With “The Dark Knight Rises” almost upon us, I took the time to revisit director Christopher Nolan’s first stab at the Batman. I remember seeing “Batman Begins” at Grauman’s Chinese Theater when it first came out, and while I thought it was very good, I don’t remember thinking it was a masterpiece the way I thought “The Dark Knight” was. But having watched it again recently on Blu-ray, I have a better appreciation of “Batman Begins” and agree that it has earned its place among the best comic book movies ever made.
The real difference here is that, unlike the Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher “Batman” movies which came before Nolan’s, Bruce Wayne and his alter ego are not upstaged by the villains. In fact, Bruce Wayne is a much bigger character this time than any of them and also far more complex. This is a credit to both the screenwriters (Nolan co-wrote the screenplay with David S. Goyer) and actor Christian Bale who more than makes this role his own.
We first see Bruce as an 8 year old (played by Gus Lewis) running around his parents’ garden when he accidentally falls down into a well. It is there that he is met by dozens of angry bats, giving him a serious phobia of the creatures. It is there that the movie establishes its main theme of fear and how Bruce works to overcome it as well the fears he has about himself.
Now a lot of times when we get a backstory to a character, it ends up taking away their mystery by telling us more than we need to know. Burton’s “Batman” and “Batman Returns” never fully got into how Bruce became this crime fighter, and in retrospect that proved to be both a positive and a negative. While it made the character Michael Keaton played more intriguing, it also made him a lot less complex. But a good portion of “Batman Begins” is dedicated to discovering how he developed his fighting skills, and we get to see different sides of the man overall.
Tortured by the memory of his parents being shot to death in front of him by a mugger, Bruce yearns for justice. His journey for it takes him from the criminal underworld in South Asia to frigid mountains where he visits the temple of the League of Shadows led by Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). With the help of Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), Bruce is trained as a ninja and vows to fight the crime and corruption which is engulfing his hometown of Gotham.
Now when it comes to origin stories, I get seriously impatient with all the time it takes to set up a character. I have had that issue with many comic book movies like “Blade” to where I feel that the movie is nothing more than a setup for a potential franchise. I never felt that way with “Batman Begins” and was utterly enthralled by Bruce Wayne’s transformation from a man obsessed with vengeance to one who is determined to not become as bad as the criminals threatening Gotham. Seeing Wayne become this instrument of justice makes him a compelling character that you want to keep on watching.
In the past, the “Batman” movies have been dominated by their villains. In “Batman Begins,” the villains come in different shapes and sizes: there’s mob boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), corrupt police detective Arnold Flass (Mark Boone Junior), the greedy CEO William Earle (Rutger Hauer), and the twisted psychopharmacologist Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy) who becomes better known as The Scarecrow.
Of all these villains, The Scarecrow proves to be Batman’s most vicious threat as his fear-inducing toxins devour the human mind into an almost permanent state of psychosis. Murphy, who was best known at that point for his performance in “28 Days Later,” casts a spell on the viewer as he lets you look deep into his bright blue eyes to where you wonder how nasty the monster inside of him is.
Actually, the great thing about “Batman Begins” is that the good guys turn out to be far more interesting than the villains. Until this movie came along, who would have ever thought that would be the case in a “Batman” movie?
Christian Bale came to own the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman in a way that only Michael Keaton did before him. After Keaton left the franchise, that role basically became interchangeable to where it didn’t matter who played him. But Bale is lucky in that he gets to play all the different parts of Bruce Wayne here; the vengeful son, the arrogant playboy, and the injustice-fighting warrior who likes to dress as a bat. Bale brilliantly captures each facet of Bruce to where you wish the character was this charismatic in the previous films.
Then there’s Gary Oldman, an actor who has given us some of the most intense and scariest villains in movies, playing the role of Sgt. James Gordon. It would seem almost unthinkable for Oldman to play a good cop, but then again that may show that our respect for him as an actor may not have been as high as we thought. Some of the best actors can go from playing good guys/gals to bad ones with relative ease, and Oldman proves here by making Gordon genuine in his intentions and a real cool dude overall.
As Henri Ducard, Liam Neeson does kind of a variation of his Jedi master role from “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace,” and I think we all came out of “Batman Begins” wishing that Qui-Gon Jinn was as cool as Ducard. A man with fighting skills and the confidence to match them, Neeson is perfect in the role as his character trains Bruce without restraint and who ends up going in a different direction than we expect him to.
Katie Holmes plays Rachel Dawes, a character who was never in the original comic book series. When “Batman Begins” was first released, Holmes was in the midst of her whirlwind romance with Tom Cruise, and the way that relationship was perceived ending up spilling over to how people saw her as Dawes. The general feeling was that Holmes was miscast in the role and that she was too young to be playing an assistant district attorney.
Looking back though, Holmes was much better than we gave her credit for at the time. Either that, or her brilliantly staged divorce from Cruise (which happened just recently as I write this) has given me a new respect for her that I didn’t have before. Whatever the case, she gives her character a strong intelligence and a beautiful empathy that shines in various scenes, and that’s especially the case in her last scene with Bale.
As for Sir Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, they are two veteran character actors that you can never go wrong with. Caine gives the character of Alfred a tremendous humanity in overseeing not just Bruce but the legacy his parents left behind. And Freeman makes Lucius a really fun character to be around as well as one who deserves the upper hand he eventually gets. Other great performances come from Tom Wilkinson, Linus Roache, and Rutger Hauer.
Watching “Batman Begins” again, I am amazed with what Christopher Nolan got away with. Each “Batman” movie he has done has him dealing with a large number of characters to where I feel he has too many to deal with. But here, each character plays a big part in the overall story and none of them feel extraneous to it. There was a lot of thought put into this reimagining of the caped crusader, and it paid off big time.
Nolan’s other masterstroke in making “Batman Begins” stand out from its predecessors was in giving it a contemporary realism and humanity. Gone was the gothic qualities of Burton’s movies and the overly campy qualities which waylaid the Schumacher films, and its place was a Bruce Wayne we could actually relate to. No longer was this a character we watched from a distance, but one we could get up close and personal with. Bruce after all is not an alien from another planet, but a flesh and blood human being with a lot of wealth and a lot of emotional problems he needs to overcome. He was never designed to be your average superhero.
“Batman Begins,” when looked at on closer inspection, give this DC Comics character the respect that has eluded him on a cinematic level all this time. Sure, the Burton movies were great in bringing back the character to the darker realm he originally inhabited, but Nolan was the first director to devote more attention to him as a character over the villains surrounding him. His achievement here has made him one of the best filmmakers working today, and with “The Dark Knight Rises,” he looks to wrap up one of the greatest movie trilogies ever.
Bring on the Bat!
* * * * out of * * * *