Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Gary Oldman, Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson, Morgan Freeman, Ken Watanabe
MPAA Rating: (for intense action violence, disturbing images and some thematic elements)
Running Time: 2:21
Release Date: 6/15/05
Review by Mark Dujsik
The title is far too appropriate. Batman Begins takes place before the events we've encountered in the previous entries in the franchise, and it also essentially nulls and voids those movies, starting the entire mythology anew in its film incarnations. This is how you make a superhero movie. It's alive. There is no condescension present—no overt winking at the audience. The story is populated, not with icons, but with characters. They have brains and hearts, and philosophical ramifications shadow their motives. It takes place in a city that is not just mere eye candy, as was the case in previous manifestations, but a living, breathing locale full of possibilities for the future. The viscera of special effects flavors the proceedings, but the material does not rely on them for the substance of the film. It dares to be sincere, and even though there is an innate silliness of the necessary conceit of a grown man roaming about in a bat suit, somehow, the film makes it seem natural. By their nature, superhero yarns are testosterone-driven fairy tales, but the convincing level of realism within in its own conventions alone makes Batman Begins as invigorating a superhero story as has ever been captured on film.
Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has secluded himself from the world and disappeared seemingly without a trace to a prison somewhere in the East. After a brawl with several prisoners, Wayne is sent to solitary confinement for protection—not for his own, but for the other prisoners'. Awaiting him is a mysterious man simply named Ducard (Liam Neeson) who knows his true identity and why he has exiled himself from the world to live among criminals. He has an offer for the headstrong man: Bring a rare blue flower to the top of a mountain and find the means to fight injustice in a way he could never before have imagined. The training is intensive, not only physically but also psychologically, as Wayne must confront his guilt and anger over his parents' murders when he was a small child. His instruction complete, Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), the head of the enigmatic League of Shadows, offers Wayne a chance to join the illustrious group bent on executing true justice. The League has its own agenda, which starkly contradicts Wayne's own, and after a violent separation, Wayne returns to Gotham City to dish out justice upon those bringing his hometown into the gutter and beyond redemption as Batman.
Of all the most popular superheroes in the world of comic books, Batman seems one of the hardest for folks to get a proper handle on. Up until this point, the presentation of the Dark Knight has either been overtly macabre and humorless or overly campy, but now it appears the answer is simple. Batman is a man in the real world. He has no super powers, only gadgets and an overriding sense of justice. Hence, the only logical way to present his story is in as realistic a way as possible. Screenwriters David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan (who also directed) have made—as much as possible—a naturalistic superhero film. One need only look at Nolan's concept of Gotham City. The centerpiece is a monumental, elevated public transportation system that winds throughout the city. We see the train in its glory days, soon after opening, and later in the film, it has become dirty and rundown. Gotham is alive; it has its downtown, its rich estates, its commercial areas, its ghettos. There is something inherently recognizable and organic to its design that helps involve us in the story instead of distancing us by keeping the metropolis dark and rainy and out-of-focus.
The story itself needs little help, however, as Goyer and Nolan concentrate as much—probably more—on the characters as on the atmosphere. In revealing his backstory and going through his training, Bruce Wayne is a man not only tormented with guilt and anger but also a man struggling to find the difference between vengeance and justice. The character discuss these ideas, and while they obviously have no answers—or at least not any that don't impede with our hero's choices—the point remains that they are intelligent enough to talk and learn from their mistakes. Outside of his extracurricular activities, Wayne finally comes across as a multifaceted character instead of a simple, brooding, spoiled millionaire. The film explores his role as a millionaire playboy as being just as much a persona as Batman, and the satirical disconnection of playing this role gives us more to like of him. Christian Bale manages to accomplish the difficult challenge of being both Wayne and Batman, whereas other actors who have come before him have either pulled off one or the other. His real Wayne is meditative, his fake Wayne is ironically charming, and his Batman is intimidating, if a bit affectedly raspy in his vocal coloring (although if some guy in a bat costume was yelling in my face while I was hanging upside-down, it'd probably scare the hell out of me, too, which is entirely the point).
All of this is not to say the film is without its action sequences. There are a few, and all are executed with precise flair. Batman's gadgets, of course, are at the center of them, and we have the familiar toys although with a slightly more meaningful explanation of how they work. Batman's cape is lightweight but has the ability to mold into any malleable shape with a slight shock, providing the Caped Crusader with a glider and the theatrical impression of flight. Of course, there's also the car, and this time around, it's a doozy called the Tumbler, which in one extended chase manages to launch across rooftops. Of course, Batman must encounter countless faceless thugs with these tools, but there are also a few notable villains thrown in for good measure. In one amusing but inspired bit of casting, Tom Wilkinson plays Gotham's mob boss extraordinaire Carmine Falcone. Cillian Murphy is Dr. Jonathan Crane, the Falcone gang's personal psychiatric defense witness, who also becomes the Scarecrow, who's only frightening when his victims are exposed to a neural toxin. Wayne/Batman has his allies juxtaposed throughout as well. A young Detective Gordon (Gary Oldman) is sure to be on his side for a while, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) keeps to his own business when Wayne borrows a bulletproof suit for "spelunking," and wise Alfred (Michael Caine) continues to pass on lessons as an interim father.
As far as I'm concerned, this is the beginning of the Batman series on film. The final moments contain a reference to the Dark Knight's most famous opponent. For many, it will be seen as a knowing wink to tie this new film with the previous ones, but for me, it's an invitation to forget them and anticipate how the inevitable sequels of this new generation of Batman films will handle this villain and the others who are destined to follow. In other words, I hope there's an overlap between the films, because Batman Begins is such a rousing renewal, optimism for the future of the series is an unquestioned given.
Copyright © 2010 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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