Now that The Dark Knight has risen and become Ben Affleck, we return to the start of Christopher Nolan’s epic trilogy. Is this the best Batman film?
Who made it?: Christopher Nolan (Director/Co-Writer), David S. Goyer (Co-Writer), Emma Thomas, Charles Roven, Larry J. Franco (Producers), Warner Bros. Pictures.
Who’s in it?: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson.
IMDb rating: 8.3/10 (Top 250 #114).
The defining scene in Batman Begins is a conversation. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is making his return to the tortured Gotham City after a self-imposed exile. Across from him is his faithful butler, Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine), who listens to his madcap scheme to rid the city of its criminal empire. The multimillionaire wants to embrace a symbol. Something “incorruptible” and “everlasting.” These are words that have extra resonance now that Christopher Nolan has completed his Dark Knight trilogy (and Bale could even be talking about the longevity of the Caped Crusader). That Nolan’s conclusion embraces his beginning so explicitly has brought extra love to a film that is, for my money, the best Batman film ever made. There are frankly a hundred reasons for why I feel this way, and if you’re inclined to like The Dark Knight (2008) more, then so be it (it wins for me in one respect – the villain).
Let’s start at the beginning. Indie wunderkind Nolan was an inspired choice for the director of a comic book blockbuster, but maybe it was written in the stars. I draw your attention to a shot from his low-budget debut, Following (1998), which features a very prominent Batsymbol. It also crops up in his first masterpiece, Memento (2000). His third film cemented his alliance with Warner Bros., and while the underrated Insomnia (2002) could be his weakest film, it possessed many traits that he brought to Batman Begins. Namely the gifted cinematographer Wally Pfister and an A-list cast that makes it more than the sum of its parts. Spurred on by the “epic” origin of Richard Donner’s Superman (1978), Nolan wanted to bring a similar grand scale treatment to the birth of the World’s Greatest Detective. It was just the ticket after the studio delivered stinker Batman & Robin (1997) only eight years earlier.
Perhaps fans were right to doubt an indie director who had never made an action picture, but Nolan’s genius was in grounding his Dark Knight in a semi-realistic universe. It’s all right there in his chosen Gotham, Chicago, where the filmmaker had spent a great deal of his youth. Augmented by computer graphics and even a full city block constructed on a sound stage, Begins has the most comic booky Gotham in the trilogy, whilst still looking like a metropolis that could exist in the real world. It’s certainly unsurprising that he treated the cast and crew to a screening of Blade Runner (1982) before filming commenced.
Critics have called Batman Begins an art house blockbuster, or even a crime movie with comic book iconography. Both assertions have credence. Like Following and Memento, Begins is a story told in a non-linear fashion that requires the audience to keep track of the various plot threads, which in this case, depict much of Bruce Wayne’s life. As with Superman, Nolan slowly constructs Batman’s universe from the ground up and, with co-writer David S. Goyer, steals liberally from the comics Year One and The Long Halloween to form what is now deemed to be the definitive account of Batman’s origin. It was always a sketchy history in DC’s canon, and it’s rather amazing to note that Wayne doesn’t don the cape and cowl here until the fifty-minute mark. What’s interesting is how Nolan sequences the touchstone moments in Bruce’s life, holding off events like the murder of his parents until we have a reason to actually care.
The nightmare opening is brilliant and gets the film off to a fitting thematic start. A very young Bruce falls down a well on the Wayne Manor grounds, disturbing hundreds of bats and developing a new phobia in the process. The memory jolts him awake, and our first view of the grown-up Bruce isn’t in his palatial mansion but in a grimy prison halfway around the world. He’s already on his way to learning more about the criminal mind, and his fisticuffs with fellow inmates draws the attention of Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), who knows exactly who he is, and offers to make him “more than just a man.” Bruce’s induction into the League of Shadows, led by Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), is interspersed with flashbacks that get us to sympathise with him and his cause. Really, the way editor Lee Smith interweaves past and present so coherently is a masterclass in modern storytelling.
