Batman Begins (United States, 2005)
Of all the major comic book characters to transition to a less static visual media, none has been more mistreated than the Bat-Man. As originally envisioned by creator Bob Kane in 1939, Batman was a dark character who walked the tightrope between hero and vigilante. That was his image until the 1960s, when the campy TV series starring Adam West transformed the character into a silly-but-likable good guy in gray spandex. Tim Burton re-invented Batman for a surreal (and, at the time, highly anticipated) 1989 feature, but the movie ended up focusing more on The Joker, leaving the titular hero to lick his wounds as a supporting character. By the time that Batman series reached its third movie, it had fallen back to the campy level of its TV predecessor. Now, there's nothing wrong with camp, per se, but, by the 1997 arrival of Batman and Robin, fans had had enough. Batman looked dead, at least until now.
With Batman Begins, director Christopher Nolan has gone back to basics, jettisoning both the silliness of the TV incarnation and the gothic and fetishist elements of the '90s version. This is a hard-core, down-and-gritty origin story - the tale of, as one might reasonably expect, how Batman begins. It isn't intended as a "prequel" to the 1989 film - not only is Gotham City a completely different place, but key events of the Batman chronology are re-spun. Batman Begins is designed as the start of a new life, a reboot for the franchise. In the process, Nolan has not only crafted the best Batman movie, but arguably the second-best motion picture superhero narrative (topped only by the linked duo of Superman and Superman II). For those who thought Spider-Man and X-Men had a lot to offer, wait till you see where this film goes.
Batman Begins takes us to the dark corners in the life of billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), who is rescued from an anonymous Asian prison by the mysterious Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson). Bruce, who has been haunted by the memory of seeing his parents gunned down in front of him, has been wandering the world, picking fights with small-time thugs until Ducard finds him and offers him an alternative to his nomadic existence. Ducard wants to train Bruce so he can become a member of the League of Shadows, the organization presided over by Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). The League of Shadows is dedicated to restoring "balance" to a world in which "criminals thrive on the indulgence of society's understanding."
Bruce's training under Ducard is physically demanding, but it transforms the young man into a living weapon. Along the way, Ducard frequently sounds like a Star Wars Sith Lord as he imparts nuggets of wisdom such as "Your anger gives you great power" and "Your compassion is a weakness." In the end, Bruce breaks with the League of Shadows so he can return to his native Gotham City and fight the burgeoning crime wave there. Aided by his faithful butler, Alfred (Michael Caine); a Q-like inventor named Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman); one of the city's few good cops, Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman); and a childhood friend-turned-assistant DA, Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), Bruce sets out to bring justice to Gotham. He decides to do this not as Bruce Wayne, but as a sinister alter-ego. And, at the beginning, he has two dangerous enemies to face: the city's crime lord, Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) and a demented psychiatrist who calls himself The Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy).
To tell this first story of Batman, Nolan and co-screenwriter David Goyer weave established elements of the Caped Crusader's history into a coherent tapestry that includes material of their own devising. We see what prompts Batman to choose his image, how the Batcave is developed, where the suit and utility belt come from, and what the secret of the Batmobile is. Rather than de-mythologizing Batman, this provides us with better understanding of who he is and what motivates him - aspects whose absence were glaringly evident when Tim Burton brought his vision of the superhero to the screen 16 years ago.
Of the five well-known actors to don the cape and cowl (Adam West, Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Christian Bale), there's little doubt that Bale is the most talented and the most effective. We believe him as both Bruce Wayne and Batman and, while in the latter role, he seems more than just a face behind the mask. In order to play this part, Bale had to gain about 85 pounds (re-acquiring the 65 pounds lost from his work in The Machinist and putting on an additional 20 pounds of muscle). Keaton, Kilmer, and Clooney allowed the costume to dominate their performances. Here, it's the other way around. Bale comes close to being the definitive Batman.
He is surrounded by an exceptional supporting cast, with Oscar-winners Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman leading the way. Also on hand are Gary Oldman, playing against type as a good guy; Tom Wilkinson, chewing a little on the scenery; Ken Watanabe, who barely speaks a word; and a chilling Cillian Murphy. Katie Holmes has the thankless role of the "love interest" - one of the few elements of Batman Begins that doesn't work. Holmes and Bale never "click" (at least not in the way that Christopher Reeve and Margo Kidder did in Superman, or Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst in Spider-Man), and her character feels superfluous - just a damsel in distress.
Although there's less of a stylized noir feeling to Batman Begins that there was to Batman, Nolan nevertheless keeps things dark, since bats hunt at night. The action scenes are, for the most part, kinetic and exciting - things that have rarely been true of fights and chases in the superhero's previous incarnations. Burton was at a loss how to do action, and Schumacher was perfunctory. Nolan understands how to elevate the adrenaline level, with interesting camera angles, strong editing, and effective special effects work (light on CGI and heavy on models and working gadgets) all contributing.
Batman Begins is a strong re-start to a franchise that deserves better than it has often been accorded. The ending provides a direct lead-in to another Batman movie, and Nolan is on the record as saying he envisions making a trilogy. The next installment is probably three years off, but, in the meantime, we have Bryan Singer's re-invention of Warner Brother's other DC goliath, Superman Returns. If Singer can do for Superman what Nolan has done for Batman, then the summer of 2006 will have at least one film to anticipate.
Batman Begins (United States, 2005)
Cast: Christian Bale, Tom Wilkinson, Cillian Murphy, Katie Holmes, Ken Watanabe, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Michael Caine, Rutger Hauer
Screenplay: Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, based on characters created by Bob Kane
Cinematography: Wally Pfister
Music: James Newton Howard, Hans Zimmer
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers