Directed By: Christopher Nolan
Written By: David S Goyer
Produced By: Emma Thomas, Larry J Franco, Charles Roven
Starring: Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, Michael Caine, Katie Holmes, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman
Edited By: Lee Smith
Music By: Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard
Distributed By: Warner Bros. Pictures
Budget: $150 million
Runtime: 140 minutes
There’s something about origin stories that makes people cringe. An origin film has to start with a non-hero and end with the hero recognizing his purpose in life. Batman Begins does this and so much more. The great thing about Christopher Nolan’s first foray into the superhero genre, especially when watching it now, on the eve of The Dark Knight Rises, is that it both establishes the character of Bruce Wayne, good and bad, while also establishing themes that will continue in both of its sequels. Batman Begins is a solid film on its own with a great cast, adventure, and stunning visuals, and it comes with just enough threads to make it an equally strong start to a trilogy.
Audience’s hesitation to origin tales is not a great mystery, I think: whereas another villain provides another story to tell an audience, once you see a hero created once, you’ve seen it. This is oversimplified, but credible. Spider-Man can only be bitten so many times before you’re tired of it, and from there you have to watch the hero realize his true potential, go through a dark spot, and then overcome the antagonist and reach the revelation of a greater sense of purpose in life. In a world where films, especially in the superhero genre, are seen as formulaic, the obligatory first film origin tale seems to be an even stronger formula.
Batman is different in that, while his story is well known, the Batman films never presented a firm origin story. Tim Burton’s original Batman started with our hero established as Gotham’s protector. While that film and its predecessors were filled with flashbacks to make audiences well aware of the murder of Bruce’s parents, Nolan decided to spend more time looking at Bruce Wayne’s past both as a child and famous young playboy before he became a famous superhero. Batman Begins not only shows us a young Bruce Wayne grief stricken over a murder he thinks to have caused but also an older but still oh so young and immature Bruce continuing to agonize over his guilt to the point of attempted murder himself. This path of self-destruction to the man that is Bruce Wayne results in him being jailed and placed into the hands of the League of Shadows and Ra’s Al-Ghul.
Batman’s biggest appeal, his lack of supernatural abilities beyond an inflated wallet, is also a weakness in origin story. How do you explain a playboy becoming a martial arts expert? Comics have multiple answers to this, but Nolan decides to explain it with the same plot device he uses to both provide Begins‘ antagonist as well as plant the seeds of what seems to be the third film’s overarching crutch – the horrors of Gotham and individuals’ desires to save or destroy it. The League of Shadows trains Bruce Wayne and its mission to destroy Gotham creates Batman. The League of Shadows both saves Bruce Wayne from his path of destruction while starting an entirely new one. Bruce will create Batman to clean up Gotham, but The Dark Knight will show us how consuming a job that can become.
Liam Neeson is always awesome and Batman Begins is no different. We also get to see the beginnings of Oldman, Freeman, and Caine playing supporting yet integral characters to Bruce Wayne. Each acts as a father figure to the lost and confused billionaire and each shines in his role throughout the trilogy. Katie Holmes is another story. I’m not a fan of her acting in most of what I have seen her in, but having seen The Dark Knight I posit with certainty that Maggie Gyllenhall is better in the role and the recasting of Rachel was a good choice.
We will come back to themes, but as a story Batman Begins also succeeds. It’s an origin story in three acts, but that’s what is so great about it. I admire Nolan’s work because I think he makes films that are at their core very American yet make them breathtaking to watch. I had forgotten about the Tumbler chase sequence as Batman races back to give Rachel the antitoxin and it was incredibly exciting. The monorail action sequence is equally action-packed and intense. One of the great parts of Batman Begins is that Nolan never lets the supporting characters fall by the wayside. Sergeant Gordon plays a major role in Ra’s’ defeat, Alfred saves Bruce from Wayne Manor’s collapse, and Fox creates the antitoxin cure to Crane’s fear gas.
Batman Begins is about Bruce Wayne discovering he can help Gotham through more ways than charitable donations (for example, destroying rooftops and what is most likely train system worth millions – notice the monorail seems to no longer exist in The Dark Knight). Batman Begins is also about the power of fear. Literally, by way of Crane and the League’s fear toxin, but the film also foreshadows elements both in The Dark Knight and elements that seem to soon appear in The Dark Knight Rises. Crane literally created fear. The Joker caused fear through chaos, and it seems Bane will create fear through total collapse of infrastructure. Ra’s mentions the League tried a new approach to destroying Gotham – that of economics, but it was foiled by Bruce’s parents. Bane looks to try again by attacking Gotham’s financial infrastructure.
Gotham is as much a character in Nolan’s Batman films as the humans, and it is one of the notably differences in Begins versus its sequels. There are still plenty of beautiful establishing city shots but with them comes several extreme wides of Gotham and Arkham within the Narrows. It’s vast and expansive through a combination of CGI and miniatures, but it is also more detached. Nolan took us closer to Gotham in The Dark Knight by using full cityscapes of Chicago and giving Gotham true form. Begins‘ Gotham looks more like a movie city while Gotham becomes a true metropolis in the sequel.
Batman Begins is fun. It is more of a classic “superhero” film than its successors but you can also see Nolan’s hands at work and the beginnings of what will be taken to even greater length in The Dark Knight and Rises. It is not only the origin of Batman but the origin of an epic, a legend that ends July 20. Batman Begins is not better than The Dark Knight but it is also a different kind of film. Nolan’s style of storytelling evolved much during The Prestige, The Dark Knight, and Inception and it makes me all the more excited to see where he will take us in the finale. As the Spider-Man marketing put it, every great story has a great beginning, and Batman Begins is a great beginning to a greater than great story.