Batman Begins

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 06/16/05 21:03:04

"The Batman we should have had sixteen years ago."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Darker, noirish, and more grounded than its misconceived predecessors, Christopher Nolan’s "Batman Begins," from a screenplay co-written with David S. Goyer (the "Blade" series, "Dark City"), returns Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and his alter ego, the crime-fighting, masked vigilante, Batman to a recognizably grounded universe, stripping the universe Batman inhabits of the grotesque caricatures and hammy star turns that became the hallmark of the films directed by Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher. Gone are the towering, neo-Baroque, overdesigned sets, the outrageous costumes, preposterous dialogue, lame one-liners, and the unbalanced focus on movie stars-turned-villains that turned Bruce Wayne/Batman a passive secondary character in his own films.

Nolan and Goyer jettisoned the earlier Burton-Schumacher films as non-canon, returning to Bruce Wayne’s/Batman’s comic-book roots for inspiration, borrowing elements, as needed, from Frank Miller’s comic-book miniseries, “Batman: Year One,” as well as two additional limited series, “The Long Halloween” and “Dark Victory” by Jeph Loeb. Batman Begins combines an origin story (i.e., why and how Bruce Wayne adopts the Batman persona) with a traditional superhero vs. villain story. Batman Begins opens in media res, with a tormented, tortured Bruce Wayne, arrested for non-violent crimes and in prison, in an unnamed, developing country, somewhere in the Far East.

From there, Batman Begins tracks backward and forward in time, returning to two familiar, formative events, Bruce’s childhood encounter with bats inside a hidden cave located on his parents’ property and the tragic murder of his (idealized) parents by a mugger, Joe Chill. While Nolan and Goyer spend little time with Bruce Wayne as a young, grief-stricken, revenge-minded adult, these brief scenes clarify Bruce’s wounded psyche and his inability to overcome his grief and pain over his parents’ deaths, random and meaningless.

Wayne's journey has led him to a dead end inside a hellish prison. He’s rescued by his future mentor, Ducard (Liam Neeson, in an all-too-familiar role), who offers him a clearer path to a meaningful life, along with the obligatory martial arts training. Ducard, it seems, is a high-ranking member of the League of Shadows, an underground organization tasked with creating a more just world, through vigilante justice. Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) leads the League of Shadows from a high mountainside retreat. There, Ducard instructs Wayne in the tenets of the League of Shadows, while forcing him to confront and overcome his fears. Wayne, however, refuses the last request made by Ducard and Ra's Al Ghul, fleeing back to Gotham City. His association with the League of Shadows, however, has left him with a singular purpose, to fight crime, and in the process, “save” Gotham City (and himself).

In Gotham City, Bruce re-enters his old life, encountering Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), a childhood friend and romantic partner, Alfred (Michael Caine), his butler and father-surrogate, Mr. Earle (Rutger Hauer), the CEO of Wayne Enterprises, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), a researcher and one-time member of of the board, Sergeant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), and, among others, Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), Arkham Asylum's lead psychiatrist. While Bruce re-adjusts to his life as a high-profile billionaire and begins to develop the bat costume (and weapons, with the help of Lucius Fox), the villain or villains set a plot in motion to destroy Gotham City (apparently for its resemblance to the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah) by inducing mass panic, first in the slums at the edge of the city, the Narrows (modeled on Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, as well as the now defunct Kowltoon slums in Hong Kong).

For some, Nolan and Goyer’s decision to have Bruce Wayne slip into the cape, cowl, and mask past the halfway point in the film will come as a (minor) disappointment. Other viewers, however, will implicitly recognize the rationale for this strategy: Batman’s first appearance on a commercial wharf (a blur of motion and quick cuts) makes for a satisfying resolution of Batman’s origin story. By that point the in film, the audience has shared Bruce Wayne’s transformative journey through grief, anger, and fear, into the paradoxical figure of a masked vigilante who fights crime through extrajudicial means, but always in the interests of justice. What differentiates Batman, and perhaps why he’s become an enduring mythic presence, is his insistence on self-imposed limitations, justice tempered by compassion, where the goal isn’t self-aggrandizement, but the preservation of the community.

Interestingly, Nolan and Goyer foreground an aspect of the Wayne saga missing from previous incarnations, Bruce Wayne as philanthropist, not as a cover for his nighttime, crime-fighting activities, but as an obligation owed to the larger community, rich and poor alike. Bruce Wayne holds an idealized image of his father, based on his father’s profession, medicine, and his father’s decision to fund a mass transit system. The notion of noblesse oblige is, perhaps an outdated, if still worthy, ideal, one currently missing from our political or social culture. As background for Batman Begins, Nolan and Goyer also posit an American depression, one that precipitously altered the divide between rich, poor, and middle class (which seems nonexistent), making crime and criminals (at least in some instances) the product of poverty, rather than greed or malevolence.

Stepping aside from the themes or subtext in "Batman Begins," a word or two should be said about its flaws. First, the sporadic action scenes, most of which are shot in medium shot or close-up, with fast cuts, and slashing camerawork. In short, the action scenes are almost impossible to follow (they're also undermined by the dark, underlit cinematography). Hopefully, a sequel will allow for better fight choreography and shot selection. Second, Cillian Murphy (as Jonathan Crane) was either miscast or directed to overplay his role. In a film with focused, understated performances, his performance bodes ill for future actors in similar roles in the "Batman"] franchise. Third, and this is certainly a minor quibble, but the design of Batman’s cowl and mask, pointed, curved ears and a beak-like nose, looked awkward and uncomfortable, more likely to elicit laughs from criminals than gasps of fright (as intended), regardless of the original inspiration for the design (i.e., the comic books).

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