Directed by: Christopher Nolan || Produced by: Charles Roven, Emma Thomas, Larry J. Franco
Screenplay by: Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer || Starring: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Gary Oldman, Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson, Rutger Hauer, Ken Watanabe, Morgan Freeman
Music by: Hans Zimmer, James Newton Howard || Cinematography: Wally Pfister || Editing by: Lee Smith || Country: United States, United Kingdom || Language: English
Running Time: 141 minutes
This shocking resurrection of the Batman franchise owes all of its creative credit to Christopher Nolan, a cast for the ages, and, begrudgingly (to a much, much lesser extent), David S. Goyer. While this film suffers from the now cliched concept of superhero “origin story syndrome” (i.e. inappropriately merging two storylines into one), Batman Begins manages to overcome this weakness through effective pacing, great characterizations, and terrific suspense-sequences. The movie, more importantly, understands the essence and nature of the Batman mythology, and the Dark Knight’s transition to the silver screen is as good a comic book-adaptation as a fan could ask for.
After the unholy disaster that was Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin way back in 1997, who could have ever predicted a turn of events like this? I remember in the years following the debacle, Hollywood was scared and hesitant to green-light superhero and comic-related movies for several years. Can you imagine that blockbuster landscape compared to today’s pop culture mentality?
Nowadays, people can’t go a day without being bombarded by any superhero’s latest escapade, be it one of Marvel’s Avengers (2012), the Green Lantern (2011), or the latest Superman reboot (2013). It goes to show how fast things change in the movie-business and in pop culture in general.
I remember being perplexed upon reading a Newsweek article that stated, not only was the new Batman-director (some guy named Christopher Nolan) an admitted Batman-novice, but was also extraordinarily confident in his near completed project (Batman Begins was then in post-production). I’m not sure if I took that as a good sign of anything that would follow, but at least it was not a sure sign of another impending disaster. I also noted that the new Bruce Wayne/Batman would be played by an actor I’d seen only once before; he had starred in a disappointing film about dragons with Mathew McConaughey called Reign of Fire in 2002. So, when I saw the info panel of the Newsweek article that Batman Begins (BB) would star Christian Bale as the Caped Crusader himself, I thought, “Oh hey, it’s the guy from Reign of Fire.”
About a month later, I went to the theatres to see Batman’s return to the big screen for myself. The rest, as they say, is history.
The team Warner Bros. recruited for the Dark Knight’s resurrection, led by Nolan, was the right team for the job. The first thing everybody noticed right off the bat was how seriously the film took itself, a different approach to all four of Batman’s previous film-interpretations, as well as most superhero-films in general. BB established Nolan’s now famous dark tone and realistic imagining for what would become The Dark Knight trilogy.
Batman’s natural environment is a place filled with crime, corruption, urban decay, moral ambiguity, and personal tragedy. The best proof of this is even more obvious than Batman’s brooding nature, or the fact that he is frequently referred to as “the Dark Knight.” Really, it’s Batman’s enemies that best exemplify his universe’s dark, malevolent tone, one that is not wholly unlike our own. The Riddler, Scarecrow, Two-Face, Bane, and, of course, the Joker, were all deep, realistic and menacing foes more comparable to crime lords, sociopaths, psychopaths, and organized terrorists than traditional supervillains with fantastical, supernatural powers. While Nolan’s dark blockbuster-tone has become a cliche over a decade later, it made an impact for a reason and is a natural ingredient in any successful Batman-project because of the property’s inherent Gothic style.
As for the movie itself, BB crafts a grounded and believable origin tale of Bruce Wayne’s early life, the tragic death of his parents, his self-imposed exile, his training with the League of Shadows, and his transformation into the Caped Crusader. The themes of revenge, crime and punishment, justice, and right vs. wrong make up the core of this film’s story, illustrated by some of the most well written, best acted, and well realized characters in blockbuster history.
While Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne/Batman became overshadowed by the late Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight (2008), and even more recently with Ben Affleck’s portrayal of the same character in Batman v Superman (2016), the man gives a great lead performance in BB. His Bruce Wayne is sympathetic, admirable, and realistic. He’s not quite as dark and brooding as the trilogy in which he stars, but he’s the human core of the entire story.
In league with Bale are Michael Caine’s Alfred Pennyworth and Gary Oldman’s Jim Gordon, portraying a wide range of Bruce’s social and professional life. Both are played with masterful effort by their respective actors, and are depicted as realistic crime drama-characters rather than the one-dimensional caricatures they devolved into in Schumacher’s films. Rounding out the cast are Liam Neeson’s villainous take on the wise old mentor-archetype, Ra’s al Ghul, Katie Holmes as Wayne’s love interest, Rachel Dawes, and Cillian Murphy as Dr. Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow. All of the above are good to great, save for Holmes, who is awkward and stilted as the female lead and sticks out of the cast like a sore thumb.
The only major writing error in Begins is how it succumbs to what plagues nearly all superhero origin-stories in cinema: Its origin tale only lasts about an hour and ten minutes, and as soon as Wayne becomes Batman, the filmmakers realized they had to come up with another hour’s worth of material to fill out the feature-length film. The not so subtly tacked on “second plot” concerning Scarecrow and Ra’s al Ghul’s plan to gas Gotham to death feels abrupt and awkward, yet it does manage to come full circle with Ra’s al Ghul’s character and the League of Shadows’ return. But it is worth criticizing.
In hindsight, Christopher Nolan’s camerawork on this first Batman-film wasn’t as strong as his screenwriting and general artistic oversight; his assured handling of massive action set-pieces and spectacle would come later, but most of the hand-to-hand combat in BB feels lacking and is hindered by shaky-cam effects, unnecessary telephoto close-ups, and rapid editing. That being said, CGI and green-screen use are minimal, and the plethora of practical FX, miniatures, stunts, and explosives are impressive. The general look and physicality of all the Bat-gadgets, vehicles, and costumes are slick and well designed. The Tumbler chase-sequences are much better shot than the close-quarters-combat (CQC), and the overall set-design and low-key lighting of Gotham City, our principle setting, screams classic film-noir. Top to bottom, Batman Begins is a case study in how to build tone through lighting and production design.
Batman Begins, in many respects, unfairly lost a lot of attention due to its infinitely more successful sequels, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises (2012), yet those films would have never been so wildly popular or even possible had it not been for the previous success and accomplishments of Begins. I am a far, far happier person with my favorite superhero having finally received the big screen treatment he deserved. It was a long time coming, but Batman is back to being the badass we all remember from our youth. We never said thank you, Nolan, so I’ll say it now: Thanks for making Batman cool again.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Christopher Nolan’s realistic, relatable diegesis allows a grounded artistic design and directorial style in which Batman and his seedy comic-universe can thrive. The plot’s themes and emotional turmoil hit far harder and are more enjoyable than any previous film-rendition of Batman. Batman Begins‘ supporting cast is on fire.
— However… Begins has two storylines mashed together in one script. Nolan is no expert at shooting CQC. Katie Holmes gives a weak performance.
? Who else screamed like a little girl when Gordman showed Batman a certain guy’s “calling card?”