Do me (and yourself, for that matter) a favor. Put those last couple Batman movies out of your mind. Forget that Warner Brothers ever let Joel Schumacher near the franchise to create the rubber-
After four films, Warner Brothers has wisely handed the series over to director Christopher Nolan (Memento, Insomnia) for a fresh start. As the title promises, Batman Begins starts over at the beginning of the legend, telling us again how billionaire Bruce Wayne became the brooding superhero known as Batman. Screenwriter David S. Goyer (Dark City, Blade) deserves credit for fashioning (along with cowriter Nolan) a surprisingly nontraditional screenplay. The film takes its own sweet time laying the groundwork for the Dark Knight. An origin that is normally explained in the first ten minutes of a superhero movie is expanded to feature-length here. It's at least an hour before Bruce Wayne dons his first hint of cape-and-costume, and only the most simple-minded of spandex addicts will grouse.
The result is a grim, serious and very well-thought-out examination of the superhero myth. This is certainly the most psychological of all the Batman films and goes to great lengths to cement its main character in reality. Traumatized at a young age by a bat attack on the grounds of his parent's sprawling estate, young Bruce Wayne grows up in a world of fear. Soon after that life-altering incident, his philanthropist parents are murdered by a desperate robber (and, no, it isn't the Joker as reimagined in Tim Burton's Batman flick).
Searching for some way to avenge their pointless deaths, angry teenage Bruce travels the globe fraternizing with assorted criminal elements to learn their ways and means. Stuck in a brutal prison in the Far East, Bruce is rescued by a mysterious man named Ducard (Liam Neeson) who works for a secret organization known as the League of Shadows. This ninja-trained clan is more-or-less a fascistic band of killers aimed at bringing ultimate law and order to the world at large.
After years of training at the hands of Ducard (sort of a Dark Side version of Qui-Gon Jinn), Bruce finds himself at odds with the League's Machiavellian leader, Ra's al Ghul (The Last Samurai's Ken Watanabe). Following the expected showdown, Bruce returns to Gotham and sets about creating his persona as the Batman.
With Batman Begins, Goyer has fashioned an intense examination of fear. Bruce takes on the persona of a bat because it is the thing he fears most. His fear over losing his parents threatens to derail his mission, turning justice into simple revenge. Finally, the film's overarching theme is mirrored in the main villain, a nutty psychiatrist from Arkham Asylum who moonlights as the villainous Scarecrow (28 Days Later's Cillian Murphy). In battling the Scarecrow's apocalyptic plan to destroy Gotham City with his hallucinatory gas, Batman is forced to face his innermost demons.
Batman Begins is dark, dramatic and--at times--downright scary. Amazing, then, that the film never feels dour. On hand to lighten the mood are Michael Caine, doing superb duty as Bruce Wayne's unflappable butler Alfred, and Morgan Freeman as a cheerful scientist named Lucius Fox, who provides our hero with all of his best gadgets. (The Batmobile, it must be noted, is one bad-ass piece of machinery.) Toss in Gary Oldman as a pre-Police Chief James Gordon, Tom Wilkinson as a Gotham crimelord, Rutger Hauer as an evil businessman and Linus Roache as Bruce's late, lamented father and you've got an impressive cast that never once smacks of stunt casting. (Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze? C'mon!)
A number of actors have settled fairly comfortably into Batman's rubber power suit, but Brit-born Bale (Velvet Goldmine, American Psycho) puts the most work into the role. His raspy, dark-eyed Batman looks and sounds entirely different from his handsome Bruce Wayne. This film goes to great lengths to explain the moral wrestling match at the center of Bruce Wayne's soul, and Bale does a perfect job of bringing it to life. Even former WB star Katie Holmes does respectable work as Bruce Wayne's not-quite love interest, who--with a well-timed facial slap--provides our hero with his moral wake-up call.
It wouldn't take much effort to call this the best of the Batman films. It's leagues above Schumacher's two outings and arguably a better all-around success than Tim Burton's visually packed but action-deprived originals. Heck, I'd be willing to put this in a cage match with Spider-Man and X2: X-Men United to see who emerges as the best comic book movie ever made.
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