I have a theory—perhaps a crazy one, but crazy theories are a favorite hobby of mine: that what science fiction did for the advancement of science, superhero comics may eventually do for sociology and public action. Yesterday’s SF dreams are today’s old news. In the same way, the philosophy that one extremely determined person can make a world of difference is no longer dismissed as naïve. Think about it: If someone with a goal and a mission had a nearly unlimited budget and access to the tools he needed to change things, what could happen?
The Batman comics didn’t start off as an exploration of that idea, but over time they turned into that. It was comic auteur Frank Miller’s take on the Batman mythos, Year One, that brought the genuinely serious undertones of the story into focus. Here was a man who was not superhuman—and for that reason more automatically interesting than his D.C. Comics stablemate Superman—but chose to throw himself into the thick of danger again and again, to make a difference where it mattered most. What he lacked in powers, he made up for in vision and spine and sheer brio.
Batman Begins does for the movie version of the Batman mythos what Year One did for the comics: It takes the conceit seriously, and deals with Batman first and foremost as a person, not just a stock good guy. He wasn’t intended to be a stock good guy in the comics anyway, but someone doing something genuinely dangerous and disturbing—and probably subversive, too, come to think of it. What motives a man with wealth and power to dress up in a high-tech body suit and go out into the night to fight criminals one-on-one? The campy ‘80s movies used that as a throwaway line. Here, it’s what at the heart of the whole story.
In fact, for the majority of Batman Begins, there is no Batman. There is only Bruce Wayne, the son of a wealthy industrialist whose parents were shot dead in an alleyway mugging when he was still a boy. He grew to find himself disillusioned with what he had, disgusted that his parents’ killer might someday go free, hating the corruption of Gotham City that made all this possible. He sank from sight, leaving his father’s company in other men’s hands, eventually ending up in prison somewhere in the Far East. The movie opens there, with Wayne starting fights in the mess line just to have someone to test his strength against. “This is hell, and I’m the devil,” one of his targets boasts. Wayne retorts: “You’re not the devil. You’re practice.”
Wayne receives a visitor: Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), a front man for a shadowy guru-esque figure named Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). Ducard can see that Wayne wants a greater challenge in his life than merely beating up other prisoners, and gives him one. He springs Wayne from his cell and invites him to join a number of other initiates in the “League of Shadows.” Unlike the rather lame ninja outfit in the Elektra movie, the League have a real purpose: Whenever there is corruption in the world, they help to bring the corrupt to their logical end. Their next target is Gotham City, which they will destroy so that better things may arise in its place. This is more than Wayne can swallow, and after rebelling and (barely) escaping alive he heads back home charged with new purpose.
Gotham has only been getting worse in his time away. The rail system his father helped build is a graffiti-splattered trap, and even his idealistic childhood sweetheart (Katie Holmes) can’t make a dent in things through her position in the district attorney’s office. The local crime lord, Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) exploits corrupt cops, like Flass (dependable sleazeball character actor Mark Boone Jr.) to keep the streets safe for his drugs. There was a time when a younger and more naïve Wayne might have gone up to Falcone and tried to put a bullet in his stomach, but both have them have gotten older and that much more cunning. Falcone’s new trick is to use a local criminal psychologist, Dr. Jonathan Crane (the increasingly versatile Cillian Murphy of 28 Days Later and the little-seen Disco Pigs) to have his thugs kept out of the hands of prosecuting attorneys.
Wayne cultivates a connection in his old company, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), an old-guard employee now relegated to the dim clutter of the Applied Sciences division. There he finds not only an ally but the makings of his arsenal: a bodysuit here, a high-tech “memory cloth” cape there … and “The Tumbler,” an all-terrain tank that provokes one critical question from Wayne: “Does it come in black?” Wayne builds the Batman look piece by piece, often by hand, and there are a few times when it doesn’t always work in his favor. (One of the disadvantages of having your mouth not covered by armor is that you can get punched in the jaw all too easily.)
