WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR 2005’S BATMAN BEGINS
In about a week from now, I will be sitting in a theater eagerly awaiting the lights to go down and the midnight screening of Christopher Nolan’s epic finale to The Dark Knight Trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises to start. To make the waiting go by a bit faster, I decided to go back and watch Nolan’s take on the Caped Crusader from the beginning, starting with the first installment, 2005’s Batman Begins.
Before Batman Begins, it seemed that one of DC Comics’ headline heroes was in the garbage can of cinema. After
all, who could forget (no matter how hard you try) the monstrosity that is 1997’s Batman And Robin, starring George Clooney as Bruce Wayne and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze (among the terribleness of the film, some things that truly stand out as bad are the appearance of the Bat-Card, Batman’s credit card, and Mr. Freeze’s constant and relentless one liners about ice). After that critical and box office disaster beat the Batman film saga to the ground and seemingly killed it, Warner Brothers and DC Comics scrambled for years for a way to continue to make money off the beloved hero on the big screen. Then, in 2000, a no-name British director made a small movie called Memento. Two years later, he continued his career with a slightly bigger movie titled Insomnia. Now, those two films alone probably shouldn’t have been enough to justify handing one of the biggest names in pop culture to this director, but luckily for fans of the world, Warner Brothers found it justified and so Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy was born with Batman Begins.
Batman Begins follows Bruce Wayne, the orphaned son of the wealthiest families in the city of Gotham, who leaves his city in order to search for a path of justice. After stumbling upon and abruptly leaving a group called The League Of Shadows, Wayne returns to the troubled Gotham to become a symbol of justice: The Batman.
One of the greatest things about Nolan’s franchise has always been the casting choices. While previous people to don the famous cape and cowl have been big names like Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, and George Clooney, Christian Bale was a considerably smaller actor (at the time) to play The Dark Knight himself. However, Nolan proved this decision to be the right one. Bale nails it as the seemingly self-serving Playboy billionaire Bruce Wayne on the search for something more. The scenes in which he plays Wayne allow him to vary his emotions, from angered to saddened or sly. But most of the time it’s angered. However, he does a very good job of portraying every side of Wayne, and is probably the best incarnation of the character we’ve seen yet. As Batman, Bale is perfectly fine, with his voice not sounding like a broken garbage disposal yet as it does in the sequel to Batman Begins, The Dark Knight. However, I’d say the characters you care about most (and this goes for Nolan’s two entries in the trilogy so far) are the supporting characters. Namely, there’s Michael Caine as Wayne’s butler Alfred. Caine utilizes his charming British accent and bravura to create the most lovable character to ever appear in a superhero film. He delivers some of the best lines in the film, and plays Alfred with a caring yet witty attitude that lights up the screen every time he appears (in my opinion, he has the best line in the film, during the pivotal scene when Wayne Manor is burning down at the hands of the villainous Ra’s Al Ghul, Alfred knocks out a guard with a iron bar, saying, “I hope you’re not part of the fire brigade.”). Another acting legend as a supporting cast member is Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, the developer of Batman’s tech. His growing friendship with Wayne often drives the heart of this film more than the romance does, and Freeman, of course, is great as always. He’s convincing, witty, charming, and very likable. And of course, it goes without saying that he has the best voice on film. After Freeman, there’s Gary Oldman who I always think has been great as Jim Gordon, Batman’s only friend in the Gotham Police Department. Beyond that, I think Katie Holmes is perfectly fine as Batman’s love interest Rachel Dawes. In fact, I think she does a better job than Maggie Gyllenhall does with the character in The Dark Knight, and if she had stayed on with the film, her eventual death in the sequel might have been more impacting. “Perfectly fine” is another phrase that goes for Cillian Murphy, who has moments of potential and creepiness as the secondary villain, The Scarecrow, but his role is so underwritten that he rarely has time to let his character off the chain. Playing the main baddie in the film is the ultimate badass, Liam Neeson. While he isn’t really kicking butts Taken-style here, he is surprisingly effective as a villain who appears for half-an-hour as a mentor and disappears for the majority of the film, only to come back near the end as the villain.
The story of Batman Begins doesn’t give us a look at the actual superhero in the title of the film until a hour in. It’s a daring and risky move that surprisingly pays off. The first hour of the film manages to be engaging with out action, as it serves as a collection of flashbacks tied together with good storytelling, writing, and scenes. While the death of Bruce’s parents happens in a flash (as does their funeral), there’s enough engrossing back-and-forth between Alfred and Bruce for there to be emotional weight to the situation. On top of that, there’s a whole sequence showing the eventual murder of the Wayne murderer and Bruce confronting the mob boss behind the attack that plays really, really well as a cinematic and dramatic piece of work. The back-story that Bruce Wayne was basically turned into a ninja may be quite different for most people, but it works too, allowing for the great set-up of Liam Neeson’s Ducard/Ra’s Al Ghul and some beautiful icy scenery. When the story reverts back to the city of Gotham and Batman takes to the streets, it’s Jim Gordon, Alfred Pennyworth, and Lucius Fox who connect the story to the action with wonderful finesse. There’s not much color throughout Gotham, so it helps to have some colorful characters along for the ride. In the third act of the film, as Nolan always does, there’s some rewarding homages put in that connect things to the beginning of the film. It’s those clever and enjoyable “oh yeah” moments (like the realization that the blue flower that Bruce Wayne brought for Ducard in the beginning of the movie turned out to be the thing that might destroy Gotham) that give Nolan’s films a sense of smartness and coolness that doesn’t let down.
While the design of Gotham City may be cluttered (and much improved upon in The Dark Knight), the sense of wonder and scale that Nolan infuses into Batman’s story is incredible. It’s a mixture of Hans Zimmer’s haunting and epic score, Nolan’s knack for telling a deep, dark, and complex story, and some awesome imagery that makes Batman Begins the catalyst for superhero films of the 21st century (creators of films like Iron Man have often cited this one as an inspiration for tone).
However, there are flaws with Begins. As I said before, Scarecrow is underwritten and that is unfortunate considering he had potential. Even his sendoff (in which he is tazed by Katie Holmes and rides away on a bucking horse) in the film feels rushed and forced. The design of Gotham feels a little off and overly reliant on CGI (an odd thing, considering Nolan relies on practical effects most of the time). But overall, Begins is still a really good movie. It’s no The Dark Knight but it certainly isn’t a film to be ignored either. And it’s last scene, in which Batman is given his next “case” by Gordon in the form of a singular Joker card (we all know what that means…), trumps any of the Marvel post-credits scenes. It may not be what its sequel is, but Nolan still did a masterful job with re-inventing a guy who once carried around the Bat-Card.
FINAL GRADE: ★★★★★★★★ (8/10 stars)