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
The shocking resurrection of the Batman franchise following the unholy disaster that was Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin (1997) is indebted to the creativity of now household name, Christopher Nolan, as well as the then unconventional team built around him. While this film suffers from the now cliched concept of superhero “origin story syndrome” (see below), Batman Begins overcomes this weakness through effective pacing, great characterizations, and terrific suspense-sequences. The movie understands the essence of the Batman mythology, and the Dark Knight’s transition to the silver screen is as good a comic-adaptation as a fan could ask for.
I remember a contemporaneous Newsweek article stating that 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 also noted the new Bruce Wayne/Batman would be played by an actor I’d seen only once before, starring in a disappointing film about dragons with Mathew McConaughey called Reign of Fire (2002). So, when I saw the info panel of the Newsweek article showing that Batman Begins would star Christian Bale as the Caped Crusader himself, I thought, “Oh hey, it’s the guy from Reign of Fire.”
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 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. Begins established Nolan’s now famous dark tone and realistic diegesis 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 malevolent tone, one that is not wholly unlike our own. The Riddler, Scarecrow, Two-Face, Bane, and, of course, the Joker, were relatable 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, Begins crafts a grounded 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. Themes of revenge, crime and punishment, and social justice make up the core of this film’s story, illustrated by a memorable cast and great monologues. 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 Begins. 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 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 mentor-archetype, Ra’s al Ghul, Katie Holmes as Wayne’s love interest, Rachel Dawes, and Cillian Murphy as Dr. Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow.
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; as soon as Wayne becomes Batman, the filmmakers realized they had to justify another hour’s worth of material to complete the feature. This 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 finish the story arc of Ra’s Al-Ghul and The League of Shadows.
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 Begins is hindered by shaky-cam effects, unnecessary telephoto close-ups, and rapid editing. That being said, CGI and green-screen usage 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, 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 and retroactively lost attention due to its far more successful sequels, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises (2012), yet those films would never have been so wildly popular or even possible had it not been for the previous success 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 for a grounded artistic design and directorial style in which Batman’s seedy crime drama aesthetic can thrive. The plot’s themes and emotional turmoil hit harder and are more enjoyable than any previous film-rendition of the character. Batman Begins‘ supporting cast is on fire.
— However… Begins has two storylines mashed together in one script. Nolan was and never has been adept at shooting close-quarters-combat.
? Robbery, double-homicide… has a taste for the theatrical, like you. He leaves a calling card…