Fri
Feb 4 2011 11:27am

Big Screen Batman: Batman Begins

Batman Begins

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.


Danny Bowes is a playwright, filmmaker and blogger. He is also a contributor to nytheatre.com and Premiere.com.

15 comments
john mullen
1. johntheirishmongol
I liked a lot about the movie, but the back story was interminable. Michael Caine is almost always wonderful, Gary Oldman was great. I thought the whole Morgan Freeman thing was unnecessary, and the company plot should have been pulled. One of the great things about Batman as a character was that he was the inventor of his gadgets, not someone else. This was a younger Batman and I am good with that, and Christian Bale was better than Clooney and Kilmer but not as good as Keaton. To me, he still doesn't own the screen.

As for the villians, I didn't know them before and they didn't do much for me. Liam Neeson is fun to watch, I just didn't think that part of the plot made a ton of sense.

As for Katie Holmes, I think she gets a bit of a bad rap because she married Tom Cruise. I don't think there was that much for her to do here except be the romantic interest and she did fine with it. That's pretty much true of all the romances with all of the Batman movies, they are there to give Batman someone to save.
Ashley McGee
2. AshleyMcGee
I have to agree. Katie Holmes' role may well have been cut entirely if not for the fact that the Batman needed someone to draw out his character flaw: he is deeply personally involved in vengeance as he takes back Gotham, whether he likes it or not. Poor Katie needed a job, and she's practically Tom Cruise's prisoner, so I don't bother her too much.

I have to point out that the plot did not happen the way our reviewer describes it. Ra's Al Ghul did not successfully recruit Bruce Wayne. Wayne rebelled against Al Ghul's plan to destroy Gotham and burned his dojo down, and that's how poor Ken Watanabe dies. However, Wayne did take many of the tactics he learned from Al Ghul back to Gotham to be used against his foes for good, not destruction.

If you think this one was long, just wait for the sequel.

As a long-time fan of Gary Oldman, anyone who thinks a restrained and measured performance is a stretch for him has not seen a movie in which Oldman has been well directed. He does over-the-top very well, and it might even be his calling card. He is also known for playing villains more often than not. His performances in several recent movies make me think that, like all actors, he is still developing and, like all actors, it takes a good director to keep them where they need to be.

I thought all of the actions scenes were good except the last one with the train. It was a little forced and a bit of a stretch, even for a Batman movie.
kmolleja
3. kmolleja
Regarding your timeline in the movie, as I understand the movie Bruce doesn't run away and get involved with crime until after Chill's death by Marcone. It doesn't make a lot of sense how you have structured the timeline given the dialogue that takes place with Dawes and Marcone after the assassination if he had already gone to asia and met Ducard.

Your timeline would also require Bruce to disappear twice to the same geographical location with none being the wiser.
Danny Bowes
4. DannyBowes
That part of the picture was a little confusing. It wasn't until about the third time through that I even understood most of that stuff at ALL; 'twould appear it'll take a couple more times through to understand it totally. But hey, at least I'm not blaming the confusion on the movie, I actually did like that part.
Harry Burger
5. Lightbringer
Didn't the first Burton/Keaton Batman movie go into the classic origin story, where Joker murdered Bruce's parents when he was a young thug, then Batman creates Joker by dropping him into the acid?

And I, for one, like the Morgan Friedman role, and I think that explanation for where the gadgets come from makes much more sense than Batman doing all that too. Nobody is that good at that many things.
Kent Aron Vabø
6. sotgnomen
As the previous posters said, you mixed up the timeline a bit here. He goes directly from prison to the shadow leage. Rule of thumb: Until he starts his training with Neeson, every scene without a beard is a flashback. When he tried to kill Chill, he was just dropping out of college. Then he disappeared, traveled, stole, got caught, and ended up in the prison where Neeson finds him.
As for the rest, I liked the movie a lot, even Katie Holmes. She didn't do much, but as has been pointed out, she wasn't supposed to. Granted, it would probably have been better if Gyllenhaal had the role from the first, but as it was, I would honestly have preferred Holmes to take Dark Knight as well. I don't like it when they change the actor, ruins the suspension of disbelief. Say "Rachel Dawes" to me, and I still see Holmes' face.
This is also why I always thought Kilmer was the best Batman, even though I learned later that the Burton films were far superior. He was my first, so to speak.
Dave Thompson
7. DKT
What a fantastic Batman movie. Nolan really set the new standard for what comic books movies can be. And then he set it again.
James Goetsch
8. Jedikalos
You say he is invited to join by Ducard and then returns after his revenge is foiled: that is not correct. And Holy Bat-backstory, did they ever go on too long on that origin tale!

