“Batman Begins” and its sequels became Christopher Nolan’s new calling card. Although he’d received critical acclaim for “Memento” and “Insomnia,” this film put him on the map with casual moviegoers as well. By taking on a well-known franchise (and at that, one in severe need of repair), while not sacrificing elements that make his work unique, Nolan set himself up for commercial success that comes with wide public recognition for his art.
And it didn’t just feel like Nolan simply lent his presence to the superhero genre with another action-packed, substantially empty entry. To the contrary, “Batman Begins” is a great movie in its own right, rather than just being a better version of superhero flicks. Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy kicked comic book movies into a new gear, and one that would influence similar movies to come.
It’s a strong statement to say that this is a great movie, rather than just comparing it to other similar films, because let’s face it, there wasn’t much competition pre-2005. “X-Men” kind of kicked off the new wave of comic book-based movies, and it was a pretty good entry, which showed that both technology and writing were finally up to snuff enough to make such films that were actually good. Then there were the “Spider-Man” movies, which ranged from terrible to pretty decent. After that, there was a wave of shitty Marvel movies, like “Fantastic Four,” “Daredevil,” “The Punisher,” “Ghost Rider,” etc. It was getting to the point where those movies took over for the typical summer blockbusters with so much source material to mine that was already written with graphic representations even. So, calling a movie “good, for a superhero movie,” doesn’t really mean much, especially a decade ago.
But then, came along this Batman movie that dared to question the very nature of these tights-clad heros, with a darker, grittier presentation that seems more true to life than its predecessors. Unlike the Adam West “Batman,” with its cheesy costumes and hammy acting, or the Tim Burton/Joel Shumacher era of movies featuring be-nippled batsuits and corny villains, this movie dared to take Batman seriously. If there’s any other Batman property this movie could be compared to, it’s the animated series from the ’90s, which was rather dark, but also very smart, for being a children’s cartoon show. But, of course, there are things directors can get away with in film that they can’t show on Saturday mornings.
The trilogy of films taken together could be seen as the “Citizen Kane” of superhero movies. The timeline of events spans from Bruce Wayne’s formative years through his retirement/death. In terms of quality, it’s one of the best films of its genre, if not the best.
The thing that sets this movie apart from other cape flicks is how realistic it feels. If a young billionaire decided to carry out his own form of vigilante justice in real life, this is probably about how it would go. It also paints the character of Bruce Wayne as more morally complex than the traditionally simple heroes versus villains dynamic seen in other superhero movies. In fact, his decision to go under the mask seems rather questionable, considering his flimsy explanation for why he’s doing it.
One of the interesting themes for modern Batman movies and shows is that the supposed villains usually are aware of real societal problems and that becomes their driving reason for whatever their dastardly plot may be. The problem is their means for solving social issues usually involve sending Gotham city into frenzied chaos and panic or mass murder. But if they were to channel that energy into positive solutions, the city would be much better off. Batman, on the other hand generally represents maintaining social order and the status quo, which puts him standing in the way of real reform. “Batman Begins” starts with Bruce, played by Christian Bale, learning from the League of Shadows how to defeat corruption in the city. Leaders Ducard (Liam Neeson) and Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) try to teach him how to destroy evil. Bruce says that his desire is “to fight injustice, to instill fear in those who would prey on the fearful.” Unfortunately the League of Shadows’ solution for that goal is to send the city into chaos, which Bruce ain’t goin’ for.
Instead, Bruce decides the way to solve his city’s problems is to throw on some military gear, load it up with gadgets and terrorize the seedy underbelly of society. Being filthy stinking rich thanks to the inheritance of megacorporation Wayne Enterprises because his parents were killed by a petty thief when he was just a boy, perhaps you’d think there could be a more practical solution to the city’s problems, like the monorail his dad built to provide cheap transportation to those in need. But, of course, practical solutions would make for a rather boring movie. A guy running around in a bat costume and scaring the shit out of mob bosses is easier to get into.
His inspiration for change comes from his sleepy-eyed childhood friend, Rachel, played by the sleepy-eyed Katie Holmes, who takes him to the ghetto of the city to show him there are real problems that are more important than moping about his parents being dead. Most of Bruce’s inspiration comes from Rachel, as Bruce is prone to making poor decisions, such as decking himself out in a bulletproof suit, stocked with experimental military-grade weaponry. She has a knack for lecturing Bruce on morality, basically acting as the conscience he never had, telling him to get his life straight and stop being selfish since he is the most powerful man in the city. She reminds him that his parents left a great legacy, and he has a lot to live up to.
