July 2024

Batman Begins (2005)

DIRECTOR: Christopher Nolan


Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson, Rutger Hauer, Ken Watanabe


Batman is both one of DC Comics’ most recognizable and popular characters and one of the most cinematically ill-used. Originally conceived as a brooding figure on the line between hero and vigilante, the original seriousness was completely abandoned first by the campy 1960s television series starring Adam West, and then by Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher’s series of feature films in the late ’80s and ’90s. These movies started out over-the-top and ended up downright cartoonish. The entire original conception of the character had virtually been abandoned, and as the films grew ever more patently ridiculous, even fans had had enough. Batman looked dead in the water. Then British director Christopher Nolan, coming off the thrillers Memento and Insomnia, and screenwriter David S. Goyer took on the task of resurrecting Batman, not as a continuation of the previous lackluster film series, but as a totally new narrative showing us something we’d never seen detailed onscreen before: the origins of the superhero.  While remaining faithful to the broad strokes of established Batman background, Nolan and Goyer put their distinctive spin on the familiar story. Most importantly, they were faithful to the darker and more serious original conception of the character. The result was by far the best Batman film yet made, and solid enough to appeal even to non-Batman aficionados.  A Batman movie has finally been made right.

When we first see Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), the thirty-ish son of billionaire philanthropist Thomas Wayne (Linus Roache, who does look like he could be related to Bale), he has dropped off the map, haunted by his parents’ murder at the hands of a mugger when he was a small boy  and disgusted by the corruption smothering Gotham City, traveling to the Far East to dedicate himself to studying the criminal underworld. He is tough and angry, but he doesn’t yet quite know what he’s doing, and is languishing anonymously in an Asian prison when he is approached by a mysterious stranger named Ducard (Liam Neeson) who introduces him to the equally enigmatic Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe of The Last Samurai), head of the League of Shadows, who want Bruce to join them in their centuries-old mission to cleanse the world of evil. At the hands of Ra’s and Ducard, Bruce learns to overcome his fear and focus his anger, but ultimately rejects their ‘ends justify the means’ mentality and returns to troubled Gotham with a newfound sense of purpose. With the connivance of his faithful butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and inventor Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Bruce develops the alter ego he needs to strike fear into the criminal underworld: Batman. He dons the cape and cowl just in time to face a villainous plot involving crime lord Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson with a wiseguy accent) and Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), a psychiatrist who has his own alter ego as the masked Scarecrow and has developed a deadly panic-inducing toxin. Bruce must join forces with Sgt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), one of the few honest cops in Gotham, and a childhood friend, Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), now an Assistant D.A. And the real mastermind behind the scheme has yet to reveal himself.

Batman Begins starts out a little fragmented.  In early scenes its focus is scattershot, starting with adult Bruce and then showing a series of flashbacks sketching out how he came to this point.  Fortunately, it doesn’t take us long to settle into the film’s rhythm, and things have settled into a straightforward chronology by the time Bruce returns to Gotham City. The darker approach is sprinkled with some low-key humor, but the garish over-the-top cartoonishness of the previous film series is strictly avoided.  “Realism” was one of Nolan’s key words during production, and he and Goyer made a major effort to treat the material seriously. The Batsuit and the Batmobile (here called the Tumbler) have plausible origins and a more military appearance, and Gotham itself, an over-the-top cartoon fantasyland in the previous films, is primarily represented by Chicago (actually, this is one aspect where Nolan’s films play it too restrained; his Gotham is a generic big city and lacks the gothic atmosphere of the comics).  Nolan uses CGI sparingly, and what little there is doesn’t call attention to itself.  The Tumbler, for example, was actually constructed for the film and is fully capable of doing most of the things it does onscreen; shots of it smashing police cars and jumping across rooftops are the real deal.

The first two-thirds of Batman Begins are the strongest. The villains’ plot, when finally unveiled in its entirety, is a little silly, not to mention convoluted— it involves lacing the water with an airborne weaponized hallucinogen and then using a superweapon to vaporize the water supply and drive the citizens of Gotham insane—but what’s come before was strong enough that the movie isn’t derailed (although it’s slightly reduced) by its eleventh hour surrender to comic book popcorn flick convention, complete with a few cheesy one-liners and an overly complicated evil scheme (the movie sets up the mass unleash of a weaponized hallucinogen, then doesn’t really seem to know what to do with it, and it’s mildly irksome when the third act turns Gordon into a slightly bumbling sidekick).  Previous Batman movies had a recurring pattern of the villains, each more cartoonishly over-the-top than the last, being given free rein to run wild to the point of stealing the whole show away from Batman, but the villains here are strictly supporting characters (of the assorted villains and secondary villains onhand, none of them get that much individual screentime) and comparatively low-key; scenery-chewing is kept to a restrained minimum.  There’s also some misdirection about exactly who the primary villain is; we’re seemingly set up with two bad guys—Tom Wilkinson’s Falcone and Cillian Murphy’s Dr. Crane/Scarecrow—but they might turn out to be more pawns than ringleaders, and their roles are less substantial than might be expected.  The film tells a fine self-contained story, but its central focus is on the character of Bruce Wayne, and for almost the first time we get a sense of what’s going on inside to make him tick. It takes until almost the halfway point for Batman as we know him to make his first full-fledged appearance, but that’s not a complaint. This is an origin story, and does such a believable—at least within the world it has created— and intriguing job of doing just that that we never get impatient. What motivates him to fight crime? Why does he choose the bat as his symbol? Where did the Tumbler and the Batsuit come from? How did Batman and Gordon first become allies? It’s all here, and it all feels right. I also liked that Bruce isn’t an invincible superman. The first time he tries jumping off a rooftop, he almost falls. He gets hurt and bruised and discouraged, and his encounters with his multiple adversaries don’t always go smoothly. Rather than demythologize or weaken Batman, these scenes of the fledgling hero make him seem more real, more three-dimensional, and more human than ever before.  This Bruce Wayne feels like more of an actual character than ever before in live-action film, and that’s a major strength that makes the movie more compelling.

