starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes
screenplay by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer
directed by Christopher Nolan
by Walter Chaw It's perhaps only right that in a year that has seen Robert Rodriguez present a scary-faithful adaptation of Frank Miller's Sin City, Christopher Nolan should re-envision (and revitalize) the Batman film franchise with a picture, Batman Begins, that at last captures the pitch blackness of Miller's seminal graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns (itself a re-envisioning and revitalization of Batman for its time). Batman Begins is to Tim Burton's Batman films as Burton's films are to Adam West's camp-classic television series, so drastically have Nolan and co-scriptor David S. Goyer de-fabulized the mythology. Compare, for starters, a sequence in the 1989 film where Batman shines a little penlight in the eyes of an over-curious lady-fair while chauffeuring her in the Batmobile to the modern iteration in which Batman trashes the Gotham police force en route to getting a young lady an antidote to a concentrated militarized hallucinogen that, unchecked, could inspire her to rip her own face off.
More than appreciably darker, Batman Begins tackles the story's essential Freudian/Jungian mooring, returning over and over to the dank, vaginal tunnel that a young Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has tied inextricably to the death of his parents until the moment that a grown Bruce, after a self-imposed exile of seven years, penetrates the black pit of his divorce from his parents to find himself reborn, as it were, underground. Throughout, Bruce is compared against his philanthropist father to the point where the lead villain confesses that the fate of Gotham was postponed for a time by daddy's example and eventual martyrdom. They're comparisons that inspire Bruce, in billionaire playboy mode, to ruin his family's name with unpleasant drunken outbursts, high-profile stunts with supermodels, and general strutting and preening in the American Psycho mold. Heady stuff, to be sure, made brilliant as it's married to a narrative about a group of moral absolutists seeking to impose their version of morality on thousands, nay, millions of innocent souls that is as topical as it is loaded. The film works as a commentary on not only Osama Bin Laden's crusade against the West, but also Bush Jr.'s crusade against the Middle East. It's all about fear and loathing, this big-budget product of a post-millennial United States--and it's about as good as it gets.
It goes without saying that Batman Begins is the best prequel of the summer, a film that allows Liam Neeson as Bruce Wayne's mentor/surrogate father figure to make amends for The Phantom Menace and offers a peek, along with Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring, at the full grim panorama of what the Star Wars films have squandered. The entire cast of Batman Begins is a parade of gifted character actors--it's not too much to declare it the most impressive ensemble of the year. To Neeson and Bale's central father and son dyad, add Michael Caine as butler Alfred, Morgan Freeman as technician Lucius Fox, Tom Wilkinson as kingpin Carmine Falcone, Rutger Hauer as corporate stooge Richard Earle, Gary Oldman as Lt. James Gordon (the last good cop left in the city), and Ken Watanabe as mystic Ra's Al Ghul. Cillian Murphy does a freaky cold fish as a bought shrink padding his spare time in a scarecrow's cowl, experimenting on his charges in Arkham Asylum and working as an analog to Bale's also-masked crusader. (The two of them similarly interested in inspiring fear to further their respective causes.) And then there's Katie Holmes, out girl-next-door'ing Kristen Dunst's inamorata from Sam Raimi's Spider-Man saga as an assistant DA in the most corrupt city on the planet. She's given a moment of terrible grace in the film's epilogue when the expectation that the tortured hero will find romance is undermined by Nolan and company's clear-eyed look at their hero.
So there's something for the Batman fanatic in this fresh, Stygian take on the hero's creation myth; something for the sociologist in the film's serious contemplation of fiscal depressions, corporate malfeasance, reckless militarism, and justice vs. vengeance in a post-9/11 climate; something for the pop psychiatrists in the plumbing of Bruce's psyche and the exploration of fear as a uniting principle in mob politics; and something for the auteurist who can find, at last, a continuation of the themes of identity, memory, and the malleability of reality suggested by Nolan's Memento. The action--filmed in the Western style that favours quick cuts and too-close camerawork over the clarity of an Eastern approach--is perhaps the film's weakest element, but then it's just the bridge to the movie's greater concerns, anyway. Consider that even the climactic set-piece involves a monorail system Bruce's father built as a way to ease the financial burden of the city's desperate classes being used by a surrogate father intent on wielding terror as a weapon of mass destruction.
Batman Begins is a refutation, and there seems to be at least one a year, of the popular truism that great cinema has been ghettoized into the arthouse, that the most talented people on the planet see their talent somehow evaporate as soon as they're given the keys to Hollywood's executive washroom. It's an opinionated but levelheaded film--politically nuanced, but not leaden with its equivocation. And it actually has something to say about who we are at this turbulent moment in time. It's the kind of spectacle that doesn't require you be an idiot or some sort of slack-jawed sycophant to enjoy it. Cause for celebration that the principals have already signed on for a trilogy. Originally published: June 15, 2005.