To say BATMAN BEGINS successfully rebooted the Warners franchise is accurate, but incomplete. Christopher Nolan’s film, from the script he wrote with David S. Goyer, is a complete rethinking of the very concept of a comic book/superhero movie, one comparable to what The Godfather and Cabaret did with the gangster movie and the musical in the 70s–and sufficiently difficult to pull off that despite the mammoth success of the series, in the 7 years since it started, no one has really even tried to imitate it.
Nolan came at the material with an aesthetic exactly opposite to Tim Burton’s (let’s not even mention Joel Schumacher for these purposes). Instead of a heavily stylized, theatrical approach borrowed from earlier movie fantasies or the look of comic book panels themselves, Nolan tells the story realistically–or as realistically as the tale of a billionaire who becomes a vigilante dressed as a giant bat can be told. Bruce Wayne is given a strong, detailed backstory, rather than the flashes of his parents’ murders glimpsed in earlier films. Instead of jokey references to split personalities, Wayne’s decision to don the costume and fight crime is treated as a reasonable, even logical thing for him to do. On a larger scale, the film inquires into the lines between justice, vengeance, vigilantism and the desire to clean up a city so fanatical that it becomes mass murder and terrorism.
Visually, too, this Gotham City is digitally enhanced where necessary (especially to install the elevated train tracks crucial to the 3rd act), but it’s largely based on the real Chicago, with buildings that look like they could exist in the present day. Batman’s weapons and the Batmobile are given military justifications and kept to a minimal level of gimmicry. Even the poison toxin that drives Gothamites mad is carefully explained as something that could actually exist.
It’s remarkable to come up with a genuinely original spin on an old genre, and even more that Nolan pulled it off so successfully. There are flaws, to be sure. Some of the casting doesn’t work: Katie Holmes is too callow to hold the screen with Christian Bale, and she’s unable to bolster her underwritten part (hers was the only major continuing role recast for The Dark Knight), while Tom Wilkinson is out of his element playing Carmine Falcone, a lower-class ethnic American thug. Wilkinson makes him too buffoonish, which unbalances the movie’s middle section. More seriously, given the ambition of the project, Nolan doesn’t convey the crucial point of just how miserable and debased Gotham City is supposed to be. We see poverty and crime, to be sure, but overall Gotham doesn’t seem worse than many an American city, and that isn’t enough, since it turns out the central storyline of the film is the decision by the League of Shadows to eradicate Gotham City from the planet entirely. When Bruce tells Ducard that Gotham City can be saved, there’s no reason to doubt him, and in this context, there should be.
The film’s accomplishments, though, overpower its shortcomings. Nolan, working for the first time on a grand budget, has expert control of every aspect of the production. The photography by Wally Pfister, production design by Nathan Crowley, and editing by Lee Smith are all precise and in line with Nolan’s vision, and the score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard is powerful and daring, a real departure from the heroic music by Danny Elfman and Elliot Goldenthal in the earlier movies. Bale has the best written Batman, and probably the best superhero role ever, and while he has his limitations as an actor, this interpretation of Batman is perfect for his somewhat coldly intimidating yet darkly humorous style. Michael Caine couldn’t be better as Alfred, Morgan Freeman squeezes the dry humor out of all his lines, and Gary Oldman, as a young pre-Commissioner Gordon makes a fine ally. On the bad guy side, Cillian Murphy is genuinely frightening as The Scarecrow, no small trick in this genre, and although the Ducard role is the story’s most familiar and toughest to make work, because the goals of his villainous organization are so abstract, Liam Neeson is very smooth as both mentor and villain.
Batman Begins is, to be sure, still a comic book movie, so we see plenty of Batman rising and dropping solemnly, wings outstretched, via bat-wires, and there’s always enough time for the villains to provide exposition about what they’re going to do and why. And some will object to Nolan’s approach in general as “pretentious” or “ponderous” because it demands that a comic book superhero be taken seriously. Compared to even the best of the traditional movies in the genre, though, like Iron Man or The Avengers, there’s a creative excitement in Begins that’s something completely new.
Warners deserves credit for trusting the relaunch of such a major franchise to a relatively untried filmmaker with an audacious vision, instead of taking a conservative approach after the Joel Schumacher disaster. The studio reaped the rewards of its risk, of course, because the film was a huge success, becoming the highest-grossing Batman movie since Tim Burton’s original (not adjusted for inflation), and setting the stage for what had been, until just a few months ago, the biggest superhero event movie ever. But even though The Avengers now owns all the records in the genre (at least for the next few days), there are fun thrill-ride movies… and then there’s The Dark Knight.