Christian Bale has exactly the right demeanor for this role, going for internalized stoicism. Rather than pouring out Bruce’s pain and anger, Bale compacts it into a cold hard ball of steely-eyed determination. His buff appearance here a far cry from his previous performance in The Machinist, for which he lost sixty-five pounds to resemble a walking skeleton, Bale slips easily into the dual role of the billionaire socialite whose public persona of a spoiled drunken womanizer is as much a mask as the one he wears to fight criminals, and his menacing alter ego. Rather than simply being the body in the costume, he makes the part his own, and is equally convincing as Bruce Wayne and Batman, giving hands down the strongest yet portrayal of either. As of now, Bale is by far the best Bruce/Batman to appear onscreen.

He’s backed up by a solid supporting cast, perhaps the most pedigreed line-up ever assembled for a “comic book movie”—Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman—and there’s not the sense that anyone is phoning it in, as has sometimes been the case in the past when such “distinguished thespians” appeared in a comic book superhero movie (no one is pulling a Marlon Brando in Superman).  Liam Neeson is his usual authoritative self in a role that initially seems a typical Neeson mentor figure, but may come with a twist. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, whose presences are welcome in any movie, exude warmth and humor as two of Bruce’s more benevolent elders.  Gary Oldman, whose name in the credits of a Batman movie might make one expect to see him as a villain, is instead on the good guy team here as the low-key, mild-mannered Gordon, the Average Joe to Bale’s superhero; for an actor often associated with over-the-top bad guys, is it a stretch to simply be this thuddingly ordinary?  In smaller roles, we have Rutger Hauer as Mr. Earle, Thomas Wayne’s less civic-minded successor as chairman of Wayne Enterprises, and Ken Watanabe in basically a cameo as the mysterious, sinister Ra’s Al Ghul.  Cillian Murphy, best-known from the chiller 28 Days Later, is suitably creepy in limited screentime.  The lone source of hammy scenery-chewing is Tom Wilkinson, whose stereotypical mobster verges on cartoonish (the overdone accent doesn’t help), but he has even less screentime than Murphy.  The other slight casting/acting misstep is by Katie Holmes, who while not terrible in her role isn’t particularly convincing either, partly because she comes across like a lightweight, partly because she looks too young to be an Assistant District Attorney. Also problematic is the character itself; the filmmakers try to have her serve as Bruce’s conscience, but Alfred already fulfills this purpose more effectively, making Rachel a superfluous character (incidentally, Rachel is almost the only character of any significance in the movie who does not exist in the comics and was created specifically for the movie, in my opinion an unneeded invention and one of Nolan’s few missteps).  Rachel isn’t really a major drawback to the movie, but she’s not necessary and mildly annoying, and Holmes and Bale never “click” (fortunately, their low-key semi-romantic connection isn’t shoehorned into being a bigger part of the movie than it warrants).

If there is a noteworthy flaw besides Rachel/Holmes and the third act slipping into a bit of goofiness it had previously  avoided, the fight scenes are not all that they could have been. Nolan doesn’t have a good grasp on how to film hand-to-hand combat, falling back on quick-cutting editing in the fight scenes, resulting in blurs of chaotic fight sequences that often obscure exactly what’s happening (in fairness, a lengthy car chase between the police and the Tumbler is easier to follow). With the possible exception of Gordon, the filmmakers don’t do a good job aging the supporting characters; we first see Alfred and Earle when Bruce is a child, and when they reappear approximately twenty years later, they look the same.

But these are minor quibbles. While certainly not a perfect motion picture, Batman Begins is one of the strongest superhero entries out there, not only leaving all previous Batman flicks so far in its wake that they hardly seem worth mentioning, but surpassing all of the Spider-Man and X-Men movies, and breathing fresh new rejuvenating life into a film franchise which badly needed it. Bale, Oldman, Caine, and Freeman have already signed on for a second installment , scheduled for 2008, that I’m already looking forward to. I only hope this new Batman film series will live up to the promise of the first film and remain in the capable hands of Nolan, Goyer, and Bale.