Following up on my last review of the classic 1989 "Batman", is the film that not only jump started the series again after a long hiatus, but also like it’s late 80’s predecessor is an important benchmark for comic book movies to aspire from. After the cancellation of the previous 90’s series, Batman was put to rest for the first half of the 2000’s. Then in 2005 came “Batman Begins”, which also became the launching pad for Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy”. Not only did this make Batman a force to be reckoned with for a second time, but it also highlighted just how valuable a film reboot could be. “Batman Begins” was by no means a direct remake of Tim Burtons classic, just a needed revamp for the series, and one that had its own strengths that separated it from anything that came before hand. In my opinion, 1993’s animated film “Batman Mask of the Phantasm” was the first truly great Batman movie, but “Batman Begins” was the first truly great live action movie. Yes, I’ll always look back at the 1989 “Batman” as a classic in its own right, but that was more of a great “experience” then it was a legit superhero story. Over the years, I think "Batman Begins" has gotten less attention living in the shadow of its infamously more iconic sequel, but I don’t think it should be ignored, or forgotten. This really is one of the decades defining superhero movies, and the reason why comic book adaptions have gotten better over the years.
As you’d expect from the title, this movie told the strait forward origin story of how Batman came to be. We see the young Bruce Wayne, how he tragically lost his parents at the hands of a desperate criminal, and even more dramatic is that Bruce has always blamed himself for their deaths. As a teenager, he exiled himself from the world and became a pickpocket on the streets. One day he was approached by the leader of a secret organization called the league of shadows, who offer him a chance to make something of himself, and liberate his home city from crime. Through some intense training, Bruce finally concurs his guilt, his fears and returns home to save his doomed city from the corruption of crime. Unlike Tim Burton’s Batman, who went out into the night to battle his own demons, this Batman was born because his city needed a hero. Both are great representations of the character, neither is really better than the other, but at the end of the day I’ll personally always be cheering for a costumed crime fighter that is by definition … a hero. Now previous films had shown brief flashbacks of the characters origins, but there had never been a movie covering his origins from the ground up, and because of this I feel a closer connection the hero then I did in the other live action films. This is also a rare case in which I was just as interested in journey of Bruce Wayne the man, as his costumed alter ego. Also, there were enough changes to Batman’s origin that help separate this from other films. For example, in the original 1989 "Batman", the criminal who killed Batman’s parents would go on to become The Joker, but in this film, it was just an ordinary criminal, which I actually prefer.
Perhaps the most important thing with this films portrayal of the character is that it establishes Batman’s moral codes. While he’s still dark and maybe a little dangerous, he still has his limits. He will never use a gun, and he will never take someone’s life, and that's line which separates him from his enemies. My favorite scene of the whole movie is near the end of his training with the League of Shadows, he surpasses their expectations and proves to be their greatest student, but there’s one last test … he has to take the life of a criminal. This is the moment when Bruce Wayne became a hero, not by dressing up like a Bat, but by refusing to kill, and turning on those who would do so without hesitation. When Bruce betrays the League of Shadows, I was cheering for him, and I knew this was going to be the film that got the character right. While he isn’t as mysterious as Tim Burton’s version, we can still get excited from the reactions of everyone else in the film who just have no clue of either who or what he is. Christian Bale is also excellent in the role, and while perhaps not the absolute best portrayal of Batman, this is my favorite performance of Bruce Wayne. He just feels the most human in this film, and its Bales devotion to the role that makes it work. Now as for the costume, well, I don’t hate it, but it’s far from classic. I think the head piece is to balky, the ears aren't sharp enough and the bat symbol on his chest isn't as noticeable, but that’s just me nitpicking.
Another welcome change was that this film didn’t market a popular villain, it was sold on its story, and the hero’s journey alone, which is the sign of a superior installment. Having said that, the actual villain in this movie, while one of the least popular, is still in my opinion one of the absolute best from any of the films. The great Liam Neeson plays Ra’s Al Ghul, who leads the league of shadows, and was Bruce Wayne’s personal mentor. From Batman’s point of view, this was the man who helped him become a hero in the first place, so there’s more on an emotional connection between the two that we don’t get from his other foes. On the flip side, Ra’s Al Ghul doesn’t even see himself as a villain, in his mind he’s enacting justice, but with no moral principles. He views Gotham as a city that’s beyond saving from crime, and the best thing to do is destroy the city itself so it’s evil can never spread. Granted, he has a very comic bookish plan to poison the water and set lose a chemical agent that will make everyone go mad, but it’s the motivations behind the character that make this work. Liam Neeson naturally shines in the role, and it was kind of a daring departure from his usual film roles. One minor annoyance is that he goes by the name Henri Ducard throughout most of the film, and there’s always a decoy on screen taking his real name, which can make it really confusing for non-Comic book fans that don’t know the character.
The cast in general is all very solid, and it’s arguably one of the best ensemble casts I’ve ever seen in a comic book movie. Michael Caine is outstanding as Alfred, and makes him a father figure, but is also very active in aiding our hero. Morgan Freeman plays Mr. Fox, who’s an inventor banished to the basements of Wayne Enterprises, and secretly supplies Batman with all his tools, gadgets and vehicles. I love this aspect of the film, as it sells the believability in how our hero can acquire all his state of the art weapons. Morgan Freeman also has that natural charisma of a lonely inventor who’s overjoyed to give his tools to someone who not only admires his work but finds something useful for them. My favorite of the new supporting characters is Commissioner Gordon, who's played very well by Gary Oldman. He’s an extremely talented actor and he makes everything feel natural, but also gives it a little extra wait. Having Gordon as a main character was a dream come true because he’s never gotten the chance to shine in a movie before, and I loved seeing someone from inside the police force so involved and devoted to aiding our vigilante hero. It was also cool to see him do big things like actually drive the bat-mobile. That in of itself was a real treat because it shows Batman willing to both trust and work with people that don’t even dress up in superhero attire.
