Batman Begins ★★★★½

With "Batman Begins", co-writer/director Christopher Nolan provides the best, soberest cinematic interpretation of the Batman character to date and breathes new life into the franchise. He does it so well, in fact, that this may eventually turn out to be the definitive big-screen version of the Caped Crusader. Moreover, the film certainly raises the bar for all future superhero movies that aspire to be something more than just mindless entertainment.

There is little here that seems to stem directly from comic books, what with everything being filtered through the prism of near-realism, but the picture is undeniably true to the spirit of the source material. Somewhat surprisingly, "Batman Begins" qualifies more as a thematically rich character drama than as an action-filled superhero movie.

The strong screenplay, written by Nolan and David S. Goyer, offers an intriguing and multilayered plot. As for the villain, the Scarecrow is the obvious choice for the antagonist of a film in which fear figures as one of the underlying themes, and while he does not present a physical threat to Batman, his knowledge of the workings of the human mind makes him a worthy adversary.

Naturally, Batman’s first appearance is one of the highlights of "Batman Begins", in part thanks to how skillfully the pieces have been arranged so as to lead up to that scene. The action scenes—there are a number of them, of course—are exciting and competently edited. The filmmakers’ heavy reliance on practical special effects works in the film’s favor.

Wally Pfister’s gritty, sepia-toned cinematography establishes the world of Batman as one that lies close to reality proper, which helps to really draw the viewer into the well-paced story. The excellent score, composed by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer, actively lends the images additional emotional power without being manipulative.

Portraying Bruce Wayne/Batman, Christian Bale immerses himself in the role and does a shining job of exploring the complexities of his three-dimensional character. Katie Holmes is pretty good as Rachel Dawes, but she and Bale have little romantic chemistry together. It should come as no surprise to anyone that Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Gary Oldman are all terrific in their roles (Alfred, Lucius Fox, and Jim Gordon, respectively). Cillian Murphy turns Dr. Jonathan Crane/the Scarecrow into a threatening presence with seeming ease; I would have liked to see more of his character in the movie. Playing Henri Ducard, Liam Neeson gives a solid, low-key performance. Ken Watanabe has almost nothing to do in the role of Ra’s Al Ghul.