As it turned out, the definitive adaptation of “Batman” was not made in 1989. The Tim Burton movie showed a Caped Crusader quite different from the original Bob Kane creation, and light years from the campy 1960s TV series. But one of the darkest, most depressing comic book superheroes ever fashioned deserved a movie that is equally nightmarish. In 2005, who could have guessed that Christopher Nolan would be better at this than Tim Burton himself?
This film shares similarities with a classic graphic novel by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli, “Batman: Year One”, but the screenwriters have come up with a story of their own. It explains how Bruce Wayne became Batman, and tries to ground this superhero in reality as much as possible. That sounds like a bad idea because when you’re dealing with comic books reality is overrated. But after all, this is a superhero with no superpowers. All Bruce Wayne ever had was a bruised psyche, a billion dollar fortune and a toned body.
Battling inmates in a prison
The beginning of this film sees him in a foreign land, battling his inner demons and his fellow inmates in a prison. Bruce is approached by the mysterious Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) who teaches him to fight like a ninja and “mind his surroundings”. When it turns out that Ducard intends to destroy Gotham City, Bruce’s hometown, Bruce is forced to fight Ducard and leaves him for dead. Once back in Gotham, Bruce tells Alfred (Michael Caine), the Wayne family’s butler, that he’s going to clean up the grossly corrupt and crime-ridden city, something that requires an alter ego. Bruce is afraid of bats – why not make others fear them?
Nolan and co-writer David S. Goyer introduce us to other residents of Gotham – we’ve got Gary Oldman playing against type as the only decent cop in town, Tom Wilkinson chewing the scenery as Gotham’s most powerful gangster, Morgan Freeman providing the Bat with state-of-the-art weaponry… and Katie Holmes giving the seemingly irresponsible Bruce disapproving looks. Christian Bale is the right choice to play the troubled billionaire, a new take on his “American psycho”. Caine is superb as Alfred, and Cillian Murphy quite effective as the creepy psychiatrist who moonlights as Scarecrow, the alter ego who scares his patients witless. Holmes, on the other hand, has a fairly thankless part and she is unable to do anything with it.
No shortage of testosterone
Illusion is an important theme here. Ducard teaches Bruce the importance of creating illusions and Batman relies heavily on it. He may not be able to fly, but Freeman’s wonderful toys sure make it look like he can. Scarecrow uses hallucinogenic drugs to make his victims think he’s a monster. Even Nolan is a man of illusions when it comes to staging action scenes. They’re not traditionally his forte, but with a few tricks he makes it look like Batman is fighting bad guys in a frighteningly swift way. He gets away with it but he’s pushing it; the lighting is too dark at times, as if we’re not meant to see anything at all.
There is no shortage of testosterone, though; it is typical of this bombastic film that its Batmobile is a huge military vehicle that almost looks like a Hummer.
Perhaps the only thing missing is a sense of awe and wonder. It is also possible that awe and wonder is strictly reserved for superheroes with real superpowers and a merrier disposition. What we do get in the final sequence is a promise of even more exciting things to come, as Batman is handed clues to a villain who will become his arch-nemesis. This is the beginning, and ultimately an irresistibly muscular one, but there is much more to tell.
Batman Begins 2005-U.S. 140 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Larry J. Franco, Charles Roven, Emma Thomas. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Screenplay: Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer. Music: James Newton Howard, Hans Zimmer. Cast: Christian Bale (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Michael Caine (Alfred), Liam Neeson (Henri Ducard), Katie Holmes, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman… Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson, Rutger Hauer, Ken Watanabe.
Trivia: This project began with director Darren Aronofsky working on an adaptation of “Batman: Year One”, but Warner decided not to do it. Jake Gyllenhaal and Anthony Hopkins were allegedly considered for the parts of Bruce Wayne and Alfred. Followed by two sequels, starting with The Dark Knight (2008).
Last word: “I just feel like… I mean that this sort of big blockbuster films I’ve been seeing the last 10 years or so have become smaller and smaller, and more and more like animation films or video games and all this. And I just wanted to make an attempt to get back to the kind of grand scale filmmaking that I’d enjoyed watching when I was a kid.” (Nolan, About.com)