Growing up in my house it was a DC world, and Batman & Superman reigned supreme. I knew a lot about Batman, but was never a huge fan; I’m a Superman girl. Not that there’s anything wrong with Batman, I just couldn’t blend the Adam West, Tim Burton, & Joel Schumacher versions with the comic books I knew in my head. In 2005 that all changed when I found out that Christopher Nolan was taking over the flagging franchise with the superb casting of independent tour de force Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne.
Batman is by nature a dark tale of a decaying city, and a calloused idealist who genuinely holds onto his life’s hope that he can aid in bringing his beloved city back to the people who dwell in it and away from the crime that corrupts it. He is a man devoid of super powers that pushes himself to become more than human, he wants to be the fear in the hearts of those that prey on the fearful; but more than that Batman is the great detective who uses his position as Bruce Wayne and talents as Batman to undermine and search out the corrupt whenever he can. Bruce Wayne is a hero that realizes he does not want to be Bruce Wayne any more, he is Batman but must keep the Bruce Wayne disguise on to protect his real identity.
This is an incredibly complex character who has been dragged through the mud over the years. I don’t need to say much about the Adam West version except “POW!”; Michael Keaton got the darkness but nothing else; Val Kilmer looked great in the suit; George Clooney looked great in the tuxes. On top of the people entrusted with the character over the years I was never a fan of Burton’s super dark and twisted out-of-reality version of Gotham and from the purple and green lighting thrown into the background of almost every shot it was obvious that Schumacher didn’t get the world either (I won’t even mention the atrocity of Batgirl becoming Alfred’s niece instead of Commissioner Gordon’s daughter).
But with the news that Christopher Nolan, David Goyer & Christian Bale were teaming on a new Batman movie that would ignore the previous films the geeks began to murmur. We had a hope that possibly this pairing would not only restore the Batman franchise to a watchable series, but perhaps take it a step closer to the comic book we remembered.
Casting news began to leak. There was Michael Cain as Alfred, Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon, Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox – we were excited. The story was going to harken back to Batman Year One about the origins of creating the character – we were excited. Ra’s Al Ghul & the Scarecrow where going to be the villains. We all began to doubt David Goyer’s prowess at writing a Batman script. How do you make two of the more marginal villains in the Batman pantheon the villains and explain them? Bruce Wayne’s love interest was going to be played by Katie Holmes – we all began to doubt. We were now on the edge of the geek precipice; we wanted to believe so bad that Batman Begins would be great, but we thought there were cracks in the plan. We were wrong.
Aside from the superb cast, and talent of Nolan the reason Batman Begins is (at least for now) the best adaptation of the character to date is the story. By using two lesser known villains in the Batman pantheon Goyer was able to concentrate on what was truly important: the transition of Bruce Wayne into Batman and the slow decay of Gotham that led to the corrupt void that it now is. For the first time Bruce Wayne’s parents were not just story devices, but characters and the audience could understand Bruce’s loss and how hard it must have been for Alfred to raise him; we saw the flawed young man he became that was so desperate to make a difference and didn’t know how and how this led him to become Batman. And this is how we finally understood how Ra’s Al Ghul was the perfect villain to be placed in this story line.
In this Batman Ra’s was not some idle villain known for the League of Shadows and his knack at immortality, but the man who put Bruce on the path to becoming Batman, and another person he trusted who would ultimately betray him and the first person who would test Batman in how close he would dance along the rules he so carefully set up to control his actions as Batman; namely would he kill to save the day.
We saw the beginning of the relationship between Batman and future Commissioner Jim Gordon begin to flourish. We saw Alfred fret over the damages Batman would do to Bruce Wayne and come to realize that the man and alter ego are a necessary thing. Wayne Enterprises was just as important to Bruce Wayne as it was to his family before him. We saw the world of Batman become real.
This Batman is dark, moody, and idealistic at the same time. He battles not just a major villain but the dark forces of an entire city – the average criminals, the crime lords, corrupt police, super villains in the making (Scarecrow), and super villains that have been in this world longer than Batman (Ra’s Al Ghul).
What makes Batman Begins most unique though is the logical progression that the filmmakers were able to place upon the world they created. This was best exemplified by the end of the movie; not only was it a nod to what the geeks were waiting for, but it exemplified the problems of a world with heroes that walk the line between vigilante and dutiful citizen. It is then that we geeks (and film scholars) knew beyond a doubt that the people behind this film understand Batman and would not let the franchise go astray any time soon.
At the end of the film newly promoted Jim Gordon installs the bat signal and uses it for the first time. Gordon begins a conversation with Batman about escalation: cops use semi-automatics, criminals get automatics, cops get Kevlar & the criminals get armor piercing rounds – and now Gotham has Batman. At this point he tells Batman that another costumed freak has been causing mayhem & killing people…and leaving his calling card, a joker. Batman gets his first true homegrown super villain and the person most widely considered to be his arch nemesis.
In the end there is not one element that made Batman Begins a successful adaptation of Batman, there were dozens of elements. This film shows such care and craftsmanship that there is no doubt that it was artfully constructed by everyone involved from those above the line like Nolan and Bale, to the very last grip and PA below the line. The strengths of Batman Begins make The Dark Knight one of the most anticipated films of this summer movie season.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer: David Goyle
Bruce Wayne/Batman: Christian Bale
Alfred: Michael Caine
Rachel Dawes: Katie Holmes
Henri Ducard: Liam Neeson
Jim Gordon: Gary Oldman
Dr. Crane/Scarecrow: Cillian Murphy
Carmine Falcone: Tom Wilkinson
Mr. Earle: Rutger Hauer
Ra’s Al Ghoul: Ken Wantanabe
Lucius Fox: Morgan Freeman
Bruce Wayne: [as Alfred opens the curtains] Bats are nocturnal.
Alfred Pennyworth: Bats might be, but even for billionaire playboys, three o'clock is pushing it. The price of leading a double life, I think. Your theatrics made an impression.
[shows the newspaper to Bruce]
Bruce Wayne: Theatricality and deception are powerful weapons, Alfred. It's a good start.
Alfred Pennyworth: If those are to be the first of many other injuries to come, it will be wise to find a suitable excuse. Polo, for instance.
Bruce Wayne: I'm not learning polo, Alfred.
Alfred Pennyworth: Strange injuries and non-existent social life, these things beg the question as to what exactly does Bruce Wayne do with his time and his money.
Bruce Wayne: And what does someone like me do?
Alfred Pennyworth: Drive sports cars, date movie stars, buy things that are not for sale... who knows, Master Wayne? You start pretending to have fun, you might even have a little by accident.