Then we have a secondary villain called the Scarecrow played by Cillian Murphy, who is downright chilling in the role, even before he puts on his mask. Cillian Murphy has a very natural talent for playing creepy guys like in Wes Craven's 2005 movie “Red Eye”. It was a real treat to finally get a darker and scarier villain then all the cheesy, colorful bad guys of before. He wasn't loud or goofy, he didn't crack jokes and instead he was calm, sinister and kept in the shadows. His best parts are when he sprays people with his fear inducing gas that makes people see their worst fears. The imagery and visuals of the Scarecrows fear toxin are the closest the film gets to feeling like a comic book movie, but it works in the context of the story. While all the creepy visuals are great, I personally think they could have been a little more creative. The downside to Scarecrow is that he isn’t present enough in the film. In fact, he doesn’t even do much during the climax, and has no real confrontation with Batman at all. Instead it’s the girlfriend of all characters that takes him out. I actually like that, because we don’t often see girl friends in superhero movies take out villains, but it does still undermine the Scarecrow as a worthy foe for Batman.
Rounding up the cast is the new girl friend named Rachel Dawes, played by the very cute Katie Holmes. This character is a mixed blessing, and the one thing that fans point to as a weakness in the film. On the one hand she's devoid of common clichés, as she doesn’t run around in a hot dress, she can take out a super-villain like the Scarecrow, and the chemistry between her and Bruce feels natural. Rachel even teaches the hero important morals like “it’s not who you are underneath, but what you do that defines you.”, which makes her a decent role model. The down side is that she’s just not that memorable, and Katie Holmes, despite her best efforts just doesn’t feel right in the role. She just looks and feels too much like a high school student rather than someone working in a District Attorney office, and she certainly doesn’t look like someone who’d get paired with Batman.
Of course, I can’t continue without praising writer/director Christopher Nolan. Now days he’s recognized as one of the greatest filmmakers in the business, but back in 2005, he’s wasn’t as well known. He had some great films on his resume, but “Batman Begins” is when he became a force to watch out for. His approach and direction for Batman was such a welcomed breath of fresh air, and it was a departure from the norm that the series needed. Nolan basically separated his trilogy from previous Batman movies by making them feel more grounded, and closer to earth, even with something as ludicrous as a man dressing up in a bat costume before fighting crime. Gotham City still had the same personality of its comic book origins, but it felt more like a real-world city and less like a comic-book setting. The scenes were filmed in Chicago this time as opposed to the Warner Brother backlots, and that helped convey its more realistic atmosphere. Nolan also has an eye for cinematic details, and as a result, this film has some of the best film-making on display. I love that one shot with the camera spinning around the building with Batman perched on top.
Nolan also knows how to wright characters with sharper dialogue, but with just enough comedic levity to balance out. One little detail I’ve admittedly hatted about Nolan’s trilogy is that we don’t have any opening credit sequences or even title cards. One of my favorite charms from all the previous films were those lengthy credit sequences, with their riveting music, and those awesome title cards, which always got me excited to start a new Batman venture. I will admit, I at least liked seeing the new Bat logo before each film, which did help tie this trilogy together. This movie also introduces yet another iconic musical score for Batman which stands apart from the others. Danny Elfman’s score had the most personality, and Shirley Walker’s score conveyed the most haunting atmosphere, but it’s composer Hans Zimmer, who’s score got me pumped for the action. Seriously, whenever a situation goes down, this score just has me riveted.
The action scenes in general suffer from some messy edits, and shaky cam, but the context behind the action keeps me engaged. I think Batman’s method of fighting are best represented in this film then any other. He’s more like a ninja moving in and out of the shadows and disappearing just as quickly as he arrives on scene. Seeing him extend his cape and glide through the sky was also riveting and something I’ve always wanted to see the character do more of. I also love seeing Batman use a sonar device to call on a flock of Bats as “back-up”. Now I personally didn’t care for that new bat tank, as it just seemed a little too over the top, and distant from what the bat-mobile should look like. With that said, the car chase in this film is a great spectacle and it’s a genuine thrill to see Batman avoid capture from the police by bouncing his car on rooftops. The Climax features one of my favorite action set-pieces of the whole franchise. Batman battles Ra’s Al Ghul on a runaway train which our hero needs to stop before it reaches a crucial destination, and it’s just a wild roller-coaster ride of a finale. As that’s going on, Scarecrow has unleashed his fear toxin, and has also released all the criminals from prison, so there’s lots of high stakes and excitement going on. The fighting then builds to one of Batman’s most epic closing lines, “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you” and Ra’s Al Ghul gets an explosive death. The film ends with a nice little indication that The Joker will be the villain of the next film, and boy did that get me excited.
In my last review of Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman”, I described its greatest strength was creating an experience through atmosphere and presentation. Rising to the next level, I think the strength of “Batman Begins” was the journey and everything we experienced along with the hero. The arcing theme of the film is concurring your fears before you can concur your enemy, which is conveyed very well here and plays more to my emotions. In general, “Batman Begins” is a very emotional journey, as I love watching a character go though the peaks and valleys of his life, while still being engaged in an action-packed superhero story. Without a doubt, “Batman Begins” holds up as one of the best Batman movies, and it’s easily one of the greatest superhero movies of it’s time. It’s a smart film with great character structure, and it’s one of the best comebacks from a once dead film franchise.
I give “Batman Begins” a solid 4 stars out of five. Coming up next, the art direction shifts to the animated drawing board with “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm”!