Nobody knows his face, but everybody knows his name (and story): Revisiting Christopher Nolan’s ‘Batman Begins’

December 6, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 6, 2014

Everyone knows the basic setup of the world of Batman, one of the great comic-book heroes. Heck, millions of people could recite it in their sleep. It goes like this:

Bruce Wayne, the only son of billionaires, was orphaned by a gunman at an early age and raised by Alfred Pennyworth, the Wayne family’s loyal butler. Determined to fight the endemic crime of his native Gotham, the so-called Dark Knight dons a cape and cowl and equips himself with a cornucopia of fantastic gadgets in order to help Jim Gordon, the city’s trustworthy police commissioner, apprehend bizarre and menacing villains.

In 1989, the quirky director Tim Burton launched a Batman film franchise, featuring an unlikely choice — mild-mannered comedic actor Michael Keaton, a.k.a. Mr. Mom — in the lead role. Burton’s quirky, sometimes over-the-top gothic realization of this noir-ish comic-book universe proved to be immensely popular. Batman garnered $40.5 million in its first weekend, dwarfing the previous best opening of a superhero movie (Superman II, which took in $14.1 million in 1982).

Burton’s quite excellent Batman went on to total earnings of more than $250 million and helped spawn a legion of superhero movies. They included Batman Returns, which saw Burton and Keaton reuniting for a decent 1992 feature, and two extremely cheesy, greatly inferior further sequels: Batman Forever (1995), directed by Joel Schumacher and starring Val Kilmer in the title role; and Batman & Robin (1997), again directed by Schumacher but this time starring George Clooney.

When, in 2005, Christopher Nolan came out with the insipidly named Batman Begins, a cinematic reboot of the Caped Crusader, I wondered why, exactly, the movie was necessary. What novelty could be mined from the genesis of Batman, whose origin story even the highest-browed of potential moviegoers knows by heart?

I never did see Batman Begins in the movie theater. But I did watch it, on a fiasco of a date, at a free outdoor screening in Raleigh’s Moore Square Park in the summer of 2005 or 2006 (if memory serves).

I didn’t like the film much at the time. I felt that Christian Bale was bland as Bruce Wayne/Batman, I believed that the back story with Wayne pére et maman and their enormous corporation and their mass-transit system was too pat, and I thought that the extended climax with police Sgt. Jim Gordon manning the Batmobile (and firing its missiles) as people riot thanks to drug-induced mass psychosis was both flabby and silly. In short, the endeavor had the stifling air of an overly portentous melodrama.

Last year, I picked up a used DVD of The Dark Knight, the second film in Nolan’s Batman trilogy. That movie had gotten terrific buzz when it was released in 2008, not least for Heath Ledger’s electrifying performance as the Joker. The Dark Knight Rises, the 2012 capstone in the film arc, was also well-received; I got around to seeing it in September after stumbling across a cheap new DVD in a store.

Despite some reservations — there’s some particularly disturbing violence in the middle leg of the trilogy, and all of the pictures suffer to one degree or another from Nolan’s tendency toward climactic bloat — I enjoyed the two sequels, and I decided this fall that it was time to revisit the first part of the sequence.

Late in November, I watched Batman Begins, and I have to say: My early impressions of the film were mostly wrong. Yes, the climax suffers from problems typical of Nolan’s cinematic crescendos. Indeed, Bale is limited; he often seems to be more pouty than he does tortured. And true, the back story is pieced together a bit too precisely.

Still, there’s plenty of good stuff here. Nolan stages thrilling fights and exhilarating escapes. Bale is an appealing presence, and he can be excellent at radiating intensity (even though there’s little hint that the character has experienced any real pain). And Nolan, fellow screenwriter David S. Goyer and production designer Nathan Crowley approach the endeavor with energy and style. They craft a Batman who seems contemporary, avoiding the unfortunate neo-gothic hokiness that Burton and the brilliant production designer Anton Furst sometimes imparted.

The diminutive bat is hardly the most fearsome creature, but Nolan and company provide a convincing explanation for why it looms so large in Bruce Wayne’s psyche. As a child, he was injured (and terrified) after falling into a sinkhole that connected to a bat-cave on the grounds of Wayne Manor.

