The first two Batman movies may not have been everyone’s cup of tea, but at least they were infused with director Tim Burton’s quirky sensibilities. The second two, directed by Joel Shumacher, were just a train wreck.
The fifth movie does us all a favor by pushing the big cinematic reset button and returning Batman to the beginning, placing him in a universe that has less in common with Edward Scissorhands and the 1960s TV series and more in common with the Batman of the comic books. In other words, the real Batman has made it to the big screen. Finally.
Batman has never been a bright, sunny, reassuring character like Superman or Spider-man and the movies had so far just seemed to miss the point of the character. Joel Shumacher seemed to take much of his inspiration from the Adam West TV series, which is not Batman the same way that Mel Brooks’ Men in Tights was not the Robin Hood legend.
At least Tim Burton’s take was interesting, even if his sensibilities were ultimately incompatible with the character that generations of comic book fans had known and loved. His Batman was dark, all right, but it was Tim Burton dark, not Gotham City dark.
Batman Begins joins billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) not in Gotham City but somewhere in the far east, confined in a prison in some unnamed Asian country. Even though badly outnumbered as the only caucasian in the prison, he seems to be able to handle himself without much trouble. He is thrown in solitary for the protection of the other prisoners. There he is visited by a mysterious man named Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), who knows a great deal about Bruce, including the quest to understand the nature of evil that brought him to this prison. He also knows about the murder of Bruce’s parents when he was a boy, which drove him into this quest. He offers Bruce a chance to do something more productive with his life, in exchange for getting him out of prison.
After getting out, Bruce has to climb to a remote mountaintop to make his rendezvous with Ducard. There he finds the hideaway of a mysterious organization of ninja-like warriors lead by R’as Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) called the League of Shadows, which is apparently dedicated to punishing, by any means necessary, the evil and corrupt who have placed themselves beyond the reach of the law.
Bruce trains under Ducard for several years, slowly mastering the ninja arts of the League. But when he balks at his final initiation, executing a criminal in cold blood, he is forced to best Ducard and R’as Al Ghul and burn down the League’s hideout.
Finally returning to Gotham to find his family estate still in the care of his father’s loyal butler, Alfred (Michael Caine), he also finds his father’s company in the hands of a man named Earle (Rutger Hauer), who has replaced the company’s philanthropic endeavors with military contracts. Earle is stunned (and a little annoyed) that Bruce is still alive after being missing for all those years, but he honors Bruce’s request for a job. Going to work for a scientist named Lucious Fox (Morgan Freeman), Bruce finds a treasure trove of abandoned military technologies that, combined with his League of Shadows training, are perfect what he has in mind.
Meanwhile, Bruce’s childhood friend, Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), is apparently the last honest prosecutor in the Gotham City District Attorney’s office, pursuing a mob boss named Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), who pretty much owns the city. Bruce’s quest to rid Gotham of people like Falcone will bring him and his alter ego, Batman, across the paths of both Rachel and Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), the city’s last honest cop.
Working from his own agenda is Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), the director of the local asylum, who has a penchant for getting criminals out of jail time by convincing people they’re insane. It’s probably not much of a spoiler that Crane and Falcone are working together, but both men are pawns of another who’s identity is best discovered by by watching the movie.
After three previous attempts with varying degrees of partial success, Batman was perfectly cast for this film. Christian Bale has both the physicality and the screen presence to carry off the role. More importantly, he has the chin for it. As Batman, he looks like Batman, not Michael Keaton in a rubber suit. Michael Caine may not look much like the Alfred in the comic books but he sure sounds like him, effortlessly bringing off the wry wit of the character and making him a credible equal to Bruce Wayne.
Katie Holme’s performance was not universally praised but I think it might have been a backlash against her much-publicized romance with Tom Cruise. I don’t think this was exactly fair. She acquits herself well enough, even if she’s not exactly the equal of the talent around her. Given that stature of that talent (Bale, Caine, Freeman, Neeson, and Wilkinson), that’s hardly something to be ashamed of.
If the onscreen talent is first rate, the look of the film is the best we’ve ever seen in a Batman movie. For the first time, Gotham looks like it should, a blighted comic book exaggeration of a real city.
Batman Begins may not be enough to make you forget the four previous attempts at bringing the character to the big screen, but at least it’s enough to stop fans of the comic book from sticking pins in their Joel Shumacher dolls.