Nearly a decade after Joel Schumacher foolishly turned the Batman series away from Tim Burton's dark, gothic fairy tale into something resembling a mega-budgeted ice-capades version of the Adam West '60s TV series, director Christopher Nolan ("Memento") has delivered the Batman film I never expected from Hollywood. Nolan has made the ultimate Batman film, one that meets—if not beats—Burton's original big-screen version, all the while taking the comic book icon in a direction no one has ever thought: the real world.
Taking a cue from Richard Donner's "Superman," the first hour of the film builds on the superhero's well-known origin story and ends up telling the story of Bruce Wayne that has never been told in film or comics. Opening in the icy tundra of an unnamed Asian country, we see Wayne, played by Christian Bale, rescued from a prison camp by a man named Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) and brought to train as a ninja in order to join the order of the mysterious Ra's Al Ghul known as the League of Shadows—an organization that we learn has brought every major city to its knees. Wayne refuses to kill a man as his initiation ("Your compassion is a weakness," he is told.) and after learning of the League's plans to put Gotham City "out of its misery," he flees to try to single-handedly rebuild and save his crime-ridden hometown.
With help from his butler Alfred (Michael Caine); the city's one cop yet to be corrupted, Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman); a low-level Wayne Industries inventor, Luscious Fox (Morgan Freeman) and childhood friend turned assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), Bruce embarks on his journey to bring justice to his fair city. He is immediately presented with two foes: a crime lord named Falconi (Tom Wilkinson) who runs everything from the police to the courthouse and a truly off-his-rocker psychiatrist known as Jonathan Crane, who calls himself "The Scarecrow" (Cillian Murphy).
Next, Nolan and co-screenwriter David Goyer give us what has been glossed over in the Batman legend: exactly how the man came to have all of those wonderful toys. We find what prompts him to choose the bat as his symbol, how he finds and makes the Batcave into his secret lair, where he obtains his suit, gadgets and the Batmobile.
The film works better than Burton's version for several reasons. One, we're seeing a Batman story that hasn't been told. In the 1989 version, thanks to Jack Nicholson's behind-the-scenes demands, the film was more about The Joker than Batman. For the non-comic geeks out there, this will very well be the first time they hear the real story.
Second, it feels real. We know it's not, obviously, but Nolan does such a good job of making the story seem authentic that we can almost conceive of it really happening. The Gotham City of Nolan's world is more akin to Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner," with its run down ghettos and graffiti covered trains, than Burton's gothic gargoyle-covered wonderland. And third, the acting is actually good—a rarity in comic book films. You'll find no over-the-top performances here; Nolan has assembled an amazing cast to flesh out the smaller roles that might have otherwise fallen by the wayside and has chosen the perfect Bruce Wayne/Batman. Bale will no doubt replace everyone's vision of Batman as Adam West, Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer or, god forbid, George Clooney. He simply inhabits the role. He's so close to the comic book version of the character it's almost laughable to think of the previous actors in this role.
The film's one weakness, as it always is in the Batman films, is the love story. Holmes' character seems unnecessary in the role of the damsel in distress. Gotham City already fills that niche quite nicely. I get the feeling Nolan and Goyer wished to create a Lois Lane-type character who will no doubt appear in the sequel, but it just doesn't work like the filmmakers had hoped.
Regardless of superfluous romantic interests, "Batman Begins" is bar-none the best Batman film ever made, most likely the best superhero film ever made and the best film of 2005 so far.
Great review, Steve. I've got a couple of points, though:
1) There have been plenty of good comic book movies with above-average acting. Hulk, Spider-man 2, From Hell, American Splendor, Hellboy, and the X-Men movies all had great casts.
2) Fortunately, Katie Holmes will not be any sequels due to her pissing off the producers over the publicity-stealing Tom Cruise thing.
Keep up the good work!