I personally disliked the Freeman thing, having in my imagination the Batman who was the great scientist and detective who invented his own devices. In line with that, I absolutely HATED the new Batmobile, much preferring the one Keaton drove so well.

I thought Katie Holmes was ok in the role, wouldn't have minded seeing her back.

And I thought Bale was great, but I think Keaton's portrayal edges him out by a bat's whisker.
kmolleja
9. jemron
The thing that I love about Nolan's Batman films is that Gotham City is it's own character (meaning, it feels like it is a living/breathing entity that desperately needs saving) and Nolan makes it the most realistic of any of the previous Batman films, IMO.
deviousjen
10. deviousjen
In my mind, so much of the success of this reboot derives from several things, the chief of those being an actual serious analysis of Bruce Wayne's motives and character.

Previous incarnations of this franchise, as well as in other film adaptations of comic book characters, prove that it's far easier to focus on the trappings of a superhero - the gadgets, the costume, the secret lair, the outlandish plots - than to focus on the person behind the superhero. And let's face it, the Batman is an amazingly twisted, very human character. I was delighted to see Nolan (and Bale!) embrace an angrier, more misguided and impulsive Bruce Wayne. Keaton, Kilmer and Clooney all struck me as being too measured, too smooth, dare I say too well-adjusted?

Batman Begins wasn't perfect by any means, but it was a serious leap in the right direction. All the set-up made it possible for Nolan to do The Dark Knight.
kmolleja
11. Richard Howe
The thing that I like most about Batman Begins is that it really makes use of Bruce's relationship with his father. So much of the movie is motivated either by Bruce's need to find a replacement father figure or his desire to live up to his true father's memory that I am surprised how rarely it is brought up.
C C
12. Hatgirl
While on the whole I thought it was a marvelous film, there is one thing that makes me giggle every time I watch it.

When Bruce is told that his final test is to kill a criminal, he immediatly starts kicking ass and destroying the temple. But I can't help thinking of the traditional plot trope, where the student refuses to kill and the wise master says "Ah, that was the true test of character, my son!" Bruce doesn't exactly give them the opportunity to say that... I keep imagining the FakeRa's al Ghul desperately trying to get his attention as he wrecks the temple - "No, Bruce, calm down, it was a trick, a joke, a hoax! For the love of God, let me get a word in edgeways!" *giggles*

Maybe I've been reading TV Tropes too much.
j p
13. sps49
Ra's al Ghul may have arrived after the 60s series left the airwaves, but he shouldn't be lesser known to anyone who has read the comics. He and Talia are probably the best Bat-universe characters created in decades.

Hatgirl- the trope is any reading of TV Tropes leads to "too much". :)
kmolleja
14. Shaun N.
While criticisms of Batman Begins here appear to be few, I can't understand any of the criticisms at all. Noland finalyl gave us a Batman movie where the character was fully taken seriously, and his world was fully taken seriously. No nods or winks here, no Bruce Wayne hanging upside down to sleep, no villains dancing around to Prince music, and a story that, while fantastic, is *almost* believable in a real-life way.

In case you haven't guessed, I *loved* Batman Begins. I don't understand how anyone can find the movie too long, or the earlier sequences "interminable." Ridiculous... For the first time, a filmmaker was willing to really delve into Bruce Wayne's history, give us logical reasons/explanations for everything he does, and not just give us the few seconds of lip service the first Burton Bat-movie gave to Batman's origin. If anything, I thought the pre-Batman stuff was maybe even more interesting than the rest!

And that cast... Has there ever been a better group of actors assembled for a single movie? Certainly not for a comic book film. I love The Dark Knight too, but I think Batman Begins is my favorite comic book movie ever. Maybe even my favorite movie ever, period.
Simon Southey-Davis
15. Glyph
I was highly amused to hear it implied on the DVD extras that Nolan basically took Batman Begins and The Dark Knight - two great films, well-regarded and hugely successful blockbusters - as practice to work up the skills he'd need for Inception!

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