Right from the first moments, the main impression that emanates from Christopher Nolan’s reboot of the Batman franchise is confidence. You’d think it’d be terrifying to touch this material after Joel Schumacher’s monumental sabotage but as this movie’s leitmotiv goes, we only fall so “we can learn to pick ourselves up”. Nolan’s film not only learned from Schumacher’s mistakes, but also from Tim Burton’s. I know the 1989 incarnation in which Batman plays second fiddle to Jack Nicholson’s obnoxious Joker has its fans, but I always hated it. “Batman Returns” is much better, but it still barely sketches its title character and lets the villains take over again.
With “Batman Begins”, we finally get under the Dark Knight’s skin. The story starts in a Chinese prison, of all places, then proceeds to reveal what Bruce Wayne truly is: a Ninja! The Batman might not have superpowers, but he trained with the League of Shadows in a mountaintop temple with an old bald Asian dude (Ken Watanabe) with a little white beard who likes to dramatically sit in his golden throne with the sculpted dragons. Tiger! Jiu Jitsu! Panther! Wayne learned it all, along with the art of appearing to be invisible and, last but not least, theatricality! As Watanabe spends most of his time sitting dramatically in his throne, most of the actual mentoring is done by a mysterious character played by Liam Neeson, which makes perfect sense since Darkman (in which Neeson plays the titular vigilante) remains the best superhero movie ever made.
I like that the film doesn’t go for boring old chronological storytelling. What we need to know about the defining experiences of the younger Bruce Wayne is shown in brief flashbacks inter-cut with his Ninja training. We see how close Bruce was to his father and how traumatizing it was to see him and his mother murdered before his eyes. We get to understand and experience the various feelings Wayne goes through, from fear to grief, guilt, anger and alienation. Also fascinating is the wonderfully geeky attention to detail shown by Nolan and co-screenwriter David Goyer. They actually take the time to explain how and why Batman’s costume and various gadgets were conceived, and their vision of the Batcave and the “Tumbler” Batmobile is totally cool.
Every hero needs a purpose and, while pummeling random lowlifes is okay, a figure as sensational as the Batman deserves a more spectacular menace against which to devote his energy. Still, I didn’t expect the bad guys’ endgame to be so complex and evil. In this post-9/11 world, villains don’t want to take over the world, they want to destroy it. The movie terrorists’ plan involves a crime lord (Tom Wilkinson) whose web of corruption and intimidation covers nearly the whole city, a psychiatrist (Cillian Murphy) who experiments with hallucinogens to make the inmates of Arkham Asylum even more nuts than they already are, and more that I won’t reveal. All I’ll say is that it results in a literally insane third act where epic mayhem threatens to completely engulf Gotham City, led by a maggot-infested Scarecrow riding a fire-breathing stallion!
Jean Carlo Lavoie and others have expressed disappointment with some of the film’s action scenes. Indeed, the fights can be disorienting, but I think they’re supposed to be. As Neeson’s character says early on, “This is not a dance!” Batman doesn’t indulge in extended gracefully choreographed matches, he stands in the shadows, swoops down to strike then vanishes, only to reappear in another dark corner and continue his Shock and Awe attack. This the way of the Ninja!
In any case, “Batman Begins” is mostly a character study and that’s fine with me. Christian Bale’s performance is unsurprisingly intense, but there’s also some welcomed humor to it. I especially liked how he starts acting like a billionaire playboy asshole as a cover, in scenes that nicely recall his memorable turn in American Psycho. Also entertaining and perfectly cast are Michael Caine as loyal butler Alfred, Morgan Freeman as smartass inventor Lucius Fox and Gary Oldman’s as Gotham’s amusingly dorky “last good cop” Gordon. Also along for the ride is fully-grown Katie Holmes, more gorgeous and adorable (and, as Hour’s Melora Koepke puts it, “nippley”) than ever as a childhood friend of Wayne who’s now Assistant District Attorney. I like that they don’t try to manufacture a love story, her relationship with Bruce is actually more of a fragile friendship built on mutual respect.
This is a more realistic but still stylish kind of comic book movie. It’s virtually flawless, yet there’s still room for a little something more. It’s interesting that the “Batman Begins” title only comes at the end, because as great as this is, it does feel like foreplay for greater things to come. Hopefully Nolan will get to make his planned trilogy and the next installments will be even better. Until then, we can enjoy the first truly satisfying Batman flick… Unless you count the 1966 version, but that’s something else entirely!