Title: Batman Begins
Genre: Action, Adventure, Thriller
Play time: 2h 10min
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenwriters: Bob Kane (characters), David S. Goyer (story)
Starring: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Ken Watanabe
If Batman Begins is a “superhero movie,” as we have come to think of the term in these days of what seems like a comic book on the screen every two weeks, it doesn’t know it. The pressure on each subsequent brand name adaptation is to outdo the previous one, to sell more tickets and action figures, to appeal to more teenagers, to break records and coin catchphrases. Christopher Nolan, recruited for this Batman prequel on the strength of Memento and Insomnia, was having none of it. His concern for franchise iconography and tradition is at best passing; instead, he focuses his energies on making a real film, filled with fear and dread, where the characters and the story are far more important than the action and mayhem. I love the Spider-Man movies, don’t get me wrong, and they have some of these characteristics too. But Batman Begins is a different animal entirely.
One of the most striking things about the film, once you get past its fierce initial impact, is just how ineffectual a hero the Caped Crusader turns out to be. It is a long-acknowledged fact that Batman, perhaps unique among his comic book brethren, lacks any distinct superhuman abilities — he’s merely a dude who works out, like, a lot. When he fights — which is not terribly often — he is vulnerable, and Nolan shoots in jittery, confusing, down-and-dirty close-ups. There isn’t going to be any spectacular choreography to show in wide shots. He’s not that kind of Batman.
But we’re not here to see Batman kick ass, anyway, or at least so it turns out. We are here to see him get his start and come into his own, and the flashback scenes, with a young Bruce Wayne played by the charming Gus Lewis, are the first sign that this movie means business. With a dark, lucid color palette, hints of what will eventually become the film’s soaring, impossibly gorgeous score (a joint effort by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard), and absolutely no notion that we are in for any sort of a comic book romp, they beautifully set up most of the themes that will permeate the movie (and, we suspect, the impending franchise). There is doomed idealism, in the form of Bruce’s benevolent magnate father (played by the always vaguely creepy Linus Roache, for once cast in a non-threatening role); there’s the protagonist’s dogged determination; there’s the film’s seemingly corny but ultimately affecting mantra (“Why do we fall?”); and there are, of course, the bats. This is a film about fear, after all, and its explanation of why Batman is Batman and not, for example, Squirrelman, is sure to be nothing so benign as a genetic mutation.
This attitude — one of utter conviction without a trace of cynical self-consciousness — is maintained through the entire film, which moves at a furious speed through a rock-solid plot, with several major villains and a plot to unleash insanity-inducing poison gas on the entirety of Gotham City. The tone is painstakingly consistent, the humor is inevitably of the gallows variety, and the action, when it comes, is fast, efficient, and characterized by a complete refusal to show off. The production design that backs the film, too, is calculated to create a mood rather than to impress; Gotham City is frightening, neither a nice place to visit nor would you want to live there. Batman Begins never lets us forget that.
Christian Bale is the best screen Batman by a wide margin (though granted, his only real competition was Adam West and Michael Keaton), so good that he accomplishes that rarest of an actor’s feats: genuinely making us forget that we are watching a performance. The movie attempts the tricky juggling act of shedding light on Bruce Wayne’s motivations while having him remain, to some degree, a cypher; Bale plays right along, showing an emotionally vulnerable side but hiding it at the drop of a hat, replaced by a steely self-assurance.
I dare not reveal too much about the villains, as there are some surprises along the way (including a beautiful casting feint), but I will say that the character of Scarecrow is wonderfully rendered, and played with impeccable creepy smarminess by Cillian Murphy — an inspired casting choice. Oh, and there’s also Tom Wilkinson, brilliantly aggressive as Carmine Falcone; as if you needed more proof, his presence is the perfect evidence of the kind of project this is.
I can hardly leave without quibbling, and it is worth saying that had the last 10 minutes of Batman Begins been stronger, the film would have been an unqualified, indisputable Masterpiece. As it is, the resolutions are a bit too conventional for my tastes, though I did like how a certain scene with Wayne and the Katie Holmes character plays like a direct reversal of the scene with Peter Parker and Mary Jane at the end of the first Spider-Man. And the very last shot is disappointing in that it’s precisely what we’ve come to expect, featured in Spidey, The Matrix, and probably several other films of the sort I can’t come up with at the moment.
But, nonsense. This is a great movie, the best of the summer and the year so far, assuring that the trend of comic-book-to-screen adaptation trend will not only continue, but continue vigorously. There is no shortage of franchises in Hollywood that I eagerly follow and anticipate, and Batman has not only returned to the scene but jumped to the top of my list.