substance that will drive everyone in Gotham City mad. Scarecrow then turns out to be the pawn of a surprise supervillain.

In addition to Alfred and Lucius, Batman is aided by two people who do not know his real identity: Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), a policeman who consoled young Bruce after his parents were killed, and Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), an assistant district attorney who was Bruce’s childhood friend. Rachel’s irritation at the playboy façade Bruce cultivates is one of the film’s few tired devices. Another cliché is the young slum boy Batman befriends who shows up later to be saved by Rachel.

By delving into Bruce’s insecurities and fears, by giving him conflicted motives, and by having him slowly learn how to be Batman—not everything works perfectly the first few times out—Nolan and Goyer provide a greater depth than is usual for such superheroes. These quirky flaws also make Bruce/Batman closely resemble the protagonists of Nolan’s previous films, each of whom might be seen as having dual identities. The main character of Following even has the Batman symbol on the door of his apartment.

While Memento and Insomnia have a few noirish action scenes, Nolan has his first shot at large-scale action here and handles it well. The showdown at Ra’s Al Ghul’s mountain lodge is well choreographed by Robert G. Godwin and edited by Lee Smith, though as with all such martial-arts battles, realism goes out the window. The climactic action sequence on Gotham City’s monorail is even better.

As with Michael Keaton in the Tim Burton films, Bale is not an obvious choice to play Batman. Bale is a more athletic Batman than the other actors who have played the role. His using a raspier voice as Batman makes the superhero seem even more of a threat. His hawk face, however, works against him a bit in expressing the character’s sensitive side.

Caine and Freeman are very good, but their roles are underwritten. Neeson gives the film’s best performance as an edgier character than he usually plays. The casting-against-type of Wilkinson and Murphy as villains and Oldman as a good guy is also quite effective. Wilkinson’s Damon Runyonesque accent is delightful, and Murphy’s pretty-boy looks make his villainy only slimier. Mark Boone Junior is menacing as a sleazy, corrupt cop. Holmes, alas, has little presence in the film’s token female role. Seeming much too young, she would be hard to believe as a law student, much less as a crusading prosecutor.

Nolan and Goyer try so hard to resist falling into the camp trap that Batman Begins at times seems a tad solemn. When Gordon sees the Batmobile and exclaims, “I’d like one of those,” the humor is slightly jarring but welcome. Batman also gets off two or three quips at the expense of the bad guys.

Cinematographer Wally Pfister makes the Himalayas both beautiful and threatening. Nathan Crowley’s production design accentuates the decay Gotham City, at the mercy of Falcone, has fallen into. The grime, graffiti, and perpetual rain or dripping water recall Blade Runner, to which the film’s style and mood owe a large debt. Casting Rutger Hauer as an oily corporate executive may be a nod of acknowledge to Ridley Scott’s film.

Batman Begins is a much more traditional adventure yarn than the Burton and Schumacher films, owing less to the comic books created by Bob Kane than to Frank Miller’s Dark Knight graphic novels. The film’s darker, less comic tone invites it to be seen as more serious than it really is: an intelligent, extremely well-made, yet still simplistic morality tale about conquering one’s fears. Its main virtue is that its ideas never interfere with the action at its true center.

Random thoughts:

I am told that as a tiny tot, I refused to eat unless I had a comic book to look at during the meal and, apparently, taught myself to read through this habit. Until I became a teenager, I remained addicted to comics of all kinds, everything from Disney characters to comics based on movies and TV series to the war and horror comics that so outraged guardians of morality in the uptight 50s. I was introduced to the world of literature by Classics Illustrated. But my favorites were Superman, Captain Marvel (Shazam!), and, especially, Batman. I liked that the Caped Crusader didn’t have a superpower, relying mostly on his intelligence. And that black costume! He was cool before cool was cool.

The Adam West TV series, of which I saw only a few eps on my tiny b&w screen, did a lot to diminish this cool. I was pleased when Burton, whose previous films I liked, decided to present the character in a more adult, sophisticated way. Then Nolan’s version came along. While I like the first film and The Dark Knight Rises, I find The Dark Knight to be an ugly, semi-coherent mess, despite Heath Ledger’s great performance. I was happy when the Gotham TV series managed to blend the darkness and humor into a consistently entertaining mix, with the performances of Sean Pertwee, Robin Lord Taylor, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Drew Powell helping to keep things fun.

In general, however, the comic-book/graphic novel world is not for me. Other than the first Iron Man film and the Preacher TV series, this ain’t my bag, man. Call me an old fogey, call me a crusty geezer, call me . . . . Well, I seem to have lost my train of thought. But if I’m ever invited to join a vigilante ninja army, I’m in.

Also see my reviews of Nolan’s Memento and Insomnia.