Director: Christopher Nolan
The year was 1939. World War II was beginning, the career of legendary baseball player Lou Gherig was ending, The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind were released, and the "Golden Age of Comics" was just starting. By the time the year was out, Bob Kane and Bill Finger created a superhero that straddled the line between hero and vigilante. A masked man striving to protect the city he calls home from the criminals that claimed his family, he is called by many names. He is often referred to as the Dark Knight, the Caped Crusader, the Masked Manhunter, and the World's Greatest Detective, but he was born into the world with just one name: Batman. He has become a superstar in the seven decades since his first appearance in "Detective Comics #27" (published May 1939), serving as not only as one of DC's flagship characters, but ranking with Superman and Spider-Man as one of the comic world's most iconic figures.
Batman has ventured outside of the printed page on numerous occasions, seeing translations into video games, toys, cartoons, movie serials in the 1940s, and the famous 1960s television show starring Adam West and Burt Ward. The show (and its spinoff movie) were super-silly, prompting the uninitiated to assume that the comic version was just as campy. Batman, however, would be undeterred, and his public image would be drastically altered by Frank Miller's gritty 1986 graphic novel "The Dark Knight Returns" and Tim Burton's adaptation in 1989. Burton's film inspired three sequels between 1992 and 1997, but similar to Christopher Reeve's four Superman movies, the franchise started a quick downward spiral with the third and fourth films in the series. Fans cried foul at the cinematic downfall of their hero, aiming their hatred at the apparent return to the campiness of the old television show. Warner Brothers apparently heard their cry, and felt the need to wipe the slate clean with a complete and total reboot. And reboot they did, starting with the Dark Knight's backstory in Batman Begins.
As our story begins, we're introduced to eight-year-old Bruce Wayne (Gus Lewis) as he plays in his backyard with a friend, Rachel Dawes (Emma Lockhart). She discovers an arrowhead, but Bruce swipes it and makes off like a bandit. Rachel chases him, but when he attempts to hide, he ends up falling into an old well. Stranded at the bottom with a broken leg, Bruce is overwhelmed by a swarm of bats.
Flash forward just over twenty years into the future, where the adult Bruce (Christian Bale) is interred at a horrible Asian prison, looking more like a psychotic Grizzly Adams than a billionaire playboy. And I'll be honest, the prison makes Schindler's List look like a fun way to spend a weekend. The place looks like Hiroshima: The Morning After, the slop they serve the prisoners is so disgusting that it barely qualifies as food in any sort of ethical sense, and to top it all off, Bruce ends up in a giant brawl with six guys at once. He kicks the crap out of all six before the guards break it up, getting thrown in his cell before he can hurt anyone else. In his cell, he's greeted by the enigmatic Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), who offers Bruce the answers he's sought for his entire life.
Bruce accepts his offer, and arrives at a Himalayan palace occupied by a band of masked ninjas and their equally enigmatic leader Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). It is here that Ducard reveals his intention to take on Bruce as a protégé, and train him to combat evil in all its forms. He teaches Bruce numerous fighting styles, dropping little nuggets of wisdom while instructing his pupil to use theatricality and fear to conquer his foes. So in short, Ducard is like a funhouse mirror version of Qui-Gon Jinn from The Phantom Menace. Bruce's physically demanding training progresses, as we see flashbacks of his past and the path his life has taken. From watching a mugger senselessly murder his parents as a child, to his failed attempt as a young man to gain revenge by killing that mugger, to traveling the world committing crimes to sustain himself.
Bruce's training is a success, and he is accepted into the "League of Shadows." The League is an ancient organization, dedicated to restoring their view of order to the world in an "end justifies the means" fashion. Responsible for the downfall of numerous decadent societies, the League has sacked the Roman Empire, started the Black Plague, set the Great Fire of London in 1666, nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki, took out Sodom and Gomorrah, hijacked the planes used in the attacks on September 11th... okay, I'm exaggerating a tad. They're only responsible for Rome, the Plague, and the London fire, but from the way Ra's and Ducard talk, the influence of the League of Shadows is rivaled only by the Illuminati. Anyway, Ra's and Ducard want Bruce to lead the League into Gotham City, which has been selected as their next target. Bruce refuses to destroy the city he loves, realizing that the League is simply a group of criminals hiding behind the guise of justice. He severs ties with the League by burning the place down and fighting off most of the League's members, then departs for home.
