Batman Begins: Forget the Rest, This Is the Best
Even the combined forces of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chris O’Donnell and those ridiculous rubber nipples couldn’t KO the Dark Knight. By the end of Batman Begins I had forgotten I ever saw the last three installments of the Batman franchise. Not only does this film render the others almost completely obsolete, it returns Batman to his roots as a supposed urban legend and gritty scourge of the criminal underworld.
The common thread of the most successful comic adaptations seems obvious: audiences want to see the men and women behind the masks. Director Christopher Nolan (Memento) spends the first hour of the movie fleshing out its hero, exploring Bruce Wayne’s transformation from orphaned rich kid to’… well, you know. Or do you? In all the lackluster Batman films up to this point, we’ve gotten only hints of Batman’s past and his motivation, which always seemed a bit simplistic and not unlike Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride: ‘“You killed my father. Prepare to die.’” In Batman Begins, the psychology is more complicated, putting a new spin on an old character. Nolan spends ample time showing Wayne’s pre-costume period: we see his training, the building of the Bat Cave, but perhaps most importantly, we get to see an inexperienced Batman get his ass kicked a few times. Far from demystifying, these scenes make him more sympathetic and when he finally becomes the Dark Knight at the movie’s midpoint, the wait proves worthwhile.
Regrettably, there isn’t enough space to praise everything good about this film. The cast is a veritable roll call of notable actors. Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman and Tom Wilkinson prove why they’re among the best in the business, and Cillian Murphy’s icy performance as the Scarecrow adds an element of horror that fits seamlessly into the film’s dark mood. Since they all have to share a finite amount of celluloid, it’s amazing that nobody feels underused, least of all the inimitable Michael Caine, playing Alfred the butler. As Bruce’s conscience, his wry delivery results in some of the film’s best (and most human) moments.
But the best character is Gotham City itself which, as Nolan clearly understands, is supposed to have a life of its own. Batman Begins takes place in the ideal Gotham: tall towers loom over the city’s withering foundation with desperate malcontents scurrying through its shadowy alleys. This is a timeless setting, simultaneously modern and ancient, and its crumbling walls vibrate with bad intentions. Above all else, the city is a visual reminder of what makes Batman Begins a success. The film goes back to the Dark Knight’s beginnings in every respect, recalling many forgotten details. The casual filmgoer might not understand how terrifying Batman is supposed to be, but the film’s overall intensity clarifies that point. When the bad guys shudder, you finally understand why.
Superhero movies are a dime a dozen these days, but it’s good to know that the mainstays haven’t been written off ‘— sometimes the ones who endure do so because there’s a lot of content to be mined. Batman has always been one of comicdom’s most fascinating and malleable characters, and it’s good to see a movie that finally realizes the possibilities of Gotham’s favorite son. As long as Joel Schumacher keeps his filthy hands off of it, this could represent a new beginning for one of our greatest heroes.
Chris O’Donnell fans who want to go down fighting are encouraged to send their comments on this article to Glen Baity at firstname.lastname@example.org