Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: David Goyer, Chrisopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, Cillian Murphy, Katie Holmes, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine
BBFC Certification: 12
Duration: 140 mins
Before 2005 and Batman Begins, screen versions of the be-cowled gotham vigilante were more "caped crusader" than they were "dark knight". Adam West's was fun lycra-camp, Tim Burton's were a pastel on grey nightmare fantasy, and Joel Schumacher's...well he gave the bat armour nipples.
In fact the grittiest screen iteration prior to 2005 had probably been its cartoon – Batman: The Animated Series - with voice stars like Mark Hamill and Batman voiced by Kevin Conroy, who interestingly originated using different voices for Bruce Wayne and his night time alter ego.
Away from the screen graphic novels had been happy to rebel and experiment. As early as the 1980s Frank Miller had pushed Batman into murky, introspective territory in both The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Batman: Year One (1987), the latter of which was at one point explored for the screen by Mr Inner Madness himself, Darren Aronofsky. However that project didn’t come to pass, and so to the masses Batman still meant kapow signs, social services sidekicks and panto-esque villains with an unfortunate propensity for birth defects or face-changing industrial negligence.
In fact, before Nolan, it could be convincingly argued that most screen Batman films had been primarily about their villains, and marketed accordingly. Burton’s first Batman was at least as much about Jack Nicholson’s steampunk Joker than it was Michael Keaton’s earnest turn as Batman. Batman Returns, for all the will-they, won't- they of Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle’s entwined struggle for bipolar happiness, was primarily the story of DeVito’s depressing Penguin. And after Burton, Batman really became defined by its villain-of-the-week. Riddler and Two-Face. Bane, Poison Ivy and Mr Freeze. Each one in ever more comic-in-the-wrong-sense costumes. While this made for potential fun "event movie" distraction, the "which-villains?" approach also risked taking the title hero for granted, and ushering him into the dark Gotham background. Nolan would later flirt with this danger himself in the otherwise spectacular The Dark Knight, however for this speculative re-launch, Nolan’s mission was to get Batman back to his roots. And for the villains in the year-of-the-reboot, Nolan and screenwriter David Goyer weighed in with the Scarecrow and Ra's Al Ghul.
Who are they?
That Nolan would take a bold new approach shouldn’t, and didn’t, come as a surprise. The modern thinking man’s escapist had already developed a pedigree for not being afraid of a challenge, and for being a master of structure and escalating tension. Memento was famously ordered backwards, Insomnia cast funnyman Robin Williams as a teen killer, and the lesser known The Following – Nolan’s first feature shot over weekends – was a tale of man choosing the wrong friend in a thief, told in flashback and twisted timelines (and shot so that the film could be "complete" at any stage of production if the crew ran out of funding). However for all his structural flair, Nolan’s best trick was always his ability to know and respect his audience. Never producing anything he himself wouldn’t enjoy, Nolan always teeters just ahead of his audience to keep them intrigued, but never too much to leave them lost at sea. He would also endeavour to put the audience inside the head of his protaganist. Yes Memento being backward was clever, but it also allowed the audience to feel what it was like to know nothing about what had happened just before. Just like Leonard.
In Batman Begins, Nolan and Goyer helped people understand how it might feel to be Batman in several ways, but the most overt was to make this DC Universe less comic book, and more realistic.
First up was the world. No more would Batman’s wheels be some aerodynamically-dubious flame-propelled production design project. No, it would be a military bridging vehicle, painted black. No more was Gotham a two-toned city of arbitrarily either honest or crazy citizens. No, instead it had caustic economics and corruption caused by something tangible - depression.
And no more did Bruce Wayne simply want to bury or overcome his parents death.
Instead he wanted to resolve his problems and protect their legacy. We learn early that Wayne’s father’s ambition – in addition to being a doctor - was to try and save Gotham from corruption with philanthropic projects, and to inspire the rest of the wealthy to join the cause. This change was possibly as big as any other. No longer was his parents’ death just a traumatic trigger. Instead it gave Bruce a constant reason to try to save Gotham – so his parents did not die for nothing. It was present every time the crumbling city was shown on screen, as if to remind us that until Gotham functioned once more, Batman’s work would not be done.