Much to Wayne’s own surprise, the equipment works, and before long he is waging a one-man campaign against Falcone and his crime syndicate. That only turns out to be the first of many layers peeled away, however, as he finds that far more powerful and shadowy men are pulling Falcone’s strings. The final entire third of the film is almost non-stop action, where all of the plot’s bottles are uncorked at once, but it’s exhilarating and cheering instead of numbing because it’s happening to people we have come to care deeply about and have grown fascinated by. I was especially enthralled by a chase sequences involving the Batmobile—er, Tumbler—that tears apart a hair-raising amount of property and could have by itself been the centerpiece of another movie, but here it’s only one of several masterful action set-pieces.
One of the complaints lodged about the earlier Batman films was that there never seemed to be a particularly interesting actor in the role. Not exactly right: I didn’t hate Michael Keaton, but he wasn’t supported by a story that made him interesting to begin with, and the same problem plagued the other films as well. Here, we have a good actor in an invigorating story, and everything else falls neatly into place around him. Bale has been someone I have had my eye on for some time: he came most to the fore in the vastly-underrated Equilibrium, but he’s had a long career before that: as a boy, he appeared in the somewhat-misguided adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun; he was also in the cult musical Newsies, and commanded everyone’s attention in the controversial American Psycho. He gives Batman a confident center; even when he’s down, you know he’s going to pick himself up back up again and keep going. (In what I can only interpret as cosmic irony, he tested for the role of Robin in the earlier films and was rejected.)
The rest of the cast is similarly game, although my favorites were the quirky supporting roles. Liam Neeson’s appearance here more than makes up for his dismal waste of time in the first Star Wars movie—watch the scene where he and Bale are talking in a room as it burns down around them. Two of my other favorite actors are here as well: Morgan Freeman as Fox, and Gary Oldman as slightly befuddled one-good-cop Jim Gordon; they get to be more than just walk-ons, too. Most people will only know Cillian Murphy from this movie and the nearly-simultaneously released Red-Eye, but from what I’ve seen of him before he can strike a variety of notes easily, and he makes what could be a stock villain into something genuinely creepy. I should also make note of Michael Caine as Wayne’s butler, Alfred—he’s been in bad movies and good ones, and he’s always been among the very best things in all of them, as he is here. Alfred gives Wayne a moral underpinning, dragging him back to earth before he flies off too quickly.
The science of visual effects was one of the main reasons I became a movie lover, but effects alone can’t always redeem a film. That is becoming less and less the case with each passing year. We don’t look at the screen and think “Wow, that’s a great matte painting,” but we simply see a landscape and accept it on face value. Batman Begins has effects work so polished and seamless that there’s never a moment where I questioned it. Gotham City looks like a city—a real living place, not simply a design concept, and that makes what happens in it all the more weighty. By the time we got to the speeding-train sequence at the climax of the film, I was long past picking anything apart. The Tumbler itself is probably the most astounding effect in the film—it is, in fact, a real vehicle that was built from scratch at a cost of over a million dollars, and almost every shot of it in motion (on the real-life streets of Chicago, including Lower Wacker Drive) is unfaked. Even more impressive are the cityscapes, one of which was built in a converted aircraft hangar and modeled after the demolished Kowloon slums of Hong Kong.
Batman Begins had a tortured history. The original plan was to adapt Miller’s Year One story (Miller himself wrote the script) and have Requiem for a Dream director Darren Aronofsky at the helm. The final script, which got as far as the storyboard stage before being killed, strayed a good deal from the original material and became a source of derision on a great many Internet movie discussion forums. (The meme “X HAS A BEER AND CHEETS [sic] ON HIS WIFE” sprung from this.) Nolan’s version of the project started from a script from Blade writer (and later director) David Goyer, and after a rewrite by Nolan went into production under the not-very-auspicious name Batman: The Frightening.
One of the reasons I’m reluctant to divide movies into handy categories is because the best films always defy categorizing. They stand on their own and work on their own. Batman Begins is a great film, and would be one even without the mystique and mythos of the comic book behind it.