Batman Begins (2005)

First published by Movie Gazette

Since his first appearance in 1939, ‘The Bat-Man’, masked vigilante over the streets of Gotham City, has proved to be an enduring favourite of the comic book superheroes, due to his darkness, his mortality and, most importantly of all, the adaptability of his myth to changing times. On the big screen he has come in various guises – Batman (1966), the feature-length outing for Adam West and Burt Ward’s hilariously corny television series, is to my mind one of the funniest films ever made, but its high camp high-jinks are very different from DC Comics’ brooding original. Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) certainly nailed the legend’s noirish, gothic look, but was less assured in its handling of tone – and while it is outdone by its follow-up Batman Returns (1992), further sequels brought the predictable diminishing returns. Now, however, Christopher (Memento) Nolan’s Batman Begins wipes the slate clean, taking viewers right back (again) to the caped crusader’s origins – and in this far more earnest adventure, the bat has well and truly abandoned camp and headed into more epic territories.

Haunted by anger and guilt after witnessing his parents gunned down in cold blood, and frustrated in his desire to kill the man who did it, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has turned his back on Gotham City and his father’s legacy. Traveling incognito amidst the world’s thieves and murderers in an attempt to understand the criminal mind, Wayne ends up in Bhutan, where he is recruited and trained in fighting and stealth techniques by Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) on behalf of Ra’s al Ghul, leader of the secretive ‘League of Shadows’. Rejecting the group’s merciless brand of vigilantism, Wayne returns to Gotham, where the judiciary and constabulary are corrupt, and crime boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) now operates with impunity. Determined to put his new skills to good use, Wayne becomes the masked crimefighter Batman. Aided directly by his trusted family butler Alfred (Michael Caine), and less directly by the head of Wayne Enterprises’ Applied Sciences division, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), by old childhood friend turned Assistant DA Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), and by honest cop Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), Wayne soon uncovers a far more catastrophic threat to the city than Falcone and his thugs. In a plot involving Arkham Asylum’s chief psychiatrist Dr Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), his mysterious backers and a panic-inducing hallucinogen, Gotham is about to be visited by some very rough justice.

Fans of the Dark Knight’s on-screen iconography will not be disappointed by this new film, which traces Batman’s customised suit, car, utility belt, weapons and secret cave right back to their very beginnings, while giving them a more functional, more rationalised, feel. While still at heart a dark fantasy, this adventure is more grittily realistic than Batman’s previous outings, with stunts and effects that are mostly physical rather than computer generated. The fights are close and hard, although in perhaps the most visually striking sequence Batman is reduced to a black blur in the midst of a crowd of toppling criminals. The ever excellent Christian Bale manages to make Wayne seem a real, complex individual, while giving Batman a formidable physical presence – the very opposite of Bale’s previous, skeletal performance in The Machinist (2004). He is well supported by an excellent (and stellar) cast – most notably Michael Caine seemingly born to be Alfred, Gary Oldman for once getting to play the nice guy, Cillian Murphy creepily nerdy, and Liam Neeson bringing a clever twist to his previous ‘guru knight’ rôles in The Phantom Menace (1999) and Kingdom of Heaven (2005).

Batman Begins is emphatically concerned with retributive justice and the politics of fear – themes which have an inescapable geopolitical resonance in a post-9/11 context. Yet after the disappointingly simplistic takes on the dynamics of revenge offered by recent films like The Punisher (2004) and Man on Fire (2004), it is gratifying to see that Nolan’s film depicts the morality of justice in a manner that is anything but cartoonish. As Wayne struggles to do what is right, he is informed as much by the values of the judicial system, of law enforcement and of patriarchal philanthropy (values embodied respectively by Rachel, Gordon and, through Alfred, Wayne’s own father) as he is by anger, fear and a desire for vengeance (an ideology represented by the fascistic ‘League’) – and so the film’s dialogue, scripted by David S. (Dark City) Goyer, weaves an ongoing, highly nuanced argument about crime, punishment, and the uses and and abuses of terror. It is inevitable that Wayne become an extra-judicial vigilante – for that is the very core of his legend – but the film ends not on a celebratory note, but rather with dark mutterings about ‘escalation’, and a suggestion (fulfilled by the films to which this stands as a prequel) that the beginnings of Batman also mark the beginnings of a new, more dangerous sort of criminal, modeled on Batman’s own underground methods. From this it is not difficult to unmask a multi-faceted commentary on America’s current flouting of international law in its War on Terror, and a subtle warning about what the consequences may be. Such serious and intelligent engagement with the issues that darken our own times make Batman Begins more than merely an entertaining blockbuster about a man in a cape.

Summary: In his best, and darkest, outing to date, the masked avenger’s personal ‘issues’ reflect those of the world in the wake of 9/11.

Anton Bitel