Remember what happened the last time we saw Batman on film? Arnold Schwarzenegger was running around Gotham City and the Bat-suit had nipples. The laughable Batman and Robin supposedly killed this franchise, but who would have guessed that eight years later a brand new Batman would rise from the ashes of that disaster? Batman Begins, as the name suggests, wipes the slate clean and starts from the very beginning. Which, it turns out, is a very good place to start. The opening flashback reveals that the young Bruce Wayne was frightened by – wait for it – bats, although unfazed by bullies in the Asian prison he resides in as an adult.
This is very far away from Bruce Wayne, billionaire playboy etc. and sets the tone for this much darker, grittier Batman film. Fear is what this is all about, the weapon of both Batman and his enemies, and is what really makes this movie interesting. Having said that, this theme is plonked into the action a bit too frequently, and I found myself wishing sometimes it wasn’t quite so obvious. Wayne is saved from his incarceration by Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) who offers him a chance with the mysterious League of Shadows.
What follows is an in-depth exploration of exactly how and why Wayne decides to dress up as a bat and fight criminals, an issue never actually addressed in previous films. In Nolan’s typical time-shifting style, used to great effect in Memento and The Prestige, we see how the death of Wayne’s parents when he was a child, and a fervent desire to know what drives the criminal mind years later landed him in that prison in the first place. We also get to see his training as a ninja with Ducard, which works well to explain where Wayne got his improbably excellent fighting skills.
Christian Bale is possibly the best Batman ever, muscular and brooding, with an intensity that burns throughout. Neeson does well in his mentor role, although Ducard’s philosophical sound-bites are a bit too Jedi-ish for us to forget who it really is on the screen. Also, although perhaps necessary, this first half of the film drags on somewhat. After all, the audience is ultimately waiting for Bruce to don the cape and utility belt. Finally he returns to Gotham to use his new skills to fight evil, specifically mob boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) and psychiatrist Dr.
Jonathon Crane (Cillian Murphy). Gotham is suitably dark and gloomy, and we can see just why it needs saving so badly. Even so, we’ve still got some time to wait as Bruce stocks up his Batcave with gadgets provided by Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), a brilliant scientist working at Wayne Enterprises who also gives Bruce the Batmobile. This deserves a special mention: instead of the usual sports car with guns, this Batmobile is an inelegant black tank that is, in a word, awesome. There is enormous fun to be had in watching it smash police cars and drive over roofs.
Once he’s kitted out the fun really starts, with the usual chases, criminals getting their asses kicked, and a devious plot to poison the water supply. The fight scenes, however, aren’t exactly high-octane martial arts extravaganzas. Most of the time we can’t even see what’s happening. Instead, there are flurries of action followed by ominous silence. We really believe that Batman is slightly supernatural and actually a bit scary. Believability is in fact this film’s greatest strength. David Goyer’s skilful writing ensures that there isn’t a moment where you think “Hang on – what the hell? ” until right at the end.
And even if the final scenes are ridiculous, they’re fun to go along with. It’s a real achievement within this genre, which usually requires the audience to leave their brains at the door for the movie to make sense. The supporting cast is excellent. Michael Caine’s Alfred has the right balance between respectful and fatherly, and Freeman imbues his role, essentially Q from the Bond films, with a knowing wit that makes it his own. Fans of the Burton films will complain about the villains of this piece: they’re just not the same as Jack Nicholson’s Joker! Well yes, but then Jack Nicholson would be hopelessly out of place here.
The villains here are more understated, not upstaging the Batman himself. Tom Wilkinson does fine as mob boss Falcone, although his comedy Brooklyn accent is somewhat distracting. Crane is nicely creepy, and the hallucinogenic sequences where he gases his victims and becomes ‘Scarecrow’ genuinely frightening. The only real wrong note is Katie Holmes as love interest/conscience Rachel Dawes. A tacked-on feeling role, Holmes does not have the charisma or range to make it interesting. Maggie Gyllenhaal is signed up in her place for the sequel; let’s hope she makes a better job of it.