Historical Circuit: Batman Begins (***½)

The first time I saw ‘Batman Begins’, I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I had known Christopher Nolan as an indie filmmaker only first then transitioning to big budget fare, and someone who seemed like an odd choice to reboot the Batman franchise (personally I was real interested in seeing Darren Aronofsky’s project come to fruition, but that’s another story). Little did I know that he was the perfect man for the job. For me, this was the moment where I began to look at Nolan in a new light, and also when I developed a newfound respect for comic book/superhero films. This was the first of its kind to really be able to shoot for something more, and actually achieve that feat. Now, it can’t hold a candle to the masterpiece that is ‘The Dark Knight’, but ‘Batman Begins’ is perhaps the more historically important flick. Above all that though, it’s just massively entertaining and an epic coming of age story. From Christian Bale’s lead performance on down, everyone just knew they were part of something special, and acted accordingly. This is an impressive movie, and subsequent viewings have done nothing to detract from its strengths (unless you’re comparing it to the sequel). For my money, this is the best reboot of all time.

A little bit of trivia is worth sharing here before we dive back into the plot. These tidbits come from IMDb’s always interesting and mostly accurate trivia section and also a bit from the book “Tales From Development Hell” by David Hughes. First off, in regard to Aronofsky’s aborted version, it would have “strayed a considerable amount from the source material, making Alfred an African-American mechanic named “Big Al,” the Batmobile being a souped-up Lincoln Towncar, and Bruce Wayne being homeless, among other things”. As for the role of Batman, a number of actors besides Christian Bale (who almost played Robin in the previous Batman film) were in contention/discussion for the job, including David Boreanaz, Henry Cavill (now playing Superman instead), Billy Crudup, Hugh Dancy, Jake Gyllenhaal, Joshua Jackson, and Cillian Murphy, who impressed Nolan enough to be cast in the film anyway, albeit in the role of Dr. Crane/The Scarecrow (beating out the likes of Marilyn Manson, Christopher Eccleston, Ewan McGregor and Jeremy Davies for the job). There are lots more, but this is just a small taste…

Not that anyone needs reminding, but the movie is a realism-infused telling of how Bruce Wayne (Bale) became the masked crime fighter Batman. Quickly, a summary. In the years following the murder of his parents, Wayne travels the globe looking to understand the criminal mind in order to one day return to his hometown of Gotham City and dispense justice. A mysterious man named Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) offers him an opportunity to hone those skills with the League of Shadows, led by Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). They teach Wayne invaluable skills, but his moral compass is different from them, so he goes off on his own and returns home to begin his process. Assisted by his faithful butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Wayne becomes Batman and strikes fear into the hearts of criminals all across the rundown city. Almost everyone seems corrupt and looks at the Bat with hatred, but a select few, including policeman Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Assistant District Attorney/former childhood friend Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) see him for the hero he is and want to help. It’s important that they do too, since the League of Shadows has infiltrated Gotham and with the help of Dr. Jonathan Crane and his criminal persona The Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), they want to bring down the city. The only thing standing in their way is Batman.

One of the things about this flick is how good the acting is. Christian Bale is not only the most talented actor ever to play Wayne/Batman, but he also gives the best performance as well (one he would equal in the next film). You believe him as both sides of the character. He’s intense and takes this role more seriously than anyone before him did. Other members of the cast would have to wait for the next film to really shine, including Michael Caine and especially Gary Oldman (who I believe was snubbed a Supporting Actor nomination for ‘The Dark Knight’), though Cillian Murphy was reduced to a cameo in the sequel. Liam Neeson kind of plays things like his character from the Star Wars prequel, but he’s well suited to this role. Katie Holmes is the weak link here, but she’s far from bad, though she’d wind up being replaced by Maggie Gyllenhaal for the next outing. The rest of the cast includes the likes of Tom Wilkinson, Rutger Hauer, Ken Watanabe, Mark Boone Junior, and Linus Roache, but Bale was the shining star to me here.

Christopher Nolan turned out to be the perfect choice to co-write and direct this project. He made a dark and brooding tale, miles apart from what Tim Burton or Joel Schumaker did, but he didn’t do that just for the sake of being different. Nolan wanted a smarter and more realistic Batman…a superhero that could exist in the real world. He also knew just what to keep from the mythology of the character and what to get rid off, but more than that, he and co-writer David Goyer knew exactly how to integrate them here. Things are given a reason, a purpose, and most importantly…a solid meaning. While he sometimes struggled with his action scenes, the visuals are stunning and the pacing is solid. It’s not ‘The Dark Knight’, but really, what is? Nolan was honing his craft here, and it’s a landmark achievement.

For those paying attention, there are a number of hints for ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ potential on hand here. The line “a storm is coming” is uttered, and the theme of the rich vs the poor is explored as well. Also, if Bane is to actually be a member of the League of Shadows, certain things from the 1st act of this movie will likely be coming back into play. What I’m getting at is that this is truly designed to be a trilogy, and was started out as such. Look for more than just a passing bit of continuity between the three films when all is said and done. Watching ‘Batman Begins’ again led me to appreciate that even more than I previously did. I can’t wait to be able to watch all three back to back to back sometime at the end of this year/early next year. That’s going to be a real treat.

Overall, ‘Batman Begins’ is a great film whose reputation is only harmed by the monumental achievement that followed it. It has only a few rough edges, but works incredibly well despite them. I found myself noticing lots of new things while watching it again for this piece, and it’s only gotten me more excited to revisit ‘The Dark Knight’ as well, leading up to my press screening in the next week or two of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’. Now’s the time to start the trilogy over again, and with the quality on hand here, you’ll be glad that you did!

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!