Nolan and Goyer also connect this incident to the death of Wayne’s parents. In their telling, the family attends an opera (Mefistofele, according to the Internet Movie Database) when young Bruce is spooked by performers sporting sinister batlike costumes. When the trio duck out of the performance hall, they’re accosted by a twitchy thug named Joe Chill, who fatally shoots Dr. Wayne and his wife in a mugging gone wrong while Bruce stands by helplessly.

This version of Thomas Wayne (played by Linus Roache alongside Sara Stewart as Martha Wayne) is an industrialist, a philanthropist, a physician and, crucially, a pacifist. When 20-something Bruce’s lifelong friend–turned–assistant district attorney, Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), sees the handgun that he intended to use to assassinate a newly paroled Chill, she slaps his face and tells him that his father would have been ashamed.

Much of this exposition comes in flashbacks that are scattered across the first quarter or so of the movie. The contemporary on-screen action is Wayne’s martial-arts training, which he’s undertaken as part of his desire to right the world’s wrongs.

The wayward billionaire’s mentor is Henri Ducard (a rather wooden Liam Neeson, who unbeknownst to the world at large was gearing up for a career as an action star). Ducard is a member of the League of Shadows, a mysterious organization that seems to be headquartered atop a remote Himalayan mountain. The league claims that it has fought for justice over the centuries by clandestinely meddling in the affairs of corrupt cities such as Gotham.

In the exercise that’s meant to be the culmination of his training, Wayne ingests a hallucinogen that sets the stage for one final expository flashback before the young billionaire’s martial and moral fibers are put to the test. Wayne’s fighting skills are up to snuff, but his unwillingness to snuff out a criminal’s life sours the league on their would-be association.

“Your compassion is a weakness your enemies will not share,” a disappointed Ducard says. Replies Wayne, “That’s why it’s so important. It separates us from them.”

Ducard and his boss, Ra’s al Ghul (Nolan regular Ken Watanabe), part from Wayne on bad terms. But Bruce, having made his bones as a warrior, contacts Pennyworth (Michael Caine, another Nolan repertory player) and returns to Gotham seven years after he abruptly absconded from his hometown.

Here the familiar trappings of the Dark Knight begin to fall into place. Wayne equips himself with an arsenal (non-lethal, natural), armor and transportation. Some of the equipment is furnished by Thomas Wayne’s loyal old friend, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), who’s been exiled to a quiet branch of Wayne Enterprises where useful but expensive and unsold combat-ready prototype products have been warehoused. Other gear is procured by the equally resourceful Pennyworth.

To protect himself and his (few) loved ones, the hero constructs an alter ego that conceals his true face as completely as Batman’s cowl. That is, the protagonist slips into the role of “Bruce Wayne,” callow, carefree billionaire playboy.

The caped crusader covertly identifies two potential allies in his fight against Gotham’s moral rot: Gordon (Gary Oldman), a rare honest cop, and his own old friend, Rachel Dawes, a conscientious assistant prosecutor. Wayne also learns that a shadowy (ahem) cartel affiliated with mobster Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) is smuggling massive quantities of an unusual illegal drug into Gotham. This substance turns out to be a powerful hallucinogen (ahem!) that’s being dumped into the Gotham water system by an underworld crew working at Arkham Asylum, a grim, decrepit facility run by quirky psychiatrist Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy).

The story begins to move quickly as first Batman and then the idealistic Dawes tangle with Crane’s monstrous hooded alter ego, Scarecrow. The plot eventually comes full circle as the League of Shadows (surprise?) rejoins the picture in order to relitigate its differences with Gotham and the Wayne family.

Nolan and Goyer tie everything up in a neat bow. It doesn’t all work; for instance, Holmes is awfully flat in her key flashback scenes, although her work improves once Wayne returns to Gotham. (Maggie Gyllenhaal replaced Holmes in The Dark Knight.)

But the film provides plausible explanations for why Batman has outstanding hand-to-hand combat skills and unnerving stealth, and also for why the hero eschews guns and killing. It’s also an entertaining way to pass two hours and change.

Batman Begins is, above all, a slick and appealing movie. This viewer, at any rate, came to envy Wayne his strength and his drive. For all the awfulness that he and the other denizens of Gotham must endure, it sure seems like an entertaining place to visit — at least as a consumer of action-adventure films.

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