Rated: PG-13 :: Released: 15 June 2005
Director: Christopher Nolan :: Starring: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Ken Watanabe, Katie Holmes and Cillian Murphy
By Michael David Sims
15 June 2005 — What makes Batman one of the greatest superheroes of all time is how open to interpretation he is. Spider-Man, Superman and the legion that comprise the X-Men are all pretty much who they are. Batman, on the other hand, is who he is — a sad and lonely man bent on avenging the death of his parents in a endless war on crime — but he's also a detective, an army of one, a father figure, a leader, an urban commando, a ninja, fighter of super-psychopaths, defender of children, an anti-mob taskforce, a villain and whatever else a decent writer wants him to be. Just so long as he isn't happy.
While I try not to pick on the two Joel Schumacher films (there's enough people willing to do that as is), their primary mistake was forgetting that Batman is dark. He broods. He's a cold, ruthless bastard. Maybe it was Warner Bros. or maybe it was the director himself, but someone wanted to make the Dark Knight kid-friendly (RE: marketable) and seemingly decided to drop his gloomy nature. Never mind that his parents were murdered right before his eyes, and never mind that he's a tormented soul. Yeah, forget all that to sell toys , costumes, candy and anything else the bat-logo will fit on. That's what Warner Bros. allowed (or told) Schumacher to do and they wound up with a joke of a franchise that all but killed the comic book movie until Marvel came along with Blade, Spider-Man and X-Men.
Director Christopher Nolan, on the other hand, opted to chuck all that out the window — not just the Schumacher films, mind you, but Tim Burton's as well — in an effort to jumpstart the franchise. With Batman Begins Nolan has gone back to the very beginning of Batman's career so as to better help us understand why and how Bruce Wayne came to put on the mask. Even non-comic book readers know why — his parents were murdered — but the real "why" lies deep within the beleaguered soul of Wayne and is exposed for all to see in this film.
The "how" is where the strength of Begins truly lies. While we aren't privy to all of Bruce Wayne's training and globetrotting adventures, we do, however, catch a very brief glimpse of it as he becomes a ninja, studying under both Henri Ducard and Ra's al Ghul. Here we come to understand why he chooses the shadows and how he's able to seemingly disappear at will. It's also here that Wayne (deftly portrayed by Christian Bale) becomes human for the very first time on film. At least to me, anyway.
As I said in my recent review of Batman: Year One, "The Batman titles are cold and distant because Batman himself is cold and distant. But when Miller stripped all of the villains and toys and calculated distance away he wound up writing a story about two men trying to do what's right in a city that's come to terms with its own corruption... Never have these characters felt more alive." The same holds true for this very film.
While Wayne is distant from everyone (including himself), he does expose his deepest fears to Ducard and admits the guilt that has plagued him for years. Shockingly, Bruce even admits to picking up a gun to kill a man. These emotions — fear, guilt and the lust for revenge — are all human characteristics we just don't see in the modern Batman, but, when presented here (and coupled with the wise words of several friends), they help us understand this impossible situation and make us believe that a man really could be driven to dress up as a bat in an effort to rid a city of all its crime.
By the time Bruce has returned to Gotham, he's made enemies of some very powerful people, but brushes it off because his quest is truly about to begin. And with the help of several key players — notably, butler and father figure Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine); the kindhearted and only honest cop in the city, Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman); the "don't ask, don't tell" scientific genius Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) — Bruce's transition into the Batman is as smooth as silk.
Ah... who am I kidding? You've all read Year One, on which this is loosely based. Bruce is a screw up. His jumps are mistimed, his footing off, his shenanigans televised, he's poisoned then set on fire and keeping his dual identity a secret is nearly impossible. But his resilience prevails and Bruce slowly learns the vigilante ropes. This transition from rookie crime fighter to icon of Gotham City is an awesome sight because, unlike Tim Burton's Batman, it's a slow rise and not a huge, parade-inducing affair. For the idea of "Batman" to work, he can never appear in the media or be seen in the light of day because he must remain a myth. He must remain that thing that criminals fear; they must never know if he's really out there, or if he's simply an urban legend meant to frighten children. (Yeah, sure. As I said, some of his antics do make the media, but Batman is actually made to look like a fugitive — which he is — rather than a hero. As for the average viewer, they'll simply suspect that some fool stole a prototype tank for a little joyride.)
To continue on with this theme of Batman as a rookie, Nolan doesn't really showcase the detective. Right now he has to learn how to be Batman before he can branch out and solve intricate crimes. And though there is a puzzle he must solve and a villain to confront, he's too late to actually stop it and is shocked to learn the true face of evil. Instead, he acts as damage control (several times, actually). Nothing more, nothing less.
Those who have read Year One will notice the director's nod to Miller's classic tale. Characters such as Lieutenant Flass, Commissioner Loeb and Carmine Falcone all appear in name and spirit, but not quite body. (Flass is more Harvey Bullock than ex-Green Beret.) Though we never meet them, Gordon's wife and son can be seen through a window during one crucial scene, and several key devises (RE: gadgets) come into play. And then there's... oh... well... there's that of which I cannot speak. Don't worry. It's a good thing. You'll see it and you'll cheer, especially if you've read Year One. Nevertheless, it's a moment that will fill many fans' hearts with joy and provides so much room for a sequel.
By pulling the same stunt Miller did in 1986 — by stripping Batman of all of the baggage that he inevitably brings to the table, by drawing us into his psyche and allowing us to see him as human (rather than superhuman) — Nolan has reinvigorated the franchise and created one of the greatest comic book movies to date. Better still, much like the dramatic Spider-Man 2 and pulpy Sin City, Batman Begins actually transcends the comic book genre and will leave you having experienced one of best action films in a good long while.
Stars: 5 of 5