Before rebooting franchises was the cool thing to do in Hollywood, the character of Batman has gone through several iterations well before Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins ever came out. On the big screen, Adam West started it all way back in the 60’s with Lewis Wilson and Robert Lowery donning the cowl prior to West in serials in the 1940’s. Following West in the 90’s is Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, and George Clooney as a more modern, gothic take on the character. Though the 90’s era of films directed by both Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher are all a similar iteration of the caped crusader, the character goes through significant changes over the course of the 4 films.
But with a reboot comes a new direction and vison for the character. Batman Begins takes what we know of the Batman and gives the character more weight to his purpose for becoming the symbol that strikes fear in criminals eyes. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) wakes up from a nightmare of his lifelong fear, imprisoned in some undisclosed location seeking to learn how criminals eat, sleep, think, and slowly understand their psyche by becoming so desperate that he starts to steal food, working his way up to being a part of a crew that steals from Wayne Enterprises.
Bruce is introduced to a man named Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) who recruits Bruce into the League of Shadows where Ducard becomes a mentor to Bruce. To be inducted, Bruce must kill a criminal but, his ethical code prevents him from doing so and instead burns down the fortress the League operates out of. Returning from the dead (Bruce has been gone from Gotham for 7 years) Bruce and his butler slash father figure Alfred (Michael Caine) create a symbol (apart from ordering parts from China) that will restore the balance in Gotham City.
As a cover, Bruce requests to work in the Applied Sciences department, headed by Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). Quickly Bruce learns that his compassion and sympathy will come back to haunt him in Gotham (he never learns to mind his surroundings).
What Nolan does well with Batman Begins starts early on. Gotham as a city is a character in its own right. Living and breathing as if alive with a pulse, the gothic towers of Tim Burton’s fantasy are replaced by corporations and skyscrapers. The homeless and desperate overtake the streets showing a juxtaposition of the high society Bruce Wayne “lives” in compared to where Batman thrives. Batman is a legend in Gotham, an urban myth in the likes of Bigfoot or the lockness monster. Unless you see him or you’re on his radar, you’ll never know Batman is real. Bale as an extension of Nolan’s direction makes Batman the real identity with Bruce Wayne being the masked version hiding his true self – what Bruce was born to become the moment his parents were shot and killed in an alley.
Bale nails both Bruce Wayne’s 1% wealth and stature (look at American Psycho) and Batman’s dark grittiness – though the detective part of Batman’s set of skills is missing. After all Batman is regarded as the world’s greatest detective. Maybe that comes with experience in this world or maybe with everything else going on he’d rather use intimidation to get answers. Bruce on the other hand is more reliable as a detective. I don’t believe stringing up corrupt cop Arnold Flass (Mark Boone Junior) and asking him questions to be all that difficult to do when looking for answers. The Batman voice is terrifying enough. Though come on, how Rachel (Katie Holmes), Bruce’s oldest friend didn’t recognize Bruce’s voice is a bit of a stretch in storytelling. But regardless, that can be ignored for the most part. Rachel as played by Katie Holmes misses the mark. Her performance is rather flat and her and Bale don’t share any chemistry on screen together. She does give one of the most iconic lines ever said in a comic book movie however so she’s not all bad.
Batman as a character is only as good as his rogue’s gallery of villains. Ra’s Al Ghul (played as a decoy by (Ken Watanabe) (translated to English means Head of the Demon) is a fantastic starting point with several possibilities the narrative can take from there. Neeson once confirmed as Ra’s is a daunting foe – Ra’s is ruthless in his pursuit of true blind justice after all he and the League of Shadows represent the true checks and balances the world needs to thrive. With Ra’s comes a ton of mythos that doesn’t get explored due to the realistic version of Batman’s story we’re living in. For the story being told, the supernatural elements of Ra’s being near immortal thanks to the Lazarus pit wouldn’t fit into the environment as its presented. I wouldn’t say there’s a missed opportunity, just a lot to be desired with this character being introduced early on.
Perhaps the most important relationship Batman has is with Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) (even more so than with Alfred). Jim is an incorruptible cop – one of the only good ones that can be trusted in Gotham. For Bale’s Batman trust goes a long way – he only trusts 3 people – Alfred, Jim, and Lucius.
Ultimately, Nolan understands the fear behind Bruce’s nightmares to then become Batman and use that fear against the underbelly of society. Yes, bats are a fear of Bruce’s, he dreads them but what he fears the most is fear itself. Wally Pfister’s expert cinematography behind the camera uses close up angles to capture the fear Batman is unleashing on the criminals while still using grander shots to capture the beautifully fractured city of Gotham.
Batman Begins is arguably one of the best comic book films ever made. Every technical aspect is flawless to the grittiness of the muted color palette to the score by the brilliant Hans Zimmer (easily one of the better character themes). The bat mobile is tough and mean and Bale fits the duality of the role like a glove. Nolan’s realistic approach to a Batman origin story puts it a head of Burton and Keaton’s 1989 Batman. That being said, Batman Begins is heavily underrated. Its near bulletproof showing the potential a Batman story can have with the ambitions of who’s behind the mask and the camera.
Written By: Christopher Nolan & David S. Goyer
Directed By: Christopher Nolan
Music By: Hans Zimmer
Cinematography: Wally Pfister
Starring: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Gary Oldman, Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson, Rutger Hauer, Ken Wantanabe, Morgan Freeman
Release Date: June 15, 2005
Running Time: 2 Hours 20 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 84%
My Score: 4.5 out of 5
Based On: Batman created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger