Batman Begins (2005) is the seventh live-action film to take on the comic-book legend and the first to usher it into the kingdom of movie myth. Originally envisioned by creator Bob Kane in 1939, Batman was a dark character who walked the tightrope between hero and vigilante. That was his image until the 1960s when the campy TV series starring Adam West transformed the character into a silly-but-likable good guy in gray spandex.
In the 80s, Tim Burton re-invented Batman for a great surreal feature, but the movie ended up focusing more on The Joker, leaving the titular hero to lick his wounds as a supporting character. By the time the Batman series reached its third movie, it had fallen back to the campy level of its TV predecessor. By the 1997 arrival of Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin, fans had had enough. Batman looked dead, at least until something new would come along.
With Batman Begins, director Christopher Nolan has gone back to basics, jettisoning both the silliness of the TV incarnation and the gothic and fetishist elements of the ’90s version. This is a hard-core, down-and-gritty origin story – the tale of, as one might reasonably expect, how Batman begins.
Directed by Christopher Nolan from a script by David Goyer and Charles Roven, Batman Begins features Christian Bale in the lead role as Batman and his billionaire dual identity, Bruce Wayne. The stellar supporting cast includes Liam Neeson as Ducard, Michael Caine as Alfred, Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, Gary Oldman as Lt. James Gordon, Ken Watanabe as Ra’s Al Ghul, Tom Wilkinson as Carmine Falcone, Rutger Hauer as Richard Earle, Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes and Cillian Murphy as Dr. Jonathan Crane and The Scarecrow.
Until then, Mr. Bale had cut his teeth working with Steven Spielberg on “Empire of the Sun” almost two decades earlier and was probably best known for his scarily plausible performance in “American Psycho,” an intellectual horror movie that now seems like a prelude to this one: think American Psycho redux, this time in tights.
The film doesn’t waste any time getting into the story, as young Bruce Wayne watches his parents die in a mugging, resulting in one of the best superhero stories ever told. Bale plays the billionaire down-and-out Bruce Wayne is traumatized since the murder of his parents, who are recruited by The League Of Shadows, ninja assassins devoted to eradicating society’s ills. Rejecting their methods, he returns to Gotham and embarks on a one-man war against crime.
Batman Begins opens directly into a red sky teeming with bats off in the distance, briefly forming into a vague Batman logo. We get to know a young (9 years or so) Bruce Wayne playing on the grounds of Wayne Manor with a young girl, chasing each other. Bruce falls into the opening that leads to the huge underground cavern under the property and the girl (Rachel, who appears in the movie later) runs off to alert his father, who rescues Bruce from the bottom of the well.
We are taken abruptly to somewhere in Asia where Bruce, now in his late 20’s seems to be in some sort of prison. He takes on half a dozen assailants with no problem whatsoever, apparently already having studied and mastered some form of martial arts. He is also already very strong as exemplified in the fight. Henri Ducard finds Bruce in prison and gives him some insight into how to direct the guilt and anger that have been driving him since childhood.
Bruce must make his way to a Himalayan mountaintop enclave of Ra’s Al Ghul where he is trained to overcome his fears, learn the battle and stealth skills of Ninjas, and supposedly to join their league which (in their minds) has fought injustice in the world for centuries. All goes well until Bruce is asked to cross a moral line and he refuses.
The Batman Begins montage involves Bale and action film superstar Liam Neeson as Ducard (the Leader of the League of Shadows). The scene revolves around Bruce’s guilt over his parent’s death, more specifically focusing on overcoming fear. As Ducard says, “to conquer fear, you must become fear.” Featured in a wintery, mountainous landscape, Ducard teaches Bruce the importance of invisibility and agility as well as the use of theatricality and deception (with some slight foreshadowing as well). The entire scene plays out on screen in about four minutes, but it brings Bruce’s character to where we need him to be, and leaves him with “the will to act.”
Bale and the rest of the cast seemed perfectly suited to their parts. Mr. Bale makes a superbly menacing avenger. He really makes it believable that criminals would be terrified of ever running into Batman. What he also does conveys effortlessly is Bruce Wayne’s air of casual entitlement, necessary aristocratic hauteur of a billionaire playboy.
Liam Neeson’s Ducard is smartly played, the man who gives Wayne’s intense inner turmoil a focus and channeling for his raw strength. Neeson is commanding in the role of Wayne’s mentor, a sort of harsh version of Wayne’s own father. Ducard and Wayne share a connection that will become quite poignant in the course of the story.
Christopher Nolan took a dead franchise and managed to reignite the flame with this greatly cinematic and entertaining down-and-gritty more realistic superhero film for a new audience.