Dir. Christopher Nolan, US, 2005, 141 mins
Cast: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Katie Holmes, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Liam Neeson, Rutger Hauer, Tom Wilkinson & Gary Oldman
In 1989, Tim Burton’s gothic and surreal Batman captured the public imagination and went on to become the biggest film of that year. Its success became the benchmark for all future comic adaptations. Each successive Batman sequel grew more and more indulgent, focusing on the misguided philosophy that comic book equals nonsensical camp. Batman and its sequels: Batman Returns, Batman Forever and the ill fated Batman & Robin, bore little to no resemblance to the Dark Knight of the contemporary comics and graphic novels. Laden with camp theatrics, ridiculously over-choreographed fight scenes and some seriously wooden performances, the films descended into self parody, which sealed the series fate by the time Batman & Robin’s end credits rolled.
In the period since then, many different visions of Batman have been mooted as possible franchise re-starters. Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream) worked on a first draft screenplay of Year One, co-written with Sin City helmer Frank Miller (based on his graphic novel). Year One completely re-invented Batman, having Bruce Wayne as a homeless man instead of billionaire playboy and re-making Alfred, Wayne’s butler, as a black mechanic named ‘Big Al’.
Another proposed project was Wolfgang (Das Boot) Petersen’s Batman vs. Superman which would’ve revived two Warner Bros. franchises at once, with Jude Law proposed as the Man of Steel and Colin Farrell as the eponymous Dark Knight.
As fate would have it, Memento writer/director, the London-born Christopher Nolan, had just finished his re-working of Erik Skjoldbjærg’s Insomnia with Al Pacino. Having proven himself as a storyteller of consummate intelligence and of being more than capable of helming a major studio film, Nolan was a solid choice to helm Warner Bros. favoured screenplay Batman Begins. An entirely new effort by screenwriter David S. Goyer, it is certainly not as extreme a ‘restart’ as Year One promised to be nevertheless it is no doubt hoped it will reintroduce the world to a darker, more visceral winged avenger and reinvigorate the franchise accordingly.
In order to accomplish this, Nolan and Goyer have taken Batman back to his genesis.
Nolan, who admits to knowing very little about comic book lore, worked on Goyer’s first draft screenplay once the screenwriter left to helm his directorial debut Blade: Trinity. Nolan’s lack of comic knowledge appears to have been a major advantage.
With Batman Begins, the pair has stripped back the surrealism, the camp and the cartoon characterisations. This Batman is believable, human and as such, riddled with fear and anger. As a theme, fear runs through this film like a black vein: fear drives Wayne and holds him prisoner, fear is used as a weapon by several different characters (including Batman) and only in facing his fear does Bruce Wayne hope to find an end to his torment.
The story opens with Bruce Wayne (Bale) held prisoner in a Bhutanese prison, fighting with inmates and fighting with himself. He’s a wanderer, cut adrift from the world when he could find no way to deal with the murder of his parents when he was a child. Wayne has travelled to the ends of the earth to search for a way to resolve the conflict within him. A mysterious stranger named Henri Ducard (Neeson) appears at the prison, offering help and guidance to Wayne and the means to fight the injustice that he sees in the world. Ducard arranges Wayne’s release.
Once free, Wayne begins the long ascent to the mountaintop temple of the ‘League of Shadows’, a mysterious ninja sect. There, Wayne is trained by Henri Ducard and the sect’s mysterious leader, Ra’s al Ghul (Watanabe). Over time, Wayne masters the skills that will enable him to become an unstoppable fighter of crime, injustice and evil. On his eventual return to Gotham, Wayne finds the city in the grip of crime and corruption. Using Ducard’s advice, Wayne chooses a symbol in order to become something ‘more than a man’, an emblem of something far greater, in order to create fear in the hearts of evildoers. With the help of his trusted butler Alfred (Caine), Wayne Enterprises and techno-wiz Lucius Fox (Freeman), Bruce Wayne assembles an arsenal of prototype weapons and gadgets. Sophisticated military body-armour, grappling hook guns, a utility belt of defensive weaponry and most notably ‘The Tumbler’, a vehicle designed for bridge building, which looks like a hybrid between a monster truck and a stealth fighter. The vehicle’s destructive power is awesome to behold as it ploughs through police cars and walls in many of the films high-octane action sequences.
After collaring an assortment of corrupt officials and criminal goons, Batman soon gains the trust of honest cop Jim Gordon (Oldman, in a wonderfully understated role) and Assistant D.A (and Bruce Wayne’s childhood sweetheart) Rachel Dawes (Holmes). Batman sets about ridding Gotham of some of its more notorious criminals such as Carmine Falcone (Wilkinson, in a fine turn) and a particularly nasty psychiatrist, Dr Jonathan Crane (Murphy) a.k.a. The Scarecrow, whose most deadly weapon is fear itself.
Every facet that we have come to know of the Batman story has been re-evaluated and approached from an angle of realism and believability. Everything is explained: why Wayne chooses to embody a Bat, why he chooses the suit, how he discovers the Bat cave and even why the Bat suit has ears. Bruce Wayne/ Batman’s motives are treated with authenticity, the action is treated with realism (as well as being refreshingly devoid of CGI) and as a coherent whole, the film is simply the best combination of intelligent storytelling and summer blockbuster fare that has been seen in a multiplex in a long, long time.
As Bruce Wayne/Batman, Bale is simply magnificent. He’s an unusually intense actor and here his talents are put to use well. His Bruce Wayne is essentially three people: Bruce Wayne the intensely private and introspective loner, Bruce Wayne the foppish womanising playboy and Batman, the dark and quite frankly scary creation that’s hell-bent on dishing out justice and traversing the line between vigilante and responsible citizen.
It’s a testament to Bale’s performance that an hour of screen time passes before we see Batman yet the film could just as easily hold an audience enthralled with the story of Wayne and his tortured search for peace. Once the Dark Knight makes his first excursion into Gotham’s underbelly, he is creepy, malevolent and very scary.
The rest of the cast perform their roles without a bum note between them: Neeson, Watanabe (in his small but pivotal role), Freeman, Hauer, Wilkinson, Oldman, Murphy and Caine; all turn in uniformly fine performances. It’s only Holmes, whose youth undermines the authority inherent in her role, that threatens to derail the film but Nolan’s keen eye for performance and story assures that the film holds together regardless.
The editing is spare and ruthless with the film rattling along at a pace that never lets the audience get bored or complacent and long-time Nolan collaborator Nathan Crowley’s production design is superb, mixing hyper-real and existing cityscapes to create Gotham’s stunning skyline. In Batman Begins, a truly gifted filmmaker has realised a comic book adaptation that transcends the comic book-to-film genre to become truly great storytelling and the first REAL Batman film.
Batman Begins is released on region 2 on 21st October cost £22.99. The 2-Disc Deluxe edition includes:
- Batman: The Journey Begins: Creative Concepts, Story Development and Casting
- Shaping Mind and Body: Fighting Style
- Gotham City Rises: Production Design
- Cape and Cowl: The New Batsuit
- Batman - The Tumbler: The New Batmobile
- Path to Discovery: Filming in Iceland
- Saving Gotham City: The Monorail Chase Sequence
- Genesis of the Bat: Batman Incarnations from the Mid-1980s to the Present
- Confidential Files Character/Weaponry Gallery
- Still Gallery of Design Ideas Developed to Market the Movie
- DVD-Rom* Weblink