It’s always been said that Bruce Wayne’s pointy-eared alter ego can best any opponent given enough prep time and after Warners had unleashed the most brutal enemy Batman had ever faced in his long and varied career – The Schumacher – DC’s figurehead and main source of cinematic moolah went into a period of hibernation. So damaging was the effects of 1997’s Batman & Robin, Gotham’s favorite son all but vanished from the silver screen for about 8 years but along with Christopher Nolan (a filmmaker who delights in twisting narrative, time and public perception much in the same way Batman dazzles his enemies with smoke bombs and misdirection) he returned bigger and better than ever.
I guess 8 years of prep is worth it’s weight in gold.
The main, driving force of the movie is, of course, Nolan. Using a script by David Goyer as a springboard, the hungry director dove into the material and instantly did something no Batman movie had done ever since Adam West had a hard time disposing of a bomb. He actually made a film about Batman…
It’s been no secret that it’s the villains who run Gotham in the movies, with various actors restrained in a rubber batsuit having to play second fiddle to a procession of Hollywood A-listers who scream and hoot their way through the runtime while getting to have all the fun. This has left Batman (and more importantly Bruce Wayne) feeling more like an enigma in his own movies – an impenetrable stoney faced, self-made freak who beats on criminals because a presume it’s more fun than therapy, his back story has alway been relegated to flashbacks or narration.
Well not any more, as Nolan’s masterstroke is to treat Bruce Wayne as an actual character and not the just the rich white guy who does the talky bits between the action and he does it so well you are left stunned as to why no one thought to do it before…
Lost billionaire Bruce Wayne passes the time in a Bhutan prison by either beating on anyone who gives him shit or chilling out in solitary for… beating on anyone who gives him shit. He is a lost man, languishing in the lawless mire in order to better understand the criminal mindset after his parents were gunned down before him in an alleyway when he was a child. During his latest stay in solitary he is visited by the mysterious Ducard, a mouthpiece for the even more mysterious Ras Al Ghul, the leader of a (you guessed it) super-mysterious cult of ninja assassins called The League Of Shadows who deal in the destabilizing of corrupt bases of power. After being taken in and trained in their unique brand of subtlety (which apparently doesn’t to stretch to not making their own name VERY melodramatic) Bruce finds out that the League’s next target is Gotham City, a veritable hive of criminals from all walks of life. Refusing to lead them and partaking in their own particular brand of justice, Bruce reacts by burning their temple down but saves Ducard whom he regards as a friend (sword fighting on glaciers can be quite the bonding experience) and eventually returns to Gotham to reclaim his father’s business.
Teaming up with Alfred, his family butler, and Lucius Fox, an associate from Wayne Enterprises, Bruce combines the tricks he’s learnt abroad with state of the art tech to bring a war against all forms of crime against his city, be it powerful crime boss Falcone to sinister psychiatrist and part-time burlap sack wearer, Johnathan Crane aka The Scarecrow. Tagging along for the ride are outnumbered do-gooders Detective Jim Gordon – possibly the only honest cop left – and Bruce’s former flame Rachel Dawes who works in the DA’s office, but can any of hope to stand against the League Of Shadows when they finally turn their sights on Gotham?
Even a dude dressed in a bat costume driving his own personal tank?
Nolan’s crowning achievement here is getting everyone involved to treat a movie called Batman Begins seriously while never forgetting that we all still have to have fun. Taking a long overdue, mature look at Batman’s world, making it seem sort-of feasible, yet hugely accessible and drawing heavily from his love of James Bond and Indiana Jones, Nolan gives us a world with tactile gadgets and actual stuntman giving everything a much grounded feel than your average comic book movie. The movie is extremely smart when realising it’s villains, too. Where the downfall of many a superhero outing is flinging too many wrongdoers at it’s beleaguered hero until he’s lost in the crush, Batman Begins uses it’s rogue’s gallery as a plot point, showing us Bruce’s success while punching through the ranks of the criminal underworld. First you have the street punks like the thug who shot Bruce’s mother and father, which then gives way to the crime boss (a smug Tom Wilkinson), then the masked supervillain (Cillian Murphy unleashing those cold blue eyes to gratifying effect though a haze of fear gas) and finally the graduation to arch villain and it’s not-so surprise twist (c’mon Liam Neesom, we all KNOW it’s you). Such usage of bad guys to actually bolster the lead role instead of swamping it was relatively unheard of in the franchise and to this day it’s hands down by far the best outing for Bruce Wayne to date, finally giving us a well rounded character to route for beyond just cheering for Batman. Take a bow then Anerican Psycho’s Christian Bale who (despite copping flack for his raspy bat-voice) leaps from Bateman to Batman with aplomb (the only time dropping an “E” has made someone LESS erractic…) and excels in both acting and physicality. He’s in good company with Gary Oldman a creepily good choice as not-yet-Commissioner Gordon (seriously, he looks JUST LIKE him) and Morgan Freeman as Batboy’s own personal Q. In fact the only weak note is Katie Holmes’ flat Rachael Dawes who seems a little lost among proceedings.
Still towing the comic book line fairly heavily (how else would you explain away the massive water evaporating device that might have well had PLOT DEVICE stamped on it’s crate) Nolan would all but dispense with whimsy for his lauded follow up, but there’s still a warm feeling when you get little silly touches like Scarecrow’s fear gas going off with a little scream sound or the sheer muscular majesty of The Tumbler, a Batmobile built like a roof jumping, wall smashing brick.
The director pumps a fair amount of psychological stuff in there too with the whole story, from Bruce’s phobias to Ras Al Ghuul’s final plot all hinging on the ability to project fear onto somebody else. Be it Wayne’s evolving batsuit to the Scarecrow’s primary attack method everyone is trying to weaponize fear somehow and is distilled in a kickass scene where a hallucinating Crane, accidentally high on his own supply, sees Batman as a hulking nightmarish gargoyle monster.
There’s still a sense that Nolan is still testing out the blockbuster waters here (his confidence would grow exponentially with the deliriously tricksy The Dark Knight), and some attempts to pander to the masses feel horribly awkward (cue the climax where we cut back to a panicked controller repeatedly telling us how much time we have until a train explodes), whole some of the glib one liners fall flat. The fight scenes too are edited a little chaotically for my liking, making Bats taking on a gang of thugs nothing but a montage of fists, but such nonsensical complaints aside Batman Begins is a truly magnificent start to a trilogy that changed the face of a genre and is also ground zero for a directorial talent preparing to ascend to another level of filmmaking while simultaneously rebooting Michael Caine’s career to boot.
If Nolan hadn’t fused his particular interests to the blockbuster machine with Batman Begins then that would have meant no The Prestige, no Interstellar and certainly no Inception. It’s just that simple.
A tip of the pointy cowl, then, to one of the greatest reboots in movie history.
Batman has begun.