Synopsis: In Batman Begins, acclaimed director Christopher Nolan explores the origins of the legendary Dark Knight. In the wake of his parents’ murder, disillusioned industrial heir Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) travels the world seeking the means to fight injustice and turn fear against those who prey on the fearful. With the help of his trusted butler Alfred (Michael Caine), detective Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and his ally Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Wayne returns to Gotham City and unleashes his alter-ego: Batman, a masked crusader who uses his strength, intellect and an array of high tech deceptions to fight the sinister that threaten the city.
Batman Begins 8.0
eyelights: Christian Bale. Morgan Freeman. Michael Caine. Liam Neeson. Gary Oldman. its more realistic approach. the cinematography. the motion picture score.
eyesores: Batman’s growl. the CGI Gotham. the grim, oppressive third act.
“It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.”
I was hesitant to see the new Batman movie when it came out in 2005. Although I’d only heard good things about it, the last few efforts had been so dismal that I couldn’t fathom how they’d bring the franchise back from the brink. But a work colleague was adamant that I see it and gave me a DVD copy for me to watch.
I was bowled over.
While there were some aspects that I wasn’t so keen on, like Batman’s growl, it was such a solid motion picture that you couldn’t help but admire Christopher Nolan’s efforts: he had painted a gritty but realistic portrait of a corrupt Gotham that needing saving, if not purging, and brought the fantasy of Batman into it.
To make Batman credible, he sent Bruce Wayne trekking the world, learning how to survive on the fringes, near the underworld, so that he could better understand the criminal mind. He also had him trained by The League of Shadows to overcome his fears and to learn hand-to-hand combat and master illusion.
By the time he returns to Gotham, he is ready to take on the criminal elements of his city head on. Except that he needs a cover and, when he finds an outcast inventor buried deep in the bowels of Gotham Enterprises, he uses his creations as the basis for his new identity – which he constructs with the help of his butler.
The Batman is born.
As its title suggests, ‘Batman Begins’ is basically an origin story and it spends a large amount of time moulding the character before eventually throwing him into his new life as a crime fighter – after which he has to get to the bottom of a conspiracy to burn down Gotham involving Ra’s al Ghul and The Scarecrow.
Without a doubt, Batman’s development is the compelling part of the film: it deftly shows us not just Wayne’s journey, but his psyche, by digging deep and peeling back its layers. While some of the pop psychology is perhaps a bit simplistic, it’s not unbelievable either – and it adds much more complexity to the character.
The rest of the film is really just an excuse for this exploration into Wayne’s personality, from the death of his parents, to his friendship with Rachel, to his mentorship at the hands Ducard, to his relationship with Alfred and then his business dealings with Lucius Fox. What action there is is merely a by-product of these elements.
Clearly, none of this would be worth anything without a solid cast:
- Bruce Wayne and Batman are incarnated by Christian Bale, who is one of the finest actors of his generation. The story of his physical transformations to play the part is legendary. While I don’t feel that he looks quite like the Bruce Wayne I’ve always seen in comics, his total commitment to the roles is unmistakable. He is Bruce Wayne and he is Batman.
- Michael Caine plays Alfred, Bruce’s butler, assistant and confidant. Caine is a tremendous actor and, in his hands, Alfred’s rapport with Bruce is deep and affecting. I just wish they had given him a pencil-thin moustache. Alfred traditionally wore one, and I long to see Alfred look himself in the movies again (he certainly didn’t in the ’90s iteration). But Caine, like Bale, overcomes that superficial limitation.
- Morgan Freeman takes on the role of Lucius Fox with glee, confidence and intelligence. The guy doesn’t just have a phenomenal (dare I say, sexy?) voice but he has a spark in his eye that conveys understanding and knowledge well beyond what he verbally expresses. He created the perfect co-conspirator for Bruce Wayne: discreet and highly-capable.
- Gary Oldman plays Sgt. Gordon, an icon of the Batman series who is also just getting his start. Oldman has really matured over the years and his frequent over-exuberance of the past has been replaced with a more self-aware, controlled quality. He exudes competence, intelligence and willpower, creating an excellent ally for Batman.
- Liam Neeson has a secondary part as Bruce Wayne’s mentor, Henri Ducard. He’s as terrific as he gets, but he reminded me far too much of Qui Gon Jin, but with a different hairdo. I’m not trying to take anything away from him, he’s terrific, but I just haven’t been able to dissociate the two parts for some reason. And this is not always the case with Neeson.
Where the picture trips up slightly is in the casting of Cillian Murphy as Dr. Jonathan Crane and Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes: While I’ve long been a fan of Murphy, he doesn’t convince me as a world class psychiatrist. As a psycho, yes, but not as a professional. And Holmes is passable as Rachel, but she never really matches the quality of her colleagues’ work.
Mind you, these are minor blemishes in an otherwise superb cast.
The rest of the film is equally professional to the highest degree, from the set design to the costuming to the music. The cinematography is absolutely breathtaking here, taking full advantage of its vistas to give the film a sweeping, epic look. Just the opening sequences in the “Himalayas” is worth the price of admission.
Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard actually justify having two composers for just one film by creating a gorgeous accompaniment to the picture. But I wish Batman’s theme was more iconic, instead of sounding like a car commercial (Perhaps it’s the reverse? Was the style was later copied by car manufacturers to sell their wares?).
For me, the film’s greatest flaw resides in the third act, the requisite confrontation between the hero and villain. The problem for me is that the plan seems so meaningless and the stakes aren’t super well established. Plus which the tone is inappropriately grim, instead of being exciting – it feels more like an execution.
Further to that, the villains are slightly underwhelming: from Ra’s al Ghul (whose identity was no surprise at all) to The Scarecrow (an under-established and underused character who wears a potato sack on his head), you just don’t feel like Batman is threatened by them; they feel like second-rate villains easily cast away.
They’re certainly not The Joker.
A secondary flaw, for me resides in Batman’s gear. His Batmobile, for instance, is pretty much a tank. I mean, it’s more realistic, but it turns Batman into a brute: He recklessly uses it to destroy key Gotham infrastructure, which is not something you would do with a more traditional, sleeker Batmobile. So that was so-so.
And then, despite trying to make Batman more realistic with the Batmobile, they then give him a cape that has electrostatic flocking, which apparently exists for real but seems otherwordly – especially since he then uses it to solidify his cape and glide over Gotham. Watching Batman glide didn’t convince me one bit.
But these are minor criticism in an otherwise extremely entertaining and captivating film. I enjoyed the first two thirds of ‘Batman Begins’ so much that it might have become one of my all-time favourite superhero films if not for it’s lesser third act. But it doesn’t change the fact that it got the trilogy started just right.
It’s hard to imagine that Nolan would outdo it with ‘The Dark Knight‘.
But he did. He actually did.
Date of viewing: April 29, 2016