To maintain this focus on (i) Batman’s origins and (ii) Wayne legacy, Nolan and screenwriter David Goyer restored the mythology of the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents. While Burton had Jack Napier – who would become the Nicholson’s Joker – do the deed (adding “have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moon light?”), the writing duo returned lesser known mugger Joe Chill to the role, as per the original comics. By doing this Chill not only evidenced the new concept of depression in Gotham, his death - just before the young Bruce could get his own retribution – is the catalyst for Wayne's pained patrolling of the blurry ground between the twin ideals of revenge and justice. This balance is a recurring theme, beginning with the young Wayne’s suddenly-without-a-cause confusion, and developing into the billionaire playboy's hiding of a determined vigilante with clear, black and white morals.
Nolan’s next trick was his use of those low key franchise villains. There was a lot to take in, and if the villains were too iconic, camp or outrageous his experience wouldn't sit. Two lesser-known franchise villains fit the realism-redo. The Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), made realistic by having him primarily a corrupt psychiatrist, and his sack mask just a treatment technique that plays on the concepts of control through fear. This resonated with Bruce's fear of bats and failure, while also being a hot topic of the time given the political handling of the Iraq war and response to terrorism. At the same time Ra’s Al Ghul and the League of Shadows, made realistic by referencing Gotham’s corruption and the sacking of Rome, fire of London and depression, played on the concept of symbolism, retribution and justice.
To finish his new DC, Nolan added a few new ingredients and a different texture to remaining Batman staples. Commissioner Gordon became a pragmatic, room-for-promotion Lieutenant (Gary Oldman), and Alfred (Nolan’s new lucky charm Michael Caine) became a warmer, brighter butler, and genuine companion. As for the new, Nolan and co introduced two characters – old family friend, love interest and assistant district attorney Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) to unite every aspect of Bruce Wayne’s life – his past, present and hope for the future - and Wayne Enterprise’s Applied Science executive Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), who could provide a moral link to his father’s enterprise, and realistic gadgets of the new weapon’s focussed Wayne Enterprises that Bruce could innovate, and help him build his suit.
Board set with an array of intertwining storylines, Nolan then did what he does best. He introduced his world and stories, marshalled the maze of plot strands, and built the tension until the friction caused by every element rubbing together created enough electricity for Begins’ explosive climax.
On re-watching, the first act plays a little long, interspersing Bruce’s Tibet exile with flashbacks to the death of his parents and the bitter aftermath. However the visuals of Tibet and Gotham are stunning, and patience is well rewarded. The significance of what Nolan and Goyer were doing must be remembered – they were re-establishing a character and universe. It was necessary to be careful, and take a little time.
However, as soon as Bruce is back in town and setting up his night plans with the help of Alfred and Lucius Fox, the story of justice, corruption and fear rapidly swirls around Gotham’s mob and deep seeded plot for city self-destruction.
A superb ensemble cast, led by Christian Bale, is backed by great direction and an even better script. With so much to do it is genuinely impressive that the story rattles along without a single cell of excess flab – every scene working hard on many different levels. It is also impressive that Begins can satisfy fans of independent and blockbuster films alike. Begins has genuinely exciting and inspiring action sequences – e.g. the Tumbler's first outing on the rooftops – and resonating character beats – e.g. Bruce’s self-referencing rooftop reveal of his identity to Rachel. Add in a thumping score by the legendary Hans Zimmer and James Howard, and Batman Begins is possibly one of the most complete mainstream cinema experiences of the last decade.
It’s bold enough to suggest that Batman Begins is superior to its sequel, however the excellence of Begins is not just in its high quality, it is in the difficulty of the mission it had to accomplish. Begins not only had to rework a universe that had become a tired joke in the eyes of the masses, it had to balance each of its changes with both a satisfying character and action story. Every reboot in the past five years - and the five years to come – likely has its executive green-light roots or affirmation based in the quality of the end product in Begins.
What Nolan and Goyer achieved was therefore something quite remarkable, and deserving of its success. Begins (and The Dark Knight) is the product of very hard work and considered thinking – rare enough some may say – that took a joke of a franchise and bumped it closer to reality.
Closer to what it would really take to put on a mask.
It would all lead to a rollercoaster franchise that now ends on July 20 with the opening of The Dark Knight Rises. Fans of Begins predict a return to this original's ideas and the League of Shadows, presumably now led by Bane, and perhaps closure to Bruce Wayne’s attempts to fulfil the legacy of his parents.
It will take another week to find out, and before we get there Nolan and co took time out to tackle the most iconic Batman villain of all - the Joker - in 2008 billion dollar blockbuster The Dark Knight.