Like many Batman fans, I was so psychologically traumatized by the Day-Glo atrocity that was 1997’s “Batman and Robin” that I feared the Dark Knight’s viability as a movie property might be irreparably damaged. When word came out several years ago that a new Bat-film was being planned, I certainly wasn’t holding my breath. Hell, the name of the man who almost single-handedly brought the franchise down – Joel Schumacher – was even attached at one point (a rumor probably calculated to thin out the comic fan community by causing widespread suicide). Warner Brothers eventually decided to go with Memento director Christopher Nolan and American Psycho’ Christian Bale as the Caped Crusader, and the resulting film is not just one of the best “comic book” movies ever made, but also one of the best films of the year.
Nolan and writer David S. Goyer, wisely choosing not to dive right into Batman’s famous origins, instead switch back and forth between Bruce Wayne’s childhood and his early training, courtesy of the League of Shadows: a group of assassins – trained in ninjitsu and how to get hit with sticks – led by the mysterious Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) and his deputy, Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson).
Fortunately for Bruce Wayne, he’s crazy rich, and he has several key personnel on his side. Notably, the Wayne family’s faithful butler Alfred (Michael Caine) who abets the young man in his quest for justice, and disgruntled Wayne Enterprises employee Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), who grants the young man unfettered access to the company’s treasure trove of unused R&D prototypes. It isn’t long before criminals in Gotham start fearing the name “Batman.”
And make no mistake, fear plays a huge part in “Batman Begins.” Not only is there an appropriately diabolical plot by the demented Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy) to infect the city’s water supply with a hallucinogenic panic drug, but Batman himself uses his powers of stealth and misdirection to scare the living bejeezus out of his opponents. Bad guys are snatched out of thin air to be pummeled, and – in one memorable scene – a corrupt cop is persuaded to confess after being dangled like a yo-yo twenty stories over the street. Indeed, Batman may be the first superhero to get the U.S. Attorney General’s seal of approval.
The movie is also blessedly free of camp (as free as any movie featuring a guy who dons a batsuit can be, I mean). There are no Bat-credit cards, no nipples, and no “extreme” bat-sports.. This Gotham is more reminiscent of the cityscapes of “Blade Runner” (which Nolan screened for his crew before shooting started) than the neon amusement park rides of Schumacher’s catastrophes. And while Bruce Wayne may be forced to give with the wisecrack every now and then, Batman himself is all guttural threats and rage-a-hol. The first half of “Batman Begins” also does something few movies, comic book or otherwise, even bother with anymore: it attempts to provide realistic underpinnings for the character, no easy feat for someone compelled to dress like a giant Eptesicus fuscus.
One thing “Batman Begins” has going for it that even Tim Burton’s original effort lacked is longevity. The 1989 “Batman” was a huge hit when it premiered, but try watching it now…Robert Wuhl? Nicholson’s histrionics? Prince? “Batman Begins,” like Donner’s “Superman,” is on a different level.. The cast, assembled just in case Bale hasn’t quite shaken that box office poisoning he acquired from Reign of Fire, is extraordinary. In addition to Caine (bringing new layers to the character of Alfred), Neeson (what Qui-Gon could have been) and Freeman (barely stretching, but still good), you have In the Bedroom’s Tom Wilkinson in a small but amusing role as crime boss Carmine Falcone and Gary Oldman, the best of the bunch, who finally brings some life to Jim Gordon. Unlike the X-Men movies, with their inescapably cartoon feel, and Spider-Man, which is understandably focused on adolescence and neophyte superhero issues, “Batman Begins” is unapologetically dark. It feels less like comic fantasy and more like serious drama, albeit one depicting the exploits of a psychotic ninja billionaire. Hell, even the scenes from the fairly rote training montage are memorable.
And then there’s Katie Holmes. Holmes, sham exercises in publicity masquerading as “true love” aside, is utterly incapable of punching her weight here. Besides her contrived connection to Bruce Wayne’s childhood, her only purposes in “Batman Begins” are to act disappointed in Bruce’s playboy antics and require inevitable rescue from the villain’s clutches.
Apart from that, Nolan and Bale are really on to something here. If they can keep the core cast of Bale, Caine, and Oldman together, this has the potential to be a great comic franchise, possibly the best so far.
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