The Batman movie series screeched to a halt after 1997’s Batman & Robin stalled at the box office. The studio very publicly blamed the film’s failure on bad buzz generated by Harry Knowles and his Ain’t-It-Cool-News website. This was always a gross exaggeration of Knowles’ influence. The real reason Batman & Robin sank was that it got bogged down with too many characters. There was Robin and Batgirl, Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy. With all these other characters demanding attention, little time was left for Batman himself. After years of trying to resurrect the franchise (including an aborted Batman vs. Superman project to be directed by Wolfgang Peterson), Warner Brothers finally realized that the series needed to return to its roots. Batman Begins focuses on Bruce Wayne’s transformation into Batman, and it brings the franchise roaring back to life.
The opening shot is of a swarm of bats flying against an amber sky. The image of the Bat symbol is formed by their bodies. We then find playboy billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) in a foreign prison, where he has gone to study the criminal lifestyle in order to somehow fight it. (He is permanently scarred from having witnessed the murder of his parents as a boy.) While there, he is approached by a mysterious man named Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) who offers him a chance to join the Legion of Shadows – a covert vigilante organization run by Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). After training extensively with the group, Wayne decides that he doesn’t agree with their philosophy. Nevertheless, he takes his newfound combat techniques back to Gotham City, where he plans to use them to fight criminals.
As it happens, Gotham is a hotbed of corruption and crime. A local Mafioso, Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), has the city in his grip. He works in close conjunction with Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), the head psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum. Whenever Falcone’s goons get arrested, Crane testifies to their insanity. Once they’re committed to Arkham, he puts on a burlap mask and shoots them with a special panic-inducing drug. Dubbing himself the Scarecrow, Crane has plans to dump the drug into Gotham’s water supply, then vaporize it in order to mass produce chaos. Batman quickly gets wind of this plan and sets out to foil Crane. He gets some help from Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), an assistant DA who would love nothing more than to nail Falcone.
(To preserve the integrity of the plot, I have left out a few key details. The Scarecrow’s plan may seem sketchy based on my description, but it makes complete sense in the context of the film.)
One of the most interesting things about Batman Begins is that it goes in-depth to show how Bruce Wayne conceives his alter ego, and also how he goes about gaining the materials necessary to fight crime. The scenes with the League of Shadows show us where the combat and stealth techniques come from. Later, we meet Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), the last remaining technology designer at Wayne Industries. He modifies some of his rejected creations for his boss, including a massive SUV that becomes the new Batmobile. There’s always been a broad explanation for how Bruce Wayne dealt with the technicalities of his transformation, but Batman Begins provides a lot more satisfying detail.
That’s because writer/director Christopher Nolan (Memento) treats the subject with intelligence and seriousness. The film’s premise is that fear can be used as a weapon. Bruce Wayne chooses to dress like a bat because bats scare him. His goal is to “bring fear to those who pray on the fearful.” The whole concept of Batman isn’t quite realistic, but Nolan treats it as though it were. If a guy was really tormented by his parents’ murder, and if he really did have the means to go about it, this is how he could create a crime-fighting alter ego. Nolan’s approach is in direct contrast to the two prior Batman movies (directed by Joel Schumacher) which were pure fantasy, bordering on camp. Those of us who passionately love this character have always known it was a dark, psychological story at heart. Batman Begins recognizes this basic fact and takes the time to really explore it.
In addition to strong story and thematic development, there is also good acting. Christian Bale makes a terrific Batman. Rather than going for pure marquee value, Nolan chose an actor with immense talent – someone who could play Batman but, more importantly, Bruce Wayne. Because we believe Bale’s portrayal of the tormented Wayne, the story has greater overall resonance. The earlier Batman pictures started to make the villains more interesting than the hero; in this case, the hero is the most interesting character, but the villains are still good. Murphy (28 Days Later) is menacing as the Scarecrow, and Wilkinson is very effective as Falcone without resorting to stereotype. There’s also good work from Freeman, Holmes, and Michael Caine, who plays loyal butler Alfred.
You don’t have to know much about Batman to enjoy the movie, but there are little touches thrown in that are certain to delight fans. Gary Oldman is excellent playing Jim Gordon, a rare non-corrupt detective to whom Batman turns for assistance. He, of course, will eventually go on to become Commissioner Gordon, a key figure in the series. The subplot involving Arkham Asylum also suggests why Gotham City has so many costumed villains roaming the street. This leads to a sly – and very appropriate - joke at the end.
The film’s other pleasures are more common: dazzling special effects, intense action sequences (especially the train chase grand finale), extraordinary production design. Just because these things are common doesn’t mean they aren’t appreciated, though. Batman Begins does all the standard things beautifully, then adds several additional layers of quality via the story and the themes.
I’ve been a fan of superheroes since I was a kid, and Batman has long been my favorite. As far as movies go, I’ve always felt that Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman was the very best. Last summer’s Spider-Man 2 was its equal, and so is Batman Begins. If you care at all about this character, then the movie is a reason to rejoice. It’s proof that comic book movies can be intelligent and relevant while still being fun and exciting. Batman Begins is a masterpiece in its genre. This is why I go to the movies.
( out of four)
Batman Begins is rated PG-13 for intense action violence, disturbing images and some thematic elements. The running time is 2 hours and 21 minutes.
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