It took until 2005 for Batman to return to the big screen. From the start, we knew this was going to be a more serious take on the character than the previous films. They were starting over and taking their inspiration from Batman: Year One. Warner Brothers brought in Christopher Nolan (director of Following and Memento) to craft a Batman for the modern movie age. They started to announce their cast and people started to get excited. Christian Bale. Gary Oldman. Liam Neeson. Literally the most controversial casting choice was Katie Holmes…and that was more after the film was released.
Batman Begins is a refreshing take on the character. It followed closely the stories such as Year One. And instead of going with villains we had already seen, they opted for two that had not been used in film before. Ra’s Al Ghul was a longstanding comic book Bat Nemesis who ruled over the elite league of assassins.
Young Bruce Wayne struggles to come to terms with the death of his parents at the hands of low level thug Joe Chill. He plots to kill Chill, but is convinced by Rachel Dawes (Holmes) to not give into the revenge. So Bruce drops off the grid and wanders the planet getting into scrapes and apparently lots of prisons…until he meet Ducard, the mysterious emissary to Ra’s Al Ghul. After training with the league of assassins, Bruce discovers that the League has plans to erase Gotham off the map, believing it is beyond saving.
When Bruce returns to Gotham, he decides that he needs to use his training to combat the decay of the mob and other criminal activity. The film also focuses on Detective Jim Gordon and his attempts to deal with corruption inside and outside his force. As Batman, Bruce Wayne realizes he has an ally. Of course, the League of Assassins has no intention of giving up their plan.
Nolan was not known for being an action film director prior to this, and it shows. Sometimes things are to tightly framed making the action hard to follow. There are great action sequences, but there are times where they are not as easy to follow.
The story is not hard to follow, and unlike previous Batman films, the multiple villains does not ruin the pacing. And how the villains are tied together makes sense. Nolan and his time understand how to intertwine the elements of a tale.
The film is also nearly perfectly cast. Bale sells the notion of a man with a singular purpose. Michael Caine’s Alfred is a new and unique take on the character in film and television. He is a bit rougher and has a military background. You can see he was hired as much for his strength as his support. He can be tough, wise and gentle when it is called for.
And then there is Gary Oldman’s Detective Gordon. He is struggling to try and keep things together, but not out of incompetence, but simply because Gotham is falling apart and the seems, and at times, he seems alone in trying to stem the tide. It is great to see the movies finally elevate his presence. He is a far more important to the Bat Mythos than Burton or Schumacher ever seemed to realize.
As Ducard, Neeson brings an self righteous arrogance that sees him in a role of dangerous judge and jury. Lucius Fox is played by Morgan Freeman in one of those Freeman roles where he is wise and underestimated. Cillian Murphy’s psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Crane is creepy, even before he dons his Scarecrow mask. Holmes is the weakest link. It is not that she is terrible, but she is out of her depth with the rest of the cast.
Gotham is no longer a hyper stylized city with crazy architecture. Instead, it is a rundown city, with a recognizable look that could be the streets of a large metropolis. It is very effective.
Batman Begin’s is a solid start to a new series of films. It is the path I wish Bryan Singer had followed with Superman. We are introduced to an exciting world with much potential (as hinted in the final moments of the film).