After the Batman & Robin fiasco, there were several abortive attempts to continue the franchise, with many different writers and directors attached, and as many rumors about casting as there are actors in Hollywood (the only certainty being neither Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, nor George Clooney would return as Batman). The nadir of the rumors were the point at which Howard Stern was seriously discussed as a contender to play the Scarecrow; there were enough jokes in the media and in the industry about that that the project ended up fizzling out, and for several years it appeared as though Batman & Robin would kill the franchise permanently.
Then, in 2003, it was announced that Christopher Nolan, the critically acclaimed director of Memento and Insomnia, would be directing a new Batman movie. It was a curious choice; Nolan’s work (including his first, little seen experimental feature Following) had been characterized, to that point, by an extremely literary and cerebral quality. More than any director attached to the series (with the possible exception of Darren Aronofsky, whose Batman feature was never made), Nolan approached his pictures from a strongly character-based, psychological angle, portending interesting new things for the “rebooted” Batman series.
In summer 2005, Nolan, working from a script he co-wrote with David S. Goyer, released Batman Begins. More than any Batman movie yet released, Batman Begins had a literary respect for Batman as a character and the comics in general. It was certainly, to date, the most serious Batman movie, with none of the residual influence of the TV show (either thankfully or regretfully, depending on one’s perspective).
It also is the first movie to give Batman an origin story. In its first act, Batman Begins traces Bruce Wayne from childhood, where he falls into a well and is attacked by bats, to his parents’ murder at the hands of a street criminal, to his aimless anger as a young man (Christian Bale), where he finds himself imprisoned in Asia. There he’s approached by a man named Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), representing Ra’s Al Ghul (who Liam Neeson claims is Ken Watanabe), and invited to join an international group of assassins. After his revenge against his parents’ murder is foiled by Gotham’s leading gangster, Bruce returns to train with Ducard and Ra’s Al Ghul, only to have second thoughts when he discovers that their plan for him is to help them destroy the “irredeemable” Gotham City. Bruce decides to, and returns home, adopting the persona of Batman, to do what he can to protect Gotham from evil.
The script takes a very nuanced approach to that question, showing several separate types of perfidy: the aforementioned Ducard/Al Ghul League of Shadows, the Mob, led by Tom Wilkinson’s Carmine Falcone, and independent operator, Cilian Murphy’s Dr. Stephen Crane, alias The Scarecrow, who uses experimental psychoactive drugs to induce hallucinations and drive his foes insane. As this is a Batman movie, it’s not really a spoiler to say that Batman eventually prevails, ending the movie a hero to the public; the villain for the next movie is revealed to most likely be a criminal leaving Joker playing cards at crime scenes.
Batman Begins, while not without its flaws, corrects some of the major missteps of the previous movies. One goal shared by both Nolan and Bale in taking on the character of Batman was to not let him be overwhelmed by the villains; this had not been done since the TV show and 1966 movie, which is to say it had never happened in a Batman movie that was even remotely serious in intent. By examining Bruce Wayne’s decision to become Batman, he becomes much more three-dimensional than he had been before. In the previous movies, it was taken as a given: “Okay, you know who Bruce Wayne is, you know he’s Batman, now look at all this cool stuff and flamboyant villains.” The choice, in Batman Begins, to pit Batman against less well-known villains (Ra’s Al Ghul, Scarecrow, quotidian Mafiosi) strengthens the focus on Bruce Wayne/Batman by making him the most familiar entity to casual comics fans and civilians.
The supporting cast is, almost uniformly, outstanding, with Bruce Wayne’s two closest confidants being Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman. You are simply not going to lose when you have Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman on your side. The villains all acquit themselves well, if slightly briefly in Watanabe’s case. The only weak link is, as nearly every other critic and most of the audience pointed out back in ’05, Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes. She’s not terrible, and part of it is that the character is a bit perfunctorily drawn, but she nonetheless suffers in comparison to the rest of the cast, which features among other wonders a restrained and measured performance by Gary Oldman, for whom such a thing is a major stretch.
The faults in Batman Begins are minor, considering what it gets right. The action scenes are not very well done. Nolan had never directed an action picture of this magnitude, and was clearly learning on the job. The length, also, can be problematic depending on how interesting one finds the very protracted first act, and how the top-heaviness of the narrative means the parts where Bruce Wayne finally is Batman can seem slightly rushed.
As a reboot, Batman Begins basically returns the audience (and franchise) to the command line. With Batman once more Batman, and (miraculously) one we could take seriously, the next move was anyone’s guess. All we could derive from the ending was that the villain in the next movie would be the Joker. Who could possibly compare to Jack Nicholson in the role? Next, in the final review in this series, we will find out, as we examine The Dark Knight.