I could spend days analysing each scene in Batman Begins, explaining why the film constitutes a perfect origin story for the Dark Knight. After the gothic excesses of Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) and the, uh, other excesses of Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever (1995) and Batman and Robin (1997), director Christopher Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer have found at last an angle that resonates with wide audiences, critics, and diehard comics fans alike. Not surprisingly, it’s the one interpretation that actually focuses on Batman.
Actually, I should specify that Batman Begins focuses on Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), the man responsible for the legend. I find it curious this is the first Batman flick to depict the death of his parents, which, of course, serves as catalyst for his crusade. I love the way Linus Roache portrays Thomas Wayne, his emphasis on the character’s warm confidence and unabashed idealism. We get the sense that, were his father alive today, young Master Wayne might still have felt a heavy burden living up to such high expectations, and the fact he never got to discover his namesake’s imperfections proves as crucial to the Batman persona as his intense grief.
Christian Bale once described the character as a troubled man finding good use for bad impulses. I knew the gifted thespian was destined for this role ever since Mary Harron’s American Psycho in 2000. Consider the scene in which Bruce acts inebriated to chase away his party guests and save their lives. Bale has to play a nasty drunk testing his limits, who’s really a lonely socialite lashing out at the world, who’s really a strong hero outsmarting his opponents, who’s really a wounded soul torn about soiling his family’s legacy. Amazingly, each layer comes across in his performance.
In fact, save for Katie Holmes, who isn’t bad so much as distractingly outclassed, I find the whole cast just about knocks it out of the ballpark. I especially like Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, an invaluable ally who made his comic book debut in 1979, yet never appeared on the big screen until now (draw your own conclusions about Hollywood’s racial politics). I dig as well Michael Caine’s rendition of Alfred, our hero’s trusted butler and makeshift father figure, whose every intonation denotes heartfelt love for his troubled charge. I got teary-eyed on a couple of occasions.
As the title hints with its awkward verb choice, Batman Begins doesn’t pertain to a single person but to an institution of sorts. When the soon-to-be Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) asks whether his mysterious benefactor is on his own, the latter answers, “Now we’re two,” emphasising the notion that Batman functions more as a brand than a traditional super-hero. After all, Bruce was groomed for leadership and corporate manoeuvres, not ass-kicking ninja flips. Mind you, he does some of those too, or so I presume from the successive close-ups of legs, arms, and fists as the filmmakers try to work around the famously clunky Bat Suit.
The good news is Batman doesn’t don his mask and cape until the hour mark, when the super-villain plot finally kicks in and we learn of the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), a corrupt psychologist scheming to poison Gotham’s water supplies with a fear-inducing hallucinogen. I mention this without reproach, seeing as Bruce’s early encounter with the League of Shadows in Asia dovetails beautifully into the main intrigue. Besides, I love the urgency of his scenes with Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), how they capture the hero’s unique state of mind. The same can be said of Hans Zimmer’s score, which largely comprises marches, of course.
No, my real qualm pertains to a single reply at the end of the climactic battle, in which Batman plays semantics with his otherwise unflappable morals. The one-liner is meant to give the character a classic bad-ass moment, but the word play pales in comparison to the multiple call-backs in which mundane lessons are given deeper significance: “It’s not who I am underneath but what I do that defines me.” More to the point, its implications severely undermine the film’s message about heroism and compassion. As I intimated at the beginning of this review, Batman Begins is simply too sophisticated for the standard action tropes of yesteryears.