Meanwhile, a psychologist who likes to freak people out with a fear-inducing agent and a weird mask, is collecting convicted criminals in his asylum, which is basically just a base of operations for his plan to cripple Gotham. The plan is a bit convoluted, as it involves pouring that fear-inducing substance into the ground water and then vaporizing it. But Cilian Murphy, most known for playing weird, creepy guys, makes for a fun villain. It also makes for a good argument against the privatization of prisons, which is a huge issue in the U.S.
The cast is a huge bright spot, and it was Nolan’s first attempt with a large ensemble cast full of talented actors. Gary Oldman works well as future Commissioner Gordon. Tom Wilkinson makes for a good manic but powerful crime lord. It’s good to see Rutger Hauer as the new CEO of Wayne Enterprises. Michael Caine is always fun to see, and he’s fun to watch as butler-and-more Alfred. Then there’s also Morgan Freeman as
Agent Q Lucius Fox, the gadgetmaster, who basically serves as Bruce’s version of Q from the James Bond franchise.
Freeman and Caine both naturally add a bit of levity in the form of banter with Bruce that shines some light in a rather dark film. If there was anything Nolan’s previous films could have used a bit more of, it’d be something to lighten the mood a bit. It’s always fun to watch either of those actors, and their presence is more than welcome here.
And then, a 10-year-old King Joffrey shows up and you didn’t know what a nasty little shit he’d become on “Game of Thrones.” He still looks so innocent though.
As Nolan’s previous films revolved a bit around certain devices to get the plot moving (short-term memory in “Memento”; sleeplessness in “Insomnia), “Batman Begins” feels like a more realized film with more socially relevant commentary. The only gimmick here is Batman, but people probably expect to see Batman in a movie about Batman. The plot evolves a bit more organically with so many intersecting characters that it’s more well-rounded overall. The cast makes a big difference too, as there are so many great actors involved that it was bound to work. It’d be easy to call this Nolan’s best movie at the time, and possibly the best in his entire catalog. Whereas the previous movies he’d directed almost feel like comic books, being fairly simple crime stories with a twist, “Batman” is much more complex, intelligent, and realistic (ironic, considering it’s based on a comic book) compared to his previous work. On the other hand, “Batman” does feature more loud action sequences, but Nolan works those into the story so they don’t ever feel completely pointless.
One thing that is pretty stupid about the movie, which would continue in the sequels, is the silly growly Batman voice Bale puts on when he’s in costume. Seriously, Bruce Wayne is possibly the most recognizable figure in the city, but no one realizes it’s him in the batsuit? If anyone was around him when he had a cold or a sore throat, you’d think it would be a dead giveaway. If he can afford a giant state-of-the-art armored vehicle to roll around the city in, he should be able to find a decent voice-masking device he could install in the suit or something.
The segue into the final battle with Ra’s Al Ghul does feel a bit rushed and that kind of diminishes the ending, but up to that point, the film is clicking on all cylinders, so it’s a flaw that can be overlooked.
It seems a bit wrong to see the white Bale taking down dozens of nationally ambiguous Asian guys with some form of martial arts. It is interesting to see the philosophies Ducard espouses during Bruce’s training. There’s a lot said about learning to center one’s self and overcoming fear by embracing it, which seem to be based on Zen Buddhism. Maybe it would have seemed more authentic if Ken Watanabe would have played the character explaining all of this stuff to Bruce. Liam Neeson is great and all, but he doesn’t really look the part.
Though Marvel probably wouldn’t want to admit it, “Batman Begins” was very influential in revitalizing the superhero film genre. Superhero movies started to up their game after this, as there was now a quality standard. Marvel started casting bigger names to star in its movies, started its own film studio, and created plans for upcoming movies lasting into the next decade. Whether or not those plans were already in the works, the company had to be aware that it now had big competition. There was a noticeable jump in quality in post-2005 Marvel movies, which is relieving considering they release a few movies every summer now. Also, movies like “The Watchmen” (which was a success because of its source material and performances rather than direction) would not have stood a chance of being made until “Batman Begins” showed that dark superhero movies would sell. So, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the movie industry is what it is today for better or worse because of this film and its sequels.
Giving Nolan the reigns of a superhero franchise in need of revitalization was solid gold. Still, this film sits in the shadow of the next film in the trilogy for a few obvious reasons. But before “The Dark Knight,” Nolan would go in quite a different direction, exploring the lives of rival magicians in 19th century England. Next we’ll take a look at “The Prestige.”