As Ducard trains Bruce, his questions inform us about the Wayne legacy. It’s rather brilliant that Nolan would have Bruce and his parents leaving a performance of Die Fledermaus on that fateful night, with its dancers in bat costumes causing Bruce to wig out. Their deaths at the hands of low-level thug Joe Chill (Richard Brake) is the single most important event in his life, and Ducard asks him if he still feels guilt for their loss. He knows what drives Bruce, and even gets him to conquer his fear of winged rodents… perhaps the only logical reason for why a man would adopt such an outfit. However, the superhero-in-waiting doesn’t count on the League’s true intentions. A drastic change from the comic’s League of Assassins, the Shadows clan has been in operation for centuries, always there as a “purging fire” for societal corruption. I especially like a line later on that suggests they were responsible for “burning Rome to the ground” and “loading ships with plague rats.” It’s a rather brilliant idea that could power an entirely different film. The League want Bruce to lead them on a mission to destroy Gotham, seeing that he is ideally placed as the city’s favourite son. Faced with having to commit an execution – the one thing this Dark Knight will never do (at least directly) – Bruce fights his way out. This results in the League’s mountain-top fortress burning to the ground, and Ra’s apparently meeting his maker by not watching his surroundings.
Bruce’s eventual return to Gotham is a chaotic one. He discovers that his father’s company, Wayne Enterprises, is being taken apart by ruthless suit Earle (Blade Runner‘s Rutger Hauer). Crime is also soaring thanks to mob boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) and Arkham Asylum’s crooked psychologist Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), who moonlights as the fear toxin-dispensing “Scarecrow.” As Wayne attempts to rebuild his legacy, he begins his vigilante crusade with the help of Alfred, Wayne Enterprises techie Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman having a blast), and the city’s last good cop, Lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman). And in the midst of his crime-fighting, he also finds the time to rekindle a romance with his childhood sweetheart, Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), who just so happens to be an assistant to Gotham’s doomed DA.
There’s an awful lot going on in Batman Begins, and almost an hour elapses before the real action begins. Some audiences consider it to be a boring film due to such glacial pacing, but it is a character study unlike any other. Nolan knew that if audiences were ever going to care about Bruce Wayne again, they would have to get under the mask and assess the person. The director does such great work with his largely British ensemble that I never once cared about the lack of pyrotechnics. The cast gives the film instant credibility and is first-rate from top-to-bottom, with several of the players giving career highlights.
He might get a lot of flack for his Bat persona, but Bale is easily the best actor to have tackled the Dark Knight in a motion picture. As the public Bruce, he evokes his career-changing turn as rich maniac Patrick Bateman in American Psycho (2000), whilst also depicting his private sorrow and uncertainty with grace. In the suit, he is feral and imposing, and while the voice gets on people’s nerves, it makes complete sense in a universe attempting to mirror the real world (and, somehow, its just less-aggravating in Begins). While Michael Keaton would be my second favourite by a mile, Bale owns the role. It’s all the more remarkable that he was able to become Batman after losing half his body weight for The Machinist (2004).
But while this is undoubtedly a film about Bruce and is Bale’s show from beginning to end, the supporting characters are treated with equal importance. Caine as Alfred is hands down the best cinematic interpretation of the character. Working-class in manner and full of wisdom, Caine’s version of the British butler is credible and essential in bringing out Bruce’s humanity. The same can be said of Oldman, whose Gordon is finally the vital component from the comics. After a career of playing despicable villains, its amusing to see him disappear into the virtuous Gordon with ease. Oldman’s a chameleon and seems ripped straight from Frank Miller’s Year One, making the character a rightful second hero in the story. Maybe even the real hero.
As the primary antagonists, Neeson and Murphy do fine work. Neeson does his best turn as a wise old father figure, and the third act twist that reveals him to be the real Ra’s Al Ghul gives him plenty to chew on. He isn’t known for playing villains, and clearly relished the opportunity. Murphy is equally good as the cold and calculating Dr. Crane, putting those dead eyes to use just as he did in Wes Craven’s Red Eye the same year. His alter-ego, The Scarecrow, might not be entirely faithful to the original incarnation, but his business suit and burlap sack ensemble is a creepy visual. As are the visions his toxins induce, providing some of the only legitimate comic book imagery in the trilogy.
