Directed by Christopher Nolan
Batman Begins is a batastrophic success.
Unlike his super-sized crime-fighting colleagues, Batman has never had a proper "origins" movie. It's only natural that a super hero franchise, or even a wannabe franchise, start out with the obvious storyline of how things began. Superman, Spider-Man, and even The Incredible Hulk all got the origins treatment in print, on TV, and on the big screen.
Alas, it's taken more than 65 years for the Dark Knight's full origins to finally be recorded in any medium.
Sure, the catalyst for why Bruce Wayne donned cape and cowl is well known: the cold-blooded murder of his parents right in front of his 8-year-old eyes left him with his father's wealth and Wayne Enterprises, so he was able to afford a vigilante lifestyle.
But why would a billionaire risk it all and adopt such a dangerous hobby? Take a look at billion-dollar weaklings like Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, and Richard Branson. They're too busy pimping for yet another buck to make a real difference in the world.
While Bruce Wayne can appreciate the risks of taking a much-beloved, privately-held company like Wayne Enterprises public, even he himself posits in Batman Begins, "a guy who dresses up like a bat clearly has issues."
Issues… and a backbone.
Bat Moon Rising
Bless the bat heavens, then, for Christopher Nolan, who explains it all in an oh-so-smart story that puts to shame the standard comic book movie formula.
As memory serves, Nolan's Memento was a decent drama, but Insomnia was enough to send even the most diehard of insomniacs into the deepest sleep. Based on those two films alone, Nolan would seem an unlikely choice to rinse away the bad taste Joel Schumacher left for the world's Batfans following his notoriously bad Batman Forever and Batman and Robin.
Nonetheless, with a nicely nuanced performance from Welshman Christian Bale (The Machinist), this British invasion of Stately Wayne Manor has unleashed a bloody good yarn.
Make no mistake about it, this is not Adam West's campy TV Batman. This is the real thing, the really dark Dark Knight. The Gotham City Dr. Thomas Wayne left behind was suffering through its own Great Depression; with a Cinderella Man nowhere in sight, times were tough and the criminals joined forces to bring the police — and the good people of Gotham — down on their desperate knees.
As a tormented youngster, Bruce Wayne would struggle to find his place in the world. Princeton wasn't cutting it for him. He had to find his own way; feeling responsible for the circumstances that brought forth his parents' murder, this one guilt-ridden member of the upper crust goes on to study criminals, savor the adrenaline rush of his first theft, and, by becoming one of them, learn their ways. Well, sort of. Does it count if Bruce Wayne steals Wayne Enterprises merchandise?
Wayne's vision quest, and following his anti-bliss, takes him deep into Eastern mysticism. He learns to confront his fears rather than bury them. And his life's work becomes the taking back of Gotham from the corrupt and ill-to-do.
League of Shadows
Buoyed by an air-tight story that ties all the Batmythology together in one taut thriller, Batman Begins is elevated even higher by a stellar cast. As mentioned already, Bale delivers as the deeply conflicted Wayne.
The rest of the cast is just as good. At the top of the list is Gary Oldman (Immortal Beloved) as the yet-to-be commissioner Gordon. He's the one soul in the justice system Batman finds trustworthy. Oldman's frumpy take on the character is simply perfect, whether he's commiserating with the Dark Knight while taking out the trash or plotting their next move in front of the brand new, makeshift Bat Signal.
Liam Neeson (Schindler's List) brings a wise but mysterious air to the vengeful Henri Ducard, a mystic warrior who serves as Bruce's mentor in the early goings. And, in the steady hands of Morgan Freeman (Million Dollar Baby), Wayne Enterprises' tech-savvy employee Lucius Fox becomes an equal for Bruce rather than just another minor player.
Thankfully, the badness of the bad guys in Batman Begins doesn't rely on the wattage of the "special guest star" villains that ultimately destroyed the 1990s incarnation. Here, Tom Wilkinson and Cillian Murphy, who co-starred together in Girl With a Pearl Earring, play it straight. Wilkinson's Carmine Falcone is a classic, tough-tawkin" crime lord while Murphy's take on Dr. Jonathan Crane, a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum who harbors his own hidden agenda as the Scarecrow, is suitably creepy.
Rounding out the cast, Michael Caine (The Quiet American) turns Alfred Pennyworth into a complete character instead of a mere caricature and Katie Holmes offers a fine performance as Rachel Dawes, one of Bruce's childhood friends who's trying to fight for right in Gotham's viral justice system.
Get Up, Stand Up
What makes Batman Begins all the more exceptional is its story, finely crafted by Nolan and David S. Goyer. The latter has struck gold with Dark City but also hit the skids with junk like Blade: Trinity. Here, to use the kind of corporate-speak that would make Bruce Wayne cringe, they generate a synergy that pulls all the elements together.
Christian Bale (Bruce Wayne) and Michael Caine (Alfred Pennyworth)
make all the other versions obsolete.
Photo: Warner Bros.
The consequences of the characters' actions, from the philanthropic efforts of the elder Wayne to the brash-but-benevolent adventures of his son, come full circle in surprising, but logical, ways.
Interested more in developing the internal machinations of Bruce Wayne, this is, ultimately, the most un-comic book of all the comic book movies. Batman Begins plays more like a sensational thriller than an in-your-face summer special effects extravaganza.
Here, the effects are finally put to use in service of the story and to help create a magnificent Gotham, which has the look and feel of a Chicago by way of New York, London, and Shanghai.
As an added bonus, the production's attention to detail is fantastic. The newly-constructed, sleek elevated trains of Bruce's childhood have, 20 years later, turned into a creaky, graffiti-riddled symbol of lost glory and innocence. Even the Bat Signal is a sketchy, eerie image in the night sky, grounded in reality, but still able to conjure up a sense of iconic grandeur.
Amidst all the character development and action sequences, the film's simple underlying theme of falling, failing, but getting back up again plays well in this grim fairy tale. Even though he falls hard and often, Batman is, undeniably, in the best shape of his historic career and more than ready to take on the new millennium.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.