By 2005, Batman was cinematically dead after the critical and box office failure of Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin, a movie that was so bad that the Dark Knight wasn’t on the big screen for eight years. During this period, there had been several proposals of another Batman movie, such as Darren Aronofsky’s Batman: Year One and a live-action adaptation of Batman Beyond. The person who ended up revitalizing the franchise is Christopher Nolan, who was absolutely a left-field choice in directing the Caped Crusader.
Having directed only three features, most notably 2000’s Memento, Nolan had talked about his interest in Batman, even if he was by no means a comic book expert. Through his collaboration with co-writer David S. Goyer – someone who is no stranger into writing comic book adaptations – Nolan’s approach of rebooting Batman was by telling his origin story in a grounded reality. Prior to Batman Begins, the gold standard of doing a superhero origin story on film was Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman, which became a major influence on subsequent movies like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man.
Nowadays, we’re pretty much done with origin stories. The reason why Batman Begins is so effective is that it delves into how Bruce Wayne turns from a frightened boy who witnessed his parents’ death to a symbol of fear against those who prey on the fearful. The film spends its first hour on just Bruce, establishing his inner turmoil with his city ruled by the criminals and the corrupt. It then moves to his journey across the world where he succeeds at physical and psychological perfection. Not since Mask of the Phantasm, has any other movie made Bruce Wayne a compelling figure and doesn’t get lost in the scene-stealing antics of the villains.
By this point, everybody has their own Batman, whether it is Michael Keaton, Ben Affleck or even George Clooney. Based on what might still be his finest performance in American Psycho, Nolan cast Christian Bale in the eponymous role. There are elements of Patrick Bateman in his performance as both Bruce Wayne and Batman that partially evokes Frank Miller’s depiction of the character; he’s a psycho head case. When he dons the cape and cowl, Bale speaks with the growly voice, which to this day has divided audiences, even if the voice works in particular throughout The Dark Knight Trilogy; in this film’s case, his interrogation with the corrupt cop Flass.
Like I said before, you won’t expect Christopher Nolan to pop in your local comic book store and one can argue that he is somewhat above the source material. But unlike Ang Lee’s Hulk – a truly unusual arthouse spin on the green angry giant – Nolan, along with Goyer, acknowledge the comics. They have stated that Year One by Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli was a major influence from its depiction of Gotham as a corrupted city to the characterization of James Gordon, perfectly played by Gary Oldman. No doubt that Nolan takes liberties, such as the lack of Zorro, a not-so-immortal Ra’s al Ghul and Batman not really being the World’s Greatest Detective. Depending on which director tackles the Bat and his world, you would see some aspects of what makes the character tick, but never the whole thing; proving that everyone has their own take on Batman.
When it comes to influences, Nolan is a student of cinema and that shows through all three of his Bat-films. Going back to Donner’s Superman, one of the epic cues that Nolan recaptures here is the ensemble cast, including actors of such thespian talent from Michael Caine (Alfred), Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox), Liam Neeson (Ra’s al Ghul) and the late Rutger Hauer (William Earle). If there is one weak link in the cast, Katie Holmes suffers the most with Rachel Dawes, a frankly nothing role that continues the recurring problems in Batman movies: poorly-written romances.
In terms of the rogues gallery, instead of just bringing in the Joker in the debut film of a new cinematic Batman (that will come later), we get Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow, who injects some horror that we have not seen before in previous installments. Liam Neeson’s Ra’s al Ghul delivers one of the best plot twists in recent blockbuster history.
Given his filmography at that point, Nolan applies his arthouse sensibilities to what is a summer blockbuster. This includes nonlinear storytelling to the use of editing as a way to represent Bruce Wayne’s psychological state. No doubt this film is dark, showing an emotional intensity that many blockbusters barely explore. Nolan also depicts Batman as a figure of horror with a number of action sequences told through the criminals’ perspective. Dark as they can be, Nolan’s trilogy was not humor-free and actually delivers the many emotions that you do want in a blockbuster. Compared to the over-reliance of CGI in today’s superhero movies, Nolan uses natural settings, and real filming locations over conventional studio work, such as Gotham City being a contemporary mixture of Chicago and Blade Runner.
Batman Begins is not perfect, with some of the fight sequences being too cutty, as well as an explosive third act that involves the silly microwave emitter as the villain’s plot. This was the first live-action Batman movie that was both entertaining and intelligent, whilst reigniting my love for the character that had been lost for quite some time. Released in June 2005, it was a moderate box office success and received highly positive reviews, whilst leaving an impact on how to reboot a film franchise – even if a number of studios misuse the approach by simply doing a dark and gritty reboot of anything. Although Nolan would escalate into one of the most successful directors in American cinema with The Dark Knight, it had to begin with Batman Begins and what a great place to start.
On a side note, it may lack the fins, but I like the Tumbler.