Bruce is reunited with longtime Wayne butler Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine), who brings his ward up to speed on Gotham City events in his long absence. He has been declared dead, and his shares in Wayne Enterprises (the philanthropic business founded by his father) have been liquidated by company CEO William Earle (Rutger Houer) with the intention of taking the company public. It is on this flight home that Bruce declares his intentions: to save Gotham City from the crime that claimed the lives of his parents. Upon his return to Gotham City, Bruce heads to the Wayne Enterprises headquarters, inquiring about a job in the Applied Sciences division. He is led down into the division's long-forgotten warehouse in the basement, where he is introduced to Lucious Fox (Morgan Freeman). An unjustly demoted scientist that is the only person working there, Fox has developed numerous prototypes for the military, but all were rejected because they would be too expensive for mass production. If Ducard is like Qui-Gon Jinn, then Fox is like Q, only working for Batman instead of James Bond. Bruce drafts Lucious as his armorer, "borrowing" the unused prototypes under various false pretenses (such as spelunking and cliff diving) in order to craft a disguise for himself.
He tests out the disguise one night by paying a visit to police sergeant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), one of the few honest cops in the city and the officer who helped console a young Bruce on the night his parents died. Bruce asks what it would take to bring down Gotham City's powerful crime lord Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), and warns Sgt. Gordon to "watch for [his] sign." Through a little investigative work, Bruce discovers that Falcone is expecting a shipment of drugs smuggled inside stuffed animals. He picks off each of Falcone's henchmen one by one, fighting his way through them to the mob boss's limousine, where he yanks him out through the sunroof and knocks him unconscious. When the police finally arrive, Sgt. Gordon discovers Falcone strapped to a spotlight, projecting the faint silhouette of a bat into the night sky... the work of the vigilante that becomes known as "The Bat Man."
As the movie progresses, Batman finds himself up against a corrupt psychologist named Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy). At first seeming like a harmless drug dealer with ties to the Mafia, he continually has sane criminals committed to Arkham Asylum so they can avoid prison. We soon learn, however, Crane's deeper, more malicious intentions. Y'see, he's using drugs acquired from Falcone to develop a weaponized hallucinogen that causes its victims to project their worst fear onto everything they see. Donning a burlap sack as a mask, Crane has created an alter ego he calls "The Scarecrow" in order to facilitate the fear of his victims. After Falcone goes insane (thanks to the fear toxin), Bruce's old playmate Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) now an assistant to Gotham City's district attorney wonders how a man with no history of mental illness goes crazy as quickly as he did. Crane offers to show her why, leading her into the asylum's basement, where various henchmen pour Crane's hallucinogen into a water main. Rachel catches what's up and tries to leave, but the masked Crane blows his toxin into her face.
Batman wastes no time in saving the day, swooping in and taking out the henchmen before spraying Crane with a dose of his own fear gas. Frightened into submission by his vision of Batman as a demonic gargoyle, Crane reveals his backer: the believed-dead Ra's Al Ghul. As the third act begins, we see the true face of Ra's Al Ghul and witness as Batman attempts to thwart his master plan: to vaporize Gotham City's water supply and cause the latent drugs to infect the entire city, creating a wave of panic that will cause Gotham's citizens to destroy themselves from within.
Wow. That's really all I can say, just "wow." As much as I liked Batman '89, I'm of the opinion that Batman Begins quite possibly exceeds it in terms of both filmmaking quality and storytelling style. For those still clutching to the belief that Batman Begins is a prequel to the Burton/Schumacher quartet, just let it go. This is an all-new franchise. The movie doesn't fit into the previous continuity, which is especially evidenced in the fact that the Waynes were not killed by The Joker as depicted in Batman '89. Here, they're murdered by Joe Chill (as played by Richard Brake). Besides, they had to reboot the series, because they killed off the majority of the best villains. The villains are just as much of a draw as Batman is, oustside of Scarecrow, Burton and Schumacher pretty much used all the best ones. How many casual fans have heard of Victor Zsasz or Killer Croc? The only true remaining hint of the Burton/Schumacher era that I caught is the rather sly reference to the opening scene of Batman '89 ("What the hell are you?" "I'm Batman."). After crafting such fascinating films as Memento and Insomnia, director Christopher Nolan has breathed new life into the thought-dead Batman movie franchise.
