The Batman franchise receives an intensely serious, but not always successful, new look in Batman Begins. Director Christopher Nolan (the talented British director behind Memento and Insomnia) and screenwriter David S. Goyer take perhaps one step too far their effort to ground the iconic superhero in gritty reality, but still manage to breathe new life into an ailing series.
Mr. Nolan adds his effort to a growing list of comic book-sourced films that are proving the genre to be one of the most vital and provocative in the industry. The PG-13 rated film (for intense action violence, disturbing images, and some thematic elements) is too frightening for younger kids but will provide teenagers with slightly more to think about than the typical summer blockbuster.
The film opens with millionaire heir Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) imprisoned in some Far East jail, but during the course of the first hour goes all the way back to the very beginning-establishing young Bruce's fear of bats (he falls into a well full of them) and hate for crime (his parents are murdered by a petty thief as he looks on helplessly). Batman Begins isn't a prequel; it pretends that the four films that preceded it don't exist, starting over without the nihilism, kitschiness, or creepy sexuality of the previous films.
The pre-Batman Wayne is rescued by the mysterious Ducard (Liam Neeson), a representative of the equally mysterious Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). Ra's leads a group of shadowy Ninja-like operatives dedicated to battling crime worldwide. Wayne receives his martial-arts training under Ducard's tutelage, a mentor equally adept at knocking his pupil down and flinging Eastern-mystical nonsense at him.
Wayne and Ducard part ways eventually, and Wayne returns to his Gotham (played by an only modestly stylized Chicago) home. With the help of loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and Lucious Fox (Morgan Freeman), a tech wizard in the family business, Wayne works at establishing a new crime-fighting persona that will strike fear in the hearts of Gotham's criminal underworld.
Messrs. Nolan and Goyer are extremely faithful to the idea that Wayne's transformation into Batman can be explained through a rigorously logical progression. We see Wayne's discovery of the Bat Cave under his family estate, the evolution of his costume and the gadgets that accessorize his new wardrobe, his selection of the Hummer-like Batmobile ("Does it come in black?" he asks Lucious).
The approach shows both a refreshing commitment to the material and a respect for the intelligence of the audience-as opposed to the typical summer-fare assumption that the fast and furious easily distracts drooling audiences from problems with logic and continuity. The film cleverly succeeds in explaining the practical aspects of the
bat-man, gamely, as did the recent Spider-Man films, showing the hero sometimes unsuccessfully growing into his new role.
Batman Begins is somewhat less successful in explaining the psychology of Wayne/Batman. The basic foundation is there-Wayne channels the anger of his parents' death into his role as the Dark Knight. But to the film's credit, a lot more is going on. Mr. Nolan alludes to, but doesn't completely flesh out, a few key internal conflicts that define Batman; he sets up a potentially interesting contrast between Wayne and Ducard. But Batman Begins suffers from its ambitions; committed to explaining so much, there's little time to develop the wealth of interesting supporting characters. A top-notch cast that includes Gary Oldman, Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson, and Rutger Hauer is an embarrassment of riches of which the film is unable to take full advantage.
Despite some structural weaknesses, Batman Begins' solemn take on super-heroism is a welcome overhaul. The world found in comic books is offering filmmakers not just an escape from the constraints of physical realities, but a retreat from a world awash in moral relativism. The genre allows for bold contrasts between good and evil, right and wrong. There is an implicit understanding that heroes need a special sense of purpose, something outside of themselves, to exist. That sense of "calling" is available to men in masks and capes, even if it rarely shows up in films about the rest of us.