Batman Begins (2005) / Action-Fantasy

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence and scary images
Running Time: 141 min.

Cast: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson, Rutger Hauer, Ken Watanabe, Mark Boone Junior, Linus Roache, Gus Lewis, Jack Gleeson
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Chrsitopher Nolan, David S. Goyer
Review published June 18, 2005

Easily the best Batman movie made to date (later bested by its sequel), Batman Begins takes an ice-cold franchise and makes it red-hot again by reinventing itself.  When we last left the series, Joel Schumacher had run things completely into the ground, with two back-to-back camp-fests in Batman Forever and Batman and Robin.  These films were noisy, incoherent, and a complete mockery of the serious Batman image more severe than that of the amiable spoof from the 1960s starring Adam West. 

Now we finally have the comic book hero in the hands of a serious filmmaker, Christopher Nolan (Insomnia, Memento), although that isn't always necessarily a good thing, if one recalls what Ang Lee did to The Hulk.  However, Nolan and screenwriter David Goyer (Blade: Trinity, ZigZag) seem to understand the character of Batman, and more importantly, of Bruce Wayne.  Unlike the Tim Burrton's Batman, who made Wayne's choice to wear the bat suit seem like it were some psychosexual fetish resulting from a traumatic childhood, Nolan takes us every step of the way from billionaire to caped crusader in a way that, while not entirely realistic, makes a whole lot of sense within the context of the film. 

Nolan also does what very few have been successful in doing, marrying Bruce Wayne to Batman in such a way that there is no mistaking that they are always the same person.  Previous directors, and even writers of the many Batman comic books over the decades, have usually crafted a schism between Wayne and his costumed alter ego, as if he were a split personality.  Nolan steps up the game by making both Wayne and Batman the same, but still subtly distinct.  Batman is the extension of Wayne's ideals, a vessel for trying to make a city do what's right, because if they don't Batman is going to make it right.  Interestingly, Wayne also concocts a bit of a disguise by being himself, or rather, creating a public persona that is different from who he really is, which offers up a protection for the man he wants to be. 

Also, unlike the previous Batman films, the villains are not as readily identifiable as The Joker, Penguin, or Catwoman.  Instead, we have lesser known, but still formidable, antagonists like Ra's Al Ghul, the Scarecrow, and gangster Carmine Falcone.  While these names may not conjure up vivid images of colorful crackpots, the fact that they are also relatively plausible bad guys, instead of larger than life, makes them all the more terrifying in their own way.   The use of these mundane villains also cleverly gives the film its very rich subtext and commentary on the post-9/11 climate, where villains use fear to scare people into doing evil acts or submission, from which they plan on sowing the seeds of destruction for the society in order that they may take over for themselves with their own skewed form of justice.

Batman Begins is a complete reboot, reintroducing his origins, from a boy who watched his wealthy parents gunned down by a petty thief.  Haunted by the memory of this night, young Bruce Wayne vows revenge on the man who destroyed his world, and also has begun a one-man crusade to fight against all of the evils in his home city of Gotham so that circumstances that created such a criminal won't do so again.  His obsession in this regard has taken him to the Far East, where he would learn the ways of ninjitsu, which utilizes stealth and hand-to-hand combat as ways for one man to counter many.  He would also learn that fear gives you the upper hand in any battle, which would be the primary impetus for donning the fearsome costume of the bat.  With his new symbol of justice, Bruce Wayne seeks to strike hard and fast at the criminal underbelly that runs the city, and owns the local law enforcement.

While controversy will always rage as to which actor makes the best Batman, in my mind, Christian Bale makes the best Bruce Wayne by far.  While others have chosen to make Wayne just as dark and mysterious as his alter ego, Bale makes him charismatic and human, albeit in an always-troubled fashion.  The previous Batman series had four films to explore just what motivates Wayne, only to have no answers to speak of, but here, we know exactly what he is thinking at all times, even when fully masked.  This makes a tremendous amount of difference when it comes time for the action scenes, where we actually care about what happens to Batman, instead of always feeling like he will just have a solution to every problem and get out of it.  Other Batman entries had no explanation as to why Wayne had the physical prowess to kick the asses of twenty armed thugs with nothing but a rubber suit, but Nolan takes great care in establishing Wayne's skills in this regard, and the results are far less silly.

Also interesting, this is the first Batman vehicle that extols the virtues of being good and fighting for what's right.  The other films merely were showcases of villainy and heinous acts, and Batman was good by default because he stood in their way.  In Batman Begins, Batman is a proactive agent for justice, and the bad guys are generally on the defensive, trying to keep their clutches in the crime and corruption that feeds them.  While the other villains would perform terrorist acts just because they were crazy or evil, Ra's Al Ghul does so because in his heart and mind he actually believes he is right.  Contrasts are made between Ra's Al Ghul and terrorists like Bin Laden in subtle but very effective ways, and the subtext of fear being the real enemy is represented quite literally, providing a reflection of our own society, driven to hate and harm one another because of our fears.

In so many ways, Batman Begins brings a maturity to comic book superheroes to such a degree that I can't help but think the bar has been raised for all future endeavors to deliver much more quality in terms of intelligence, plausibility and character development.  Filmmakers that bring nothing to the table save special effects extravaganzas and non-stop fight scenes will no longer impress us.  We have seen the potential of what a superhero film can truly be, and we like it much, much more than we ever have before. 

Looking back at my review to this point, it seems I have nothing but praise for the film, and while I do like it very much, Batman Begins still falls short of overall greatness, despite some great moments.  Some of the characterizations are still a bit shallow, probably because too many characters are introduced to give them all their due.  The Katie Holmes character, Rachel Dawes, is a bit cookie-cutter, and the little boy character, played by Jack Gleeson, seems far too wise and measured to believe he is just a little kid.  The heavy drama is somewhat overwrought at times, and the dialogue can occasionally sound a bit corny, especially whenever anyone espouses on their high-minded motivations for doing all the crazy things they do. 

Ah, but this is the world of comic books -- an alternate reality where one person actually can make a difference. No one blinks an eye when a costumed man roams the streets and talks to people without being made fun of.  The genre has its limitations, much as I love it, so suspension of disbelief is an absolute necessity.  Once achieved, the goods are delivered with consistency.

Along with Sam Raimi's Spider-Man series, Nolan's Batman is one of investment in the human side of things.  Just as we root for Spider-Man because we like and admire Peter Parker, for the first time, we root for Bruce Wayne to prevail, and not just Batman.   Comic books have always been seen as kid stuff, although if you were to read any of the most popular titles, you'd realize that they cater primarily to adults these days.  Hollywood seems to have finally caught up with films like Batman Begins, with a depth of character and knowledge of subject matter that will have adults dragging their kids to the theater to see the next chapter in the saga, instead of the other way around.

- Followed by The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

 Qwipster's rating:

©2005 Vince Leo