The script, penned by Nolan and David S. Goyer, combines elements of classic Batman stories such as "Year One," "The Man Who Falls," and "The Long Halloween" to make an excellent script, seamlessly blending Nolan's dark storytelling style with Goyer's ability to write entertaining comic book adaptations (with movies like The Crow: City of Angels and the Blade trilogy on his résumé). We're taken deeper into Batman's psyche and we actually get to see what's inside his head, as opposed to him just being a guy in a black rubber suit that's background noise for the villains. Rather than ruin the Batman mythology, Nolan and Goyer weave a tale that enriches it. We see the reasoning behind the "Batman" image, the birth of the Batcave, how he acquires those wonderful toys. We get to understand the character, to see his motivation. The movie is as much about Bruce Wayne as it is about his masked alter ego, which brings more humanity and heart into the story. The hedonistic playboy side of the character's personality has been depicted by some comic book writers as Bruce's secret identity, while his "Dark Knight" side has been cast as the man's true nature. Nolan and Goyer have apparently taken that same route, because when the Bruce Wayne of Batman Begins puts on his cape and cowl, that's when we see his true face. This movie's Bruce is a hero through and through, and we get the sense that he feels more at home in the Batcave than he does in Wayne Manor. But there is one thing that bugs me about the script. Is it just me, or are there flaws in that water vaporizer contraption used at the end of the movie? The human body is mostly water, so couldn't it vaporize people too? I'm not a science whiz, so maybe I don't know what I'm talking about. I don't have a clue. But in any event, the water vaporizer would have made an awesome weapon to use against Aquaman. If they make an Aquaman movie, they should totally rip that off.
Nolan's direction is just as well-crafted as the screenplay. The movie's look hearkens back to Tim Burton's original movie, yet retains its own individuality. While I normally complain about dizzying, quickly-edited action scenes, they work within the context of the movie. Take, for example, the scene where Batman interrupts Falcone's drug shipment. He appears out of nowhere, striking at a moment's notice. Falcone's henchmen are confused and have no clue what's going on, and the scene's editing reflects that. The movie's camerawork (orchestrated by cinematographer Wally Pfister) pushes the movie along, putting to use exciting camera angles and moody lighting. Many of the scenes are cast in a melancholy gray light while others are tinted with earthy browns and sepia tones, which suits the movie's tone perfectly. The movie's special effects are also great, relying more on stuntmen and real gadgets than CGI work. They could have gone the whole Catwoman route and had a Batman that looked like he was ripped out of a video game during the action scenes, but the use of actual working props and stuntmen makes the movie that much more believable. And boy, did I like that Batmobile. Looking like an amalgam of a Hummer, a tank, and Dodge's aborted Tomahawk motorcycle, the Batmobile (called "the Tumbler" in the movie) isn't the typical Batmobile, but still manages to be sleek, intimidating, and downright cool. Batman Begins is also assisted by a wonderful score by Hans Zimmer and James Nelson Howard. Their music doesn't rely on recurring leitmotifs like the scores by Danny Elfman and Elliot Goldenthal's previous scores, but I liked it all the same. The score carries a lot of power and strength, without overshadowing what's onscreen. The score is never overbearing, maintaining a presence throughout and helping to tell a story as much as the screenplay and cast.
Speaking of, let's talk about the cast. Christian Bale does a spectacular job, wonderfully conveying the deep psychological scars of a person who as a child watched as those closest to him were violently snatched away, and seeks to avenge them as an adult. Bale's enthusiasm for the role is evident, and when the actors have fun, the viewer does too. His heroic turn here is the polar opposite of his equally extraordinary performance as a merciless serial killer in American Psycho, and he manages to play perhaps the best Bruce Wayne of the five actors who have gained notoriety for the role. Bale is surrounded by an impressive supporting cast, with Liam Neeson and Michael Caine as its best members. Both Neeson and Caine are awesome, bringing some much-welcomed class to the movie. They could have just stood around smoking cigarettes and downing martinis for two hours and it would have ruled. Gary Oldman is fun as the future Gotham City police commissioner Jim Gordon, and Rutger Houer's turn as the sleazeball Wayne Enterprises CEO is enjoyable as well. Cillian Murphy, who I'd only seen prior as the protagonist in the British zombie movie 28 Days Later, turns in a creepy performance that makes me wish Scarecrow had gotten more screen time.
And despite having almost no screen time at all, Linus Roache is great as Bruce's father. Roache's performance is understated, yet he manages to come across as a truly loving father that leaves a thumbprint on the movie as a whole. However, not everything about the cast is so great. Katie Holmes is likeable, but I just wasn't believing her as an assistant DA or as a love interest. She doesn't bring much to the movie outside of standing around looking cute, so her character just seems superfluous. Holmes and Bale don't have the same chemistry as, say, Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst in Spider-Man or Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder in Superman. Though to their credit, Holmes and Bale are a more believable couple than Holmes and Tom Cruise. Maybe that's why she spent so much time talking about Tom than promoting the movie when it was released, because she realized that she was totally out of her league when compared to the rest of the cast.
I enjoyed Batman Begins a lot, and combined with the fact that it's well-made and well-acted, goes a long way into how much hype I give it. I really don't have much bad to say about the movie at all, and I'm willing to list it in my top-five movies of 2005. The quality of comic book adaptations can be mixed, but I'm of the opinion that Batman Begins is one of the best of the bunch. Not as awesome as Sin City, but still great. I'll give Batman Begins four and a half stars and a vote of confidence, so check it out.
Final Rating: ****˝