Batman is one of those iconic characters, universally recognized and beloved, that will never go away. Nothing can kill Batman. Not Darkseid, not Joel Schumacher. After that filmmaker buried the franchise for a few years, it was inevitable that Warners Brothers would resurrected it, mostly because there’s too much money to be made but also because people can’t resist telling stories about these characters. And because WB has no fucking clue what to do with their superhero properties, they handed this vast universe over to Christopher Nolan.
The movie sets about reintroducing Batman, at least in live action form anyway, to a new generation. It does this mostly by retrofitting the character for Nolan’s gritty, realistic style. Previous Batman movies had almost been more focused on the villains but “Batman Begins” does a novel thing. It focuses on Bruce Wayne as a character. His psychology, the inner rage that drives him to become a superhero, and his guilt over letting his parents die forms the film’s emotional backbone. We watch Bruce’s journey from his childhood home in Gotham to a Chinese prison, where he ends up being trained in the art of Batman-ing by a secret cabal of ninjas. Fully trained, he returns to Gotham, slowly perfecting his skills and abilities as the nighttime defender of the city. Naturally, his quest to stop the local mob bosses puts him in conflict with a globe-spanning conspiracy.
With a captivating main character, Nolan is allowed to build an intricate plot. The film naturally introduces a number of elements and interesting story angles before bringing them all together in the last act. It’s not exactly revolutionary nor hard to figure out that the primary threat introduced in act one will show up again in act three, but when most superhero movies focus on special effects, it is nice to find one with such solid plotting. Because this is a Nolan film, there’s even a little non-linear storytelling floating around, some lengthy flashbacks to the past.
Especially since the second half of the flick kicks so much ass. It would be easy to say that Nolan’s heart is more in the mystery plotting then in the action movie theatrics, and you wouldn’t exactly be wrong. Some of the action scenes, such as Batman’s climatic fight with a Ra’s al Ghul or a horde of ninjas, are too choppily edited. However, there are some amazing set-pieces in this film. The shipment container fight, which doubles as Batman’s big coming-out moment, is as good an introduction as the character has ever gotten. When he descends out of the shadows and takes down a large group of thugs, the film really finds its groove. When Batman pulls Tom Wilkenson out of a car and growls “I’m Batman!” that’s when I’m thinking, “Fuck yeah!”
There are other strong moments. Batman’s first confrontation with Scarecrow in a cramped, abandoned apartment is pretty badass. The film makes it believable that someone that skinny and frail could get an advantage over the Dark Knight. The run through Arkham, which involves grenades blowing through walls, is nicely kinetic. All of this leads up to the Tumbler chase. I wasn’t really sold on the idea of a Bat-Tank at first, but the movie shows off how well that can work. Especially when you’ve got it rolling over cars and flipping police cruisers. After that, the action in the final lap feels a bit underwhelming but by that point the movie has you. All of this is pretty impressive for what’s essentially a character study with some action trappings around the edge.
The cast helps a lot and provides the film with the emotional footing Nolan isn’t always great at. Upon first viewing, I remember being blown away by Christan Bale’s performance. That was before his constant intensity had grown a little tiresome. All that aside, he’s still probably the best Batman we’ve had. He definitely brings an amount of layers to the part and, unlike some other actors, actually seems to consider the part a dramatic challenge. I’m not a big fan of Asshole Bruce Wayne though, the public persona the character puts on. Especially since it just ends up reminding me way too much of Patrick Bateman. The gravelly Batman voice probably could have been better but it’s easy to ignore, unlike in the sequel where it became a serious issue.
The only performer in the movie that doesn’t really work is Katie Holms, go figure. She never sounds realistic when voicing Nolan’s dialogue, which is frequently a mouthful. (Honestly, if the cast wasn’t so capable, I think you’d hear more complaints about the sometimes awkward dialogue.) The romantic subplot is easily the weakest aspect of the movie and never really pays off. That final scene between Holms and Bale is especially dragging. Apparently being Batman isn’t good enough for this bitch.
There are some qualms I can take with the movie. The nightmare sequences, brought on by the Scarecrow’s fear toxin, never really work. They mostly just throw some trippy camera angles and spotty CGI around and call it a day. Nolan would, surprisingly, not make a very good horror director. Gliding CGI Batman also comes off as a little silly, and far too noticeable. The score is pretty bland and lacks the strong main theme any superhero should have. It’s not bad over all though, adds some intensity, serves its purpose, but is mostly forgettable. The repeated theme of fear is mostly just talk too. This is a character study, first and foremost, and an action flick secondly. Any complaints don’t really distract from the whole.
“Batman Begins’ isn’t the best Batman movie that could be made but it’s probably the best we’ll ever get. If nothing else, it shows that Christopher Nolan can keep the aspects that make him an interesting filmmaker even while working within a giant summer blockbuster. [Grade: A-]