The only character to disappoint is Holmes’ Rachel who is far too young to be an assistant to the DA and is squeezed less than harmoniously into a stuffed plot. It is perhaps no surprise to learn that the romance was an obligatory request from Warner Bros., because you get the sense Nolan didn’t quite know how to factor her into the proceedings. For what it’s worth, I don’t think her replacement Maggie Gyllenhaal was much better, and Holmes is at least sexier.
Luckily, the all-important set-pieces make up for such missteps. While Nolan still has an awful lot to learn in the choreography of hand-to-hand fight sequences, the large-scale scenes are impressive for their practicality and scant use of CGI. The director also denied the use of a second unit and personally supervised every shot in the film himself. Bruce’s explosive escape from the League is an early highlight, as is the thrilling Batmobile/”Tumbler” chase through Gotham. The action evolves organically from the plot and never feels like perfunctory trailer material. I’ll forgive the chaotic fight sequences in light of the bigger picture.
So, why do I believe that Batman Begins is better than The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises? First of all, depending on your tastes, the pace never sags in Nolan’s first entry. The sequels feel considerably more bloated due to their extended running times and plots that, if we’re being honest with ourselves, don’t sustain the near three-hour jaunt quite as well as this one. The origin of the Bat sort of demands a lengthy film, and while the sequels are good films – two of the better sequels ever, in fact – they don’t remain as compelling for me as this one. And that is despite the follow-ups having superior antagonists. But more important than plot and running time, Begins also has my favourite live-action version of Batman. We see him conquer his fears, train his body and mind, use his detective skills, develop a public persona, salvage his company, and even evade the authorities at every turn. You’re mad if you think the other films have as much to offer the title character (if you were to put them side-by-side, he probably spends more time in costume here than Rises). This feels like the Dark Knight of the comic books through and through; unwavering in his thirst for law and order, smarter than everyone else in the room, and only a shade psychotic. Epic though they are, the remaining films lose sight of some of these fundamentals. Begins, for me, is the icon done full contextual justice.
Years later, it’s impossible not see the influence Nolan’s first visit to Gotham has had on the cinematic language. When producers talk about “rebooting” a valued property, they’re talking about Batman Begins. Would we have had the serious and gritty Bond rehaul Casino Royale (2006) without it? I’m not so sure. Or any of the rehashes for that matter, since all of them seem to be taking a cue from Nolan. It’s also a film enriched by its successors – the birth of a symbol that will be smudged and broken, but ultimately rise again. There’s a real emotional quest at stake here. For that reason above all, it remains my favourite Batman and the crown jewel in DC’s filmography.
The Dark Knight calls on some winged friends to help him out of a tight spot in a moment lifted straight from Year One.
- Before Christopher Nolan took over, director Darren Aronofsky was attached to make a Batman movie based on the graphic novel Batman: Year One and have the author Frank Miller write the screenplay. It 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. This is all detailed in David Hughes’ book Tales from Development Hell.
- Before Christian Bale, David Boreanaz (yes, TV’s Angel) was the original choice for the role of Bruce Wayne. Cillian Murphy auditioned to play the role, too, but impressed Nolan so much that he cast him as The Scarecrow.
- Bale lost his voice three times during filming after altering his voice while playing Batman.
- Contrary to the previous Batman films, in which the Batcave was realized as a combination of a live set and matte paintings (done either by hand or computer), no visual effects were used in this film to show the Batcave. The entire Batcave is instead a massive full-scale set.
- While shooting on the streets of Chicago, a person accidentally crashed into the Batmobile. The driver was apparently drunk, and said he hit the car in a state of panic, believing the Dark Knight’s vehicle to be an invading alien spacecraft.