Batman Begins marks DC and Warner’s attempt to claw back their Batman franchise from the damage unleashed by Joel Schumacher. After the massive critical and commercial success of Tim Burton’s films (and Schumacher’s partially successful Batman Forever), Schumacher turned the series into a laughing stock with his ultra-camp mega-turkey Batman & Robin. Christopher Nolan’s film takes Bob Kane’s creation back to his origins and explores the reasons why a normal man would don a rubber suit and wreck havoc on the criminals of Gotham City.
Nolan doesn’t mess with the accepted facts of Batman’s origins – the young heir to the Wayne empire trapped in a cave of bats as a young boy, inspiring a deep-rooted fear of the critters, his life changed forever when his parents are gunned down by a mugger in front of him, Bruce’s subsequent disappearance and return as the haunted, vengeful Batman. What is new is the process that Wayne undergoes to becomes Batman – remember there are no super powers here – which consists of months of punishing training in the mountainous Far East by a sinister fellow known as Ra's Al Ghu (Ken Watanabe) and his equally sinister assistant Ducard (Liam Neeson). Bruce (Christian Bale) is taught to confront his fears and turn them into a weapon, but when he discovers that Ra's Al Ghu and his gang of ninjas (known as the League of Shadows) are in fact up to no good, he makes his escape and heads back to Gotham to take on the city’s criminals.
As with many first films in a superhero franchise, it takes a loooong time to get our hero into his costume. The early training scenes are intriguing if nothing particularly new – Liam Neeson strides around throwing out nuggets of Eastern pop-philosophy, while Nolan constructs Rocky-esque montages of Bale pumping iron and learning to fence – but the film really comes to life when Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham and with the help of his butler Alfred (Michael Caine) sets the wheels in motions for the birth of Batman. Wayne uses his wealth and the military facilities of his father’s company to construct an armoured suit, electrically-powered cape, tank-like Batcar and all sorts of clever gizmos; there are initial design faults with the mask meaning that Batman’s first, not entirely successful first foray into the night is made wearing a balaclava.
Nolan and co-writer David Goyer throw a large cast of characters into the mix – there’s Bat-regulars Alfred and Chief Gordon (a somnambulistic Gary Oldman), foxy do-gooder lawyer and Bruce’s childhood pal Rachel (Katie Holmes), Italian-American mobster Falcone (a rather-too-cuddly Tom Wilkinson), techno-expert Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), corporate hardman and now-boss of Wayne Enterprises Richard Earle (Rutger Hauer) and Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), who runs Arkham Asylum and also possess a secret identity (the evil Scarecrow). All of which add up to a series of rather over-stuffed plotlines that only just about come together by the end, when Ra's Al Ghu makes a reappearance and begins about a dastardly – if rather hackneyed – plan to destroy Gotham.
Nolan isn’t nearly as successful in balancing out the action and the drama as Burton or Spider-man auteur Sam Raimi, and the plot lurches along awkwardly, with little of the deft touch that the director brought to his previous thrillers Memento and Insomnia. Everything is very serious – Nolan certainly captures the darkness of the story, and Bale is convincing as a tormented man who walks a fine line between hero and dangerous vigilante. But it lacks any real insight into the character, opting instead for ponderous dialogue about man being defined by his deeds rather than his words. There’s little sense of fun – Michael Caine gets a few funny lines, but everything else is just so po-faced. The action is competently handled, but there’s just not enough variety... a lot of car chasing and punch-ups, but nothing nearly as thrilling as Spidey’s confrontations with Doctor Octopus in Raimi’s Spider-man 2.
Nevertheless, there is stuff to relish here. CGI technology means that Gotham City is realised on scale previously unimaginable, with incredible sweeping cityscapes and a stunning combination of 1940s Gothic and 21st Century sleek. The villains aren’t nearly as memorable as, say, Jack Nicholson’s Joker or Danny De Vito’s Penguin, but for once Batman isn’t over-shadowed by his evil co-stars, and Cillian Murphy has great fun as the slimy Dr Crane – his alter ego, Scarecrow, in particular provides some terrifically creepy moments as he sprays his victims with a hallucinogenic drug that invokes their deepest fears. And there is genuinely striking imagery – Batman diving from the roofs of the city or standing in a whirlwind of frenzied bats, a demonic Batman brought on by Scarecrow’s gas, Wilkinson tied to a giant spotlight in a twisted version of the famous bat-signal.
What ultimately grounds this bat is that it doesn’t bring anything particularly new to the franchise. One wonders what Darren Aronofsky – the director originally scheduled to helm the fifth film – might have done with the series, although I suspect the studio and budget would have neutered any radical vision he might have had. And at 140 minutes it really feels like a long, gloomy trek – I really can’t see many kids sitting through without getting restless for the Technicolor thrills on offer elsewhere this summer.
British director specialising in dark thrillers. Made an impressive debut with the low-budget Following, but it was the time-twisting noir Memento that brought him to Hollywood's attention. 2002's Al Pacino-starrer Insomnia was a remake of a Norwegian thriller, while Batman Begins was one of 2005's biggest summer movies. The hits kept coming with magician tale The Prestige, and Batman sequel The Dark Knight was the most successful movie of Nolan's career, which he followed with ambitious sci-fi Inception and the final entry of his Batman trilogy The Dark Knight Rises. He then attempted to go as far as he could with sci-fi epic Interstellar, another huge success at the box office, which was followed by his World War II blockbuster Dunkirk.