Batman and Robin buried the Caped Crusader’s silver screen appeal, and the late 90s weren’t a great time for superhero movies. There were a few attempts from directors like Darren Aronofsky and Joss Whedon to make another Batman movie, but studios weren’t interested in bringing the character back. Audiences didn’t really accept the entire superhero genre again until 2000’s X-Men, which reopened the doors for traditional superhero stories. 2002’s Spider-Man and later both its sequel and X-Men’s sequel began to make superheroes main stream. However, while both of those franchises are good and entertaining (albeit their third films are not well-loved) they’re both traditional superhero franchises. They follow specific structures, have “over the top” bad guys, and feel like a typical superhero comic. Again, these aren’t bad by any means, but they are by the numbers superhero movies. Batman Begins is the first superhero to elevate the genre into something more.
It’s a darker, more complex film in terms of narrative, and character development. It has similar superhero tropes and gimmicks seen in other movies of the same genre, but Batman Begins is more grounded with a sense of dread, despair, and realistic setting. It doesn’t keep a linear narrative structure, it has multiple villains, and focuses on more philosophical ideas that create an interesting dialogue among fans and audiences. It’s one of the best retellings ever, and definitely takes a more unique look at the caped crusader.
Christopher Nolan takes the helm as the film’s director, he also wrote the script along with David Goyer. Nolan’s film is much bigger in scope, and yet he created a world very similar to our own. He filmed throughout the city of Chicago, and made the city feel like another world that was almost like a mirror image, only slightly distorted unlike Tim Burton’s Batman that created a city that seems unreal. Both are good, but Nolan’s goal was to create a more realistic Gotham City. One that is more akin to real life than fantasy. However, he kept the scope as big as possible to make the audience feel overwhelmed by Gotham City. It becomes its own character, as it can be majestic and pretty, but also twisted and uninviting. And while Burton’s Gotham City is timeless, it still looks very much like a film set and subsequently fake. Nolan kept his entire world feeling as real as possible.
The story is a telling of Bruce Wayne’s origin story. It has all the beats any fan would want to see: the death of his parents, the state of Gotham City, his training, and his eventual discovery of becoming Batman. Batman Year One, a Frank Miller story that details how Bruce Wayne adopted the identity of Batman, is the film’s main influence. But, Nolan and Goyer were smart enough to make the movie its own thing and focused on specific unique elements of the origin story and expanded on them. For example, there’s a lot about how Bruce Wayne deals with his anger and guilt. And it help build the epic tale of the character’s evolution by having him fight his own mentor, Ra’s Al Ghul. The conflict between the two adds to the larger scale the film is trying to go for.
Christian Bale plays Batman and his alter ego, but he also has a lot more to do than any other actor playing Bruce Wayne before. Bale has to play Bruce Wayne as the billionaire, Bruce Wayne as the young man, Bruce Wayne as a student of Ra’s Al Ghul, Bruce Wayne as a criminal, and then finally Bruce Wayne as Batman. It’s a lot for any actor to play, and Christian Bale does the best job possible. He definitely understands the side of Bruce Wayne and the struggles of hiding an alter ego, but as Batman he just doesn’t own up to the role as well. Part of that is the outfit, Nolan’s wish for a more realistic interpretation made the outfit look more like SWAT armor than something truly iconic. Bale constantly looks like he’s fighting the outfit as much as he is fighting the criminals of Gotham. And then there’s the infamous growl. In retrospect it makes sense about why they thought that it was a good idea; Batman needs criminals to think that he’s otherworldly and monstrous. But, he does sound like he swallowed a bunch of limestone. That all being said Bale is still a pretty good Batman, it’s certainly easier to believe him fighting criminals than Clooney or Kilmer.
The other actors all do fine jobs as well, Michael Caine is a wise and compassionate Alfred. Cillian Murphy plays a creepy and funny scarecrow. Morgan Freeman is great in everything he does, so he does a great job as Lucius Fox. Gary Oldman is an older, world-weary James Gordon. Tom Wilkinson is a chilling Carmine Falcone. The only actor everyone seemed to hate was Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes. I’m not entirely sure why she got so much hate; I don’t think she was fantastic or anything, but I don’t think she deserved the hate. She was active, inquisitive, tough, and had a compassionate side to her. She was a bit more than the damsel in distress. Perhaps it was the fact that her relationship with Tom Cruise was everywhere at the time and audiences were just sick of it. The only actor who I didn’t think did as strong a job as everyone says is Liam Neeson as Ra’s Al Ghul. The mentoring Bruce Wayne aspect is strong, but when he reveals himself to be the villain he just plays it a little too quiet, and I never got the sense that he was really this all-powerful villain that was going to destroy Gotham City. Plus Ra’s Al Ghul without the Lazarus Pit just isn’t as fun.
Despite Nolan’s name being associated with complexity, the story to Batman Begins is actually very simple. Bruce Wayne’s parents die, he finds purpose through Ra’s Al Ghul and the League of Shadows, he goes back to Gotham City to fight criminals, uncovers a plot by his former mentor to destroy the city, and then stops him. The simple story allows for complexity in different areas such as the character development of Bruce Wayne and his transition into Batman. They take their time exploring how he comes up with bats as his motif, his weapons and gadgets, his car, and his motivation. Most of these aspects are just glanced over in the films, but this one really its time and develops a fascinating and unique character arc for Bruce Wayne. The climax is also cleverly set up from the beginning of the movie, and it is a simple well-rounded film that goes deep into its main character.
The film is not perfect however, its biggest hindrance is the dialogue. The script is well structured and well composed and set up, but when it comes to the actual dialogue, Christopher Nolan and David Goyer tried way too hard to be more philosophical than they needed to be. Every character has a fascinating speech prepared about the nature of fear, and justice, and vengeance just ready to go, and bless the actors they try, but all of them just sound forced. For a film that’s trying so hard to look at a mythical character through a realistic lens, they certainly didn’t write how the characters speak in a realistic fashion. The only actor that manages to do it well is Tom Wilkinson, but honestly I don’t want to see the characters talk about every philosophical ramification of their actions. I want to have those conversations with my friends, or see the critics discuss them. Show these implications through action, and imagery, don’t tell the audience about them through the dialogue.
But, overall the film is still solid. There are some fantastic scenes that are well shot, and well acted. As stated before the size of the film felt huge, and epic in its scale. There are a lot of great action scenes, the film is wonderfully structured, and the acting is solid overall. Definitely give it a watch if you’ve never seen it, and if you have, give it another watch. Definitely a great movie to come back too.
Next time, we’ll be looking at Superman’s Return to films… And it wasn’t as well received as Batman’s beginning.