Director : s Christopher Nolan
Screenplay : Christopher Nolan and Davis S. Goyer (story by David S. Goyer)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2005
Stars : Christian Bale (Bruce Wayne / Batman), Michael Caine (Alfred), Liam Neeson (Ducard), Katie Holmes (Rachel Dawes), Gary Oldman (Jim Gordon), Cillian Murphy (Dr. Jonathan Crane), Tom Wilkinson (Carmine Falcone), Rutger Hauer (Earle), Ken Watanabe (Ra's Al Ghul), Mark Boone Junior (Flass), Linus Roache (Thomas Wayne), Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox)
Unlike virtually every other modern superhero you can think of, Batman is unique in that he has no special, superhuman powers. He wasn't born with mutated genes, didn't come from another planet, get zapped by radiation, or otherwise develop extraordinary abilities that separate him physically from the rest of humanity. In this respect, Batman has always been the most human of superheroes because all of his feats are marvels of sheer physical and mental willpower, fueled by levels of anger, vengeance, and self-righteousness that have varied over the years, allowing him to morph from the crusading vigilante of Bob Kane's original comic books, to the conflicted hero of Frank Miller's revelatory graphic novels, to the disturbed outsider of Tim Burton's first two Batman films.
Thus, it is entirely appropriate that Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, easily the best film about the character so far, is so firmly grounded in a heightened sense of reality not typical of superhero movies. Because Batman doesn't have superhuman powers, but must in effect be superhuman, a great deal of the film is given over to explaining how he is able to do what he does. No bit of bat paraphernalia goes unexplained, from his cape, to his cowl, to his numerous gadgets and weapons. This Batman is, more than any other, an explicit and credible melding of the human and technological.
The title Batman Begins works to both reaffirm that this is an origin story -- in fact, like Richard Donner's Superman (1978), more than half of the film is over before we even see the hero decked out in his full costume. It also implies that this is a new beginning, working overtime to erase the memories of the previous Batman film franchise, which began promisingly with Tim Burton's Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), but then took a left turn and rapid nosedive into head-spinning silliness with Joel Schumacher's Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997), the last of which nearly killed the franchise for good with an onslaught of feeble-minded kitsch (need we say more than "nipples on the batsuit"?).
Nolan, the wunderkind director behind Memento (2000) and Insomnia (2002), and his coscreenwriter David S. Goyer, creator of the Blade trilogy and a self-professed Batman fanatic, are clearly aiming to return Batman to his darker roots and also align the film more clearly with the character-driven graphic novels that resurrected the character in the mid-1980s. In addition to a higher level of attention paid to the physical possibilities of Batman's gear, there is also a tighter focus on his psychology -- in essence, what would drive a man to dress up as a bat and stalk the city streets for criminals?
Nolan's casting of Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne, the man would become Batman, was a crucial step in the right direction. Bale has played a series of conflicted, sometimes psychotic roles over the years, from the narcissistic Wall Street serial killer in American Psycho (2000), to the tortured, guilt-ridden wastrel in The Machinist (2004). Thus, he brings to the role genuine acting chops and a prefigured sense of gravitas in addition to a handsome face and buff body.
Perhaps as a nod to Memento, Nolan and Goyer fracture the opening narrative, introducing us to Bruce Wayne first in a dream-flashback as a young boy who falls into a well and is terrorized by a swarm of bats, and then as a young man inexplicably imprisoned somewhere in East Asia. From there, we get various flashbacks of his life and how it was irrevocably altered when his well-meaning billionaire parents were gunned down in front of him, a primal scene of complete devastation for the young boy. Swearing vengeance, he first tries to assassinate his parents' killer, but then turns his attention to the larger problem: the infestation of crime and corruption in Gotham City.
Bruce's training comes courtesy of a centuries-old clandestine organization known as the League of Shadows, which trains ninja assassins to right the world's wrongs. He has a stern mentor in Ducard (Liam Neeson), who professes a Nietzschean view of the world and his role in it, something Bruce is never able to fully reconcile, which further adds to his burden of conflict. Trained as a killer with an ingrained sense of moral superiority, Bruce must find a way to adapt those skills to protecting the innocent, rather than destroying the wicked.
When he returns to the U.S., his metamorphosis into Batman is aided by his loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine, perfectly cast) and a scientist named Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), who has conveniently developed all sorts of unused paramilitary equipment for Wayne Enterprises, including an assault vehicle that looks like a hybrid between a tank and a drag racer that is destined to be the new Batmobile. All of this equipment is put to use as Batman faces off with a scheme hatched by Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe, The Last Samurai), the leader of the League of Shadows, and Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy, 28 Days Later), head psychiatrist at Arkum Asylum, to poison all of Gotham City with a hallucinogenic drug. It's a typically overwrought comic book plot, although the reasoning behind it is genuinely chilling and gives the film a thematic coherence so often lacking in comic book adaptations. If there's a rut anywhere in the film, it's the slightly flat romance between Bruce and his childhood sweetheart-turned-district attorney Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), but it takes up so little of the plot that it's hardly fatal.
Visually, Batman Begins maintains its realist aesthetic by dropping the exaggerated Gothic overtones of Burton's films and imagines Gotham City as a typical metropolitan center, albeit one with a great deal of crime and despair. Cinematographer Wally Pfister (who has shot all of Nolan's previous films) keeps the imagery dark and foreboding, and Nolan undercuts traditional expectations in the action sequences by cutting them to within an inch of their lives, reducing fights to chaotic, disruptive flashes of violence. The film is given an added kick of horror imagery when characters inhale the hallucinogenic drug, giving them nightmarish visions of demons, fire-breathing horses, and mouths oozing maggots. The horror imagery is keenly appropriate, given how much the film relies on the notion of "fear"; in fact, it is fear itself -- or rather overcoming it -- that empowers Bruce Wayne to become Batman.
Ultimately, Batman Begins works so well as a whole because it works so well on multiple levels. For fans, it functions as a well-realized revision of an oft-told origin story, and for nonfans it clearly lays the groundwork for future installments. By sticking close to the psychological morass from which Batman emerged, Nolan gives the story a sense of weight and depth, even when it turns into full-scale action and mayhem in the final third. It's a slow burn, but one that burns intensely once it catches.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2005 Warner Bros.