Movie Review: Batman Begins (2005)

Batman Begins (DVD)Batman Begins (2005)

Starring Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson , Linus Roache, Ken Watanabe and Roy Batty.

Directed by Christopher Nolan.

In 1997, Joel Schumacher pounded the last nail into the coffin of the Batman franchise. When compared with Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, Schumacher’s Batman & Robin is an outright travesty; the grisly demise of a series that had been on a steady decline since its first sequel in 1992.

What went wrong? Well, Jack Nicholson’s scene-stealing turn as the Joker set the tone for the series. The villains became more important than the caped crusader himself. The villains were cast, it seemed, solely based on how they were performing at the box office. Danny Devito and Michelle Pfeiffer (Penguin and Catwoman) in Batman Returns were followed by Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey as Two-Face and The Riddler, respectively. The portrayal of Two-Face was dreadful, but the final insult was Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mister Freeze in Batman & Robin, a performance that was more campy than anything offered by the 1966 version of the dynamic duo or their cadre of villains in Batman: The Movie.

Also, each installment expanded on the quirky visual style of Batman until the costumes, sets and vehicles looked patently outlandish. The batsuit worn by Michael Keaton in 1989 was revolutionary, marking a departure from the image of superheroes as grown men running around in tights. Unfortunately, by the time George Clooney donned the cape and cowl in 1997, the costume had become something worse than tights. Batman and Robin (Chris O’Donnell) had rubber nipples on their body-armored chests. The batsuit — and the entire Batman franchise — had become a joke.

Now, eight years later, the Batman franchise has been resurrected with Batman Begins. The Burton/Schumacher Batman is nowhere to be found here. The batsuit has been completely retailored and the Batmobile traded in for something with a little more urban commando chic. From top to bottom, Batman has gotten a much needed makeover.

(Minor spoilers follow…)
In terms of coffee, the 1960’s Batman is a skim milk vanilla latté with a shot of raspberry syrup. Tim Burton and Michael Keaton’s first outing in 1989 is a light roast with half-and-half and two sugars. Batman Returns is the same cup of coffee with a little more half-and-half and three sugars. By the time Val Kilmer dons the utility belt, the franchise has switched to decaf.

Batman Begins is dark roast served black. No cream. No sugar.

For the first time, Batman is truly the Dark Knight found in the comic books and graphic novels. Director Christopher Nolan lets Batman (Christian Bale) be dark, and does so without apology or counterpoint. The villains aren’t madcap clowns in colorful costumes, they’re as dark and disturbed as the hero himself. Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), for example, is a doctor who dons a burlap mask when he conducts experiments with hallucinogenic drugs on his patients. A guy like that, to paraphrase Bruce Wayne, has issues.

Since Batman Begins is an origin story, there’s a good deal of build up to the final reveal. Thankfully, Nolan doesn’t let the story of how and why Bruce Wayne becomes the Batman get boring (for an example of the wrong way to do this, see Ang Lee’s Hulk). In fact, Bruce Wayne’s training under the tutelage of Ducard (Liam Neeson) and Ra’s Al Ghul’s (Ken Watanabe) Order of the Shadow not only keeps the story interesting, it provides an excellent crescendo to the Dark Knight’s debut in Gotham.

Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham intending to finish the work his father began: healing a corrupt Gotham. Unfortunately, in the twenty years since Thomas and Martha Wayne were gunned down in an alley, Gotham has been steadily spiralling into chaos. Organized crime is rampant and corruption has all but taken over the justice system. Only a few people, such as Sergeant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), still struggle against the crimelords and corrupt judges who are driving Gotham ever deeper into ruin.

No man can repair the damage done to Gotham, but Bruce Wayne is determined to become more than a man. Batman Begins tells the tale of how Bruce Wayne uses every resource at his disposal to become a legend. Drawing on a childhood accident that left him with a paralyzing fear of bats, Bruce becomes what he fears in order to strike fear into the hearts of the criminals who are destroying the foundation of Gotham. It is this exploration of darkness, fear and anxiety that keeps the movie interesting at the beginning and propels it through to the end. Bruce Wayne faces his fear, becomes his fear, and ultimately proves that the compassion some consider to be his greatest weakness is, in fact, a strength in and of itself.

Christian Bale brings a good mix of humanity and cold, steely determination to the roles of Bruce Wayne and the Batman. Wayne is, however, a little too quick to discard the playboy millionaire façade when confronted by his childhood friend, the earnest Rachel Dawes. This might be a sign that Bruce hasn’t yet fully embraced his dual roles, but more likely it’s a bit of sloppy writing that lays the foundation for the one remnant of the old Batman franchise that Nolan and company didn’t do away with: Batman revealing his secret identity to the girl. This was probably the single biggest disappointment in Batman Begins. Bruce needs to save face with his old friend, so he lets her in on the secret. It didn’t have to be this way, and would have created an interesting dynamic for future installments if Rachel had gone on believing that Bruce was the shallow millionaire playboy.

Rachel herself isn’t a very engaging character. Whether that’s a testament of Katie Holmes’ acting ability or just some more sloppy writing, I’m not sure. Whatever the case, when Rachel was in danger, I wasn’t concerned about her wellbeing because I liked the character, but rather because she was clearly so important to Bruce Wayne.

The rest of the supporting characters aren’t so bland. Morgan Freeman provides many of the movie’s more humorous moments as Lucius Fox, a former board member of Wayne Enterprises now whiling away his time in the basement, looking after the company’s now-defunct weapons manufacturing section. He occasionally exchanges barbs with Earle (Rutger Hauer), the trustee of the Wayne fortune and head of Wayne Enterprises. Earle’s role is relatively minor, but I wouldn’t count him out of future installments.

There’s also Alfred Pennyworth, the Waynes’ loyal and ever-present butler, played by Michael Caine. Alfred is an intrinsic character in the Batman history, and Caine does an excellent job of portraying just how deeply he cares for the Wayne family, even when the family consists of only Bruce.

And then there’s the Batmobile, the design of which can be described in three words: urban commando chic. Unlike previous incarnations, the new Batmobile looks formidable. It’s part Humvee, part Knight Industries Two Thousand and all bad ass. In terms of stylistic choice, no single aspect of this movie had as much make-or-break potential as the Batmobile. I was somewhat nervous about how radically different it looks from anything Batman has previously driven, but quite pleased with how it worked on screen. Batman isn’t about subtlety, and the Batmobile doesn’t appear to have a subtle bolt in its chassis. Yet, when stealth is the order of the day, this behemoth of a vehicle can sneak with the best of them. The only sticking point is the somewhat silly means by which the driver shifts positions when accessing the Batmobile’s onboard weapons systems.

The Batmobile is a perfect representation of just how much Christopher Nolan has distanced Batman Begins from the Burton/Schumacher films, and it worked surprisingly well. I was also surprised by how much I enjoyed the Hans Zimmer/James Newton Howard soundtrack. Despite the lack of a distinctive Batman theme (such as the one Danny Elfman created for the 1989 Batman), the orchestral score worked very well. Also, there are no pop themes for this movie. No Prince or R. Kelly or Jewel tunes that would undermine the tone, and that’s a good thing.

For those more familiar with the Adam West and Michael Keaton versions of the caped crusader, Batman Begins may seem overly dark and excessively edgy. For those of us who have read the graphic novels and comic books featuring Batman over the past twenty years, this new film version is exactly what we’ve been waiting for. It has its weak points (every movie does), but they are far outweighed by the power of the Dark Knight’s true debut.