Batman Begins Movie Review
The franchise was left for dead, revived only by speculation of an absurd Batman vs. Superman movie in 2002. Most moviegoers seem to have bid good riddance to the series, which in its later years was notable only for generating more discussion about the nipples on the batsuit than anything else.
2005: Against all odds, Batman is back. With the fourth actor (in five films) to take on the role of Bruce Wayne, the film is a "reboot" of the series by imagining this as a prequel to the other Batman movies. (It's unclear whether Batman Begins is meant to live in the same universe as its forebears, and the film hints at an alternate Robin to come and ends with news of a familiar villain -- but one with a much different M.O.) Directed by Christopher Nolan (the auteur behind Memento), some fresh blood helps immensely in kick starting the series.
The epic Batman Begins starts with a young Bruce Wayne trying to make sense of his life in Gotham City. His parents are billionaires that try to "give back" to the community (while simultaneously managing a multinational corporation), but Bruce just wants to play with his pal Rachel on the Wayne Manor estate. Here we learn of Bruce's fascination with bats (he's attacked when he falls down a well) and his obsession with justice, when his parents are killed during a mugging in depression-stricken Gotham. Years later, a distressed Bruce (Christian Bale) skips town to live like a bum, stealing food and intentionally getting thrown into foreign prisons so he can fight with the inmates.
Wayne is eventually sprung by one Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), an enigma who Bruce follows to a mountain compound, where he's trained by ninjas (ahem) in the arts of fighting, misdirection, and stealth. Finally, Wayne (presumed dead after a seven-year absence) returns to Gotham to clean up the town -- and at last the actual plot of the movie starts to take shape. (For those of you still hanging in there, it involves a maniacal plan to poison the city and turn everyone into a lunatic, courtesy of the movie's one "iconic" villain, The Scarecrow.)
At nearly 2 1/2 hours long, you better really want to know about Batman when you enter the theater for Batman Begins. No stone is left unturned in Bruce Wayne's backstory, and you may find yourself dozing off during the first hour of the film, which features too many fistfights, too much repetition of Wayne being yelled at and beaten up, and confusing choreography (when ninjas fight ninjas, no one wins). As Team America: World Police memorably points out, we could have used a montage in here to trim some running time.
Once the plot gets rolling, the pace picks up quite a bit, but still we have to contend with a half-dozen major bad guys, at least four different conspiracies against Gotham, and a variety of hangers on that range from memorable (Morgan Freeman, an unlikely tech guru) to clichéd (Gary Oldman's helpful cop) to useless (Katie Holmes's district attorney/wannabe love interest). Michael Caine, as sassy butler Alfred, actually commands every scene he's in. And the new Batmobile is pretty kick-ass.
Bale, as is frequently the case in his films, is a blank slate for Batman. He plays the dark prince with suitable bravado but doesn't quite emulate the snarl of Michael Keaton's Batman voice. Bale does have a solid screen presence and does well with the physical side of the part. He also benefits from very well-written dialogue and a script full of memorable lines. (Alas, few of them are very funny, and every good superhero movie needs a solid dose of comic relief. Alfred carries that burden in Batman Begins all by his lonesome.)
Batman Begins is a solid and frequently very good superhero flick, though it doesn't quite measure up to 2002's Spider-Man, a film which follows a surprisingly near-identical template. Both characters keep their secret identity from would-be girlfriends, try to avenge their dead relatives, create their own super-suits, and face down a villain who goes crazy thanks to his own ill-advised scientific experiments -- and that's just for starters. But pound for pound, Sam Raimi's Spider-Man has more thrills and is simply more fun for its running time. Batman Begins is dark to the point of suicide, such that my one-day-later memory of it has devolved into a swirl of black and shadows. After 2 1/2 hours of this stuff you'll be ready to kill yourself. Now we know why Tim Burton (the master of dark filmmaking) gave his villain a day-glo makeup job.
Bat-geeks are going to love the Batman Begins DVD, which features a full disc of extras that explore the making of the film in depth. But the highlight, for my money, is the included booklet which includes Bob Kane's original "The Bat-Man" comic (from Detective Comics #27) and two more recent vintages of Batman comic stories which inspired the events in the movie.
Black: The new black.