Though it is destined to stay in its successors’ shadows, Batman Begins is still a great movie, featuring strong performances from its leads, quality action scenes and a solid story to tie it all together (7.5/10)
After the disastrous Batman & Robin in 1997, it was clear to all and sundry that a drastically different approach was needed to save the Caped Crusader’s big screen career. Joel Schumacher had irreversibly cut off the option of keeping Batman as a lighter, more family friendly hero. What the franchise sorely needed, in fact, was just the opposite; a return to Frank Miller’s vision of a truly dark knight, a Batman that tormented by his past demons and unfailingly committed to his war on crime. Naturally, this called for a reboot and Nolan’s directing resume at this point was impressive – Momento and Insomnia were both well-received at the box office. It seems impossible now to think of this trilogy as anything less than epic, but at the time this movie was made and released, the popular notion of Batman was either George Clooney’s nipple-suit or to a lesser degree, the excellent Batman and Justice League cartoons. Nolan’s challenge was to overcome both those images and come up with something that would appeal to more than just the geeks and young crowd. His vision here was to make something lasting and of artistic value but at the same time, he had to get this right, because there’s no recovering from a poor start. Given the acting talent he had at hand, a poor start was never really an option but it was all too possible that Batman Begins would end up as just another forgettable and thus, forgotten super-hero flick. Thankfully, he rose to the challenge magnificently and produced the first of three (hopefully; at this point, The Dark Knight Rises isn’t out yet) amazing movies that re-invented Batman for modern audiences.
Reinventing a familiar story is never an easy process; on one hand, the audience knows what to expect and veering too far from the hero’s established origin story is surest way of being accused of blasphemy. However, stay too loyal to the source material and you’ll be branded as uninventive, stale and worst of all for any movie-maker, boring. So having said all that I have mixed feelings about the way Batman’s beginnings have been handled here. On one hand, the origin story is covered in greater detail here than in any other medium, except the comics. Nolan has an excellent understanding of the character’s motivations, principles and fears and he explores these concepts carefully through the movie’s themes of fear and justice. Above all, Nolan understands that Bruce Wayne isn’t the one wearing a mask, Batman is. It is a little disappointing then that despite this deep appreciation and knowledge of the character that this movie lacks a certain spark. It all feels a little mechanical and predictable at different stages and at no point is the audience truly left wondering what will happen next. Ra’s al Ghul’s big screen debut places him as an intellectual match for Batman and his role as Batman’s mentor and teacher adds a level of personal conflict into it yet the overall plot with the Scarecrow and the gassing of the city, takes a distinct backseat to the personal drama and the emotional conflict that plagues Batman throughout the movie as he tries to deal with his multitude of personal issues and become the crime-fighting behemoth that we all know and love. There is a constant juxtaposition, largely due to the Scarecrow’s inclusion in this movie, between the fear Batman tries to inspire and the fear he is trying to overcome, between the path of justice that he tries to stick to and the path of vengeance that constantly tempts him, in the form of Ra’s al Ghul. These conflicts make for a much more interesting personal drama than the stale take-over/destroy Gotham plot they are framed in. At times, I felt like the movie took too long to really get going but while the Bat took a long to find his feet, his actions and interactions always moved the plot along and gave audiences a peek at how he gets to where he know he’s going to get to.
The acting is really top-notch with unsurprisingly strong performances from Bale, Caine, Murphy and Neeson. Bale, for better or worse, makes a much better Bruce Wayne than he does Batman – I am not a huge fan of the ‘Bat-Voice’ thing that he keeps pulling. While I do understand the need for it, it does tend to come across as a little over-the-top given the serious tone of the movie. Bale’s expressions as Bruce Wayne can sometimes come across as unexpressive and sullen and doesn’t let the character show the full range of his emotions though he makes up for it verbally. Caine of course turns in a spot-on performance as Alfred, complete with just the right mix of sarcastic humor and heartfelt warmth and affection. It is rather impressive how well Caine is able to express disapproval while remaining impeccably polite about it. Meanwhile, Murphy has unlocked the secret to appearing reasonably respectable and yet inexplicably creepy. His interpretation of the Scarecrow was simply amazing – without his mask and the fear toxin he’s about as physically unintimidating as can be but is still able to generate a quiet, imposing danger on the others. Liam Neeson as Ra’s al Ghul was a little amusing to watch simply because every time he began to kick knowledge to Bale’s uninitiated Batman, he would suddenly morph into Qui Gon Jinn (of Star Wars fame). Regretably, he did not come across as much of a threat; in fact, Murphy probably seemed more dangerous throughout the movie, though in all fairness, some part of that should be attributed to his use of the fear toxins. Neeson’s character on the other hand came armed with little more than advanced martial arts and a few henchmen. Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable and largely convincing performance from him. The one performance I didn’t really enjoy was Holmes’. I can’t decide if it’s her character I didn’t like or her herself, but there was something about the way she carried herself that said that she wasn’t selling it hard enough. Perhaps it was the way her voice didn’t quite carry much emotion or infliction or the way her face wasn’t particularly expressive. While Bale could get away with looking constantly stoic due to the nature of his character, Holmes’ character was supposed to be normal, emotionally healthy human being.
The film’s action scenes were a pleasure to watch. They did not extend too long and had enough movements and confusion that we got an immediate sense of urgency and excitement from the scene. I also enjoyed Nolan’s vision of Gotham as a repressed city that never fully recovered from the Depression. There is enough semblance to a modern city that audiences don’t feel alienated or lost, but there also sufficient menace in the streets that we have no trouble believing that the city has a serious crime problem. One thing I wasn’t totally sold on was the Batman costume, especially the mask – I can’t pick out why precisely it felt wrong, but I suspect it has something to do with the amount of face being shown, or the shape of the mask or some similar form factor. Or perhaps it was the combined effect of Bale’s ‘Bat-Voice’, the costume and the lighting that made certain scenes look pretty ridiculous, and not in a good way. One example was when Batman interrogates Gordon’s partner – the lighting on Batman’s face was too strong. Instead of remaining the shadows and in relative obscurity, Batman’s face was fully it up and even though the top half of Bale’s face was hidden, the overall effect was far from impressive or intimidating.
On the whole however, this was a great movie and as is often the case with great movies, there are glaring flaws that keep from the ‘excellent’ category, but rather it’s the small things that could have been included or done better. A stronger plot would have been welcome as well as slightly better costumes. However, nit-picking aside, considering that this is the first of three movies, the trilogy definitely started off on a high note.
Christian Bale – Batman/Bruce Wayne
Michael Caine – Alfred Pennyworth
Liam Neeson – Ra’s al Ghul/Henri Ducard
Katie Holmes – Rachel Dawes
Morgan Freeman -Lucius Fox
Gary Oldman – Jim Gordon
Cillian Murphy – Dr. Jonathan Crane/ The Scarecrow