One of the problems with Batman is that he is a character who is hard to relate too. Compared to the more blue collared heroes of Marvel the DC heroes have always strayed away from the common man angle. Superman is a deity, Wonder Woman is an Amazon, the Green Lantern is an interstellar cop and Batman is a playboy billionaire driven to the point of madness by the murder of his parents. Having his parents be killed in cold blood at such a young age not only distances the character from his readers but limits how you can tell the story of Batman. The character is essentially going through long term post-traumatic stress, raging against the world which disrupted his life and as such you can either write the character as a cipher or a mad man.
The live action Batman films all seemed to realise this with Burton’s first film portraying Batman and Bruce Wayne as a barely contained psychopath. The following films would marginalise Batman’s role in the story until he was little more than a supporting character in his own movies. Whilst the previous films would contain brief flashbacks to the murder of Wayne’s parents they never took the time to look at the origins of the character with even Tim Burton’s first Batman film showcasing a fully formed crime fighter.
Christopher Nolan’s 2005 resurrection of the character would devote nearly half of its runtime to the origins of Batman and would become the first Batman film that was as much about Bruce Wayne as his secret identity. Featuring extensive flashbacks to his youth in Gotham and showing the training that Wayne would undertake to become a masked vigilante Batman would only show up about an hour into the film. Instead of the infallible and omniscient Batman of the past we were shown a young and inexperienced crime fighter struggling to make a difference.
By focusing so much on Bruce Wayne’s formative years Batman Begins actually manages to develop something of an emotional core. Thanks largely to the work of Christian Bale and Gus Lewis (who has a few scenes as the young Bruce Wayne) Batman Begins actually creates a Bruce Wayne that feels real, a Bruce Wayne consumed by anger but who actively fights against the darkness inside him. Whilst Keaton, Kilmer and Clooney all embraced the inherent nuttiness of Wayne none of them seem to have the sense of inner turmoil that Bale brings to the role.
“Swear to me!”
With his previous work in American Psycho it was easy to assume that Bale would have brought some Patrick Bateman to the role but in fact he eschews a lot of the expected acting choices. For one Wayne never seems overtly crazy, his mission is driven by a deep insanity but when he dons the mantle of the bat it is a cathartic release for the character. Whilst I’m not usually a fan of Bale’s work have to admit that his acting choices and sheer physical presence really help to establish Wayne as a character. His Wayne is truly happiest when he is at work but he also has the mental discipline to make his social interactions not seem too rigid. Despite being uncomfortable with his role as a playboy Billionaire he never comes off as a kooky or as odd as the previous Batman.
Aiding Bale are some absolutely terrific supporting performers. Chief amongst them is Michael Caine as Wayne’s erstwhile Butler Alfred. Caine, like Bale, moves away from what you would expect of Alfred and creates a character that feels real. Whilst the general notion of Alfred is an incredibly proper and traditional butler Caine opts for a slightly more blue collar approach. He is a lot more forthcoming than any previous version of Alfred and this fact is relayed in simple things like his accent. Instead of going for a traditional ‘proper English’ approach to his line delivery Caine gives Alfred a military standing and doing so he sets himself up as an equal force to Wayne. Instead of being a surrogate father figure to Wayne Alfred becomes Batman’s conscience, the force trying to stabilise and guide the crime fighter. He also offers a little lightness to counterpoint Bale’s strict and at times joyless performance.
An impressive ensemble of British actors rounds out the rest of the supporting cast. Liam Neeson seems to be having quite a lot of fun as Ducard, the man who mentors Wayne and schools him in the ways of the Ninja. Tom Wilkinson is legitimately threatening and repellent as Falcone, a mob boss who currently controls Gotham. Cillian Murphy gives a lot of depth to a wafer thin character as Dr. Crane, his slimy intonation and gangly frame making him an interesting contrast to Bale’s Batman. In fact only Gary Oldman as Sgt. Gordon seems to get the short shrift of things, his role in the film teetering on the edge of being a comic sidekick. He’s given some of the worst material the script has to offer and you can actually see Oldman’s interest wane as the movie goes on. It’s a shame because Gordon is a key player in the Batman mythos and in Batman Begins he just seems to not really be utilised aside from two key scenes. His interactions with the young Wayne after the shooting are really well done and his conversation with Batman about escalation is some of the strongest work in the film, it’s just unfortunate everything else is so flat.
“You want my opinion? You need to lighten up”
Gordon is probably the biggest casualty of a script from David Goyer and Christopher Nolan that is at times just horrible. Whilst the bare bones of the story are fantastic and show a great love for the Batman mythos it’s the individual dialogue which really cripples the film. There’s a certain lunk headedness to lines like “My name is merely Ducard” “I got to get me one of those” and “Protection for them” which work to sabotage the entire production. The film veers wildly from being understated to being overstated and the effect is incredibly jarring at times. Ducard and Bruce’s training session on an ice flow is a really great piece of writing but when they meet again Ducard has switched from a sage mentor to a ranting villain who even delivers a speech about killing Wayne’s parents by proxy.
What hurts the film more than anything is the shift in tone halfway through the second act. The first act is probably one of the best bits in the film and in the Batman films in general. Seeing Wayne recount his past horrors and become a man strong enough to become Batman is fascinating and it’s handled in a really interesting way. Despite the presence of ninjas and Gotham’s sprawling Art-Deco design it feels like a grounded movie. It’s certainly not a realistic film but it feels like a revenge film grounded in an approximation of reality.
This tone is maintained for about an hour and a half and even Batman’s first few jaunts are handled in a way that feels a million miles away from standard comic book fare. Batman is a shadow in the film, striking out from the darkness and picking off his foes like something from a horror film. Even the films villains are handled in a more grounded way. Falcone is an archetypal thug, a gang lord with the entire city on his payroll whilst Dr. Crane is just a sadistic psychologist who’s gotten into a scheme to make some money. Crane is the more outlandish of the two and even his heightened moments are him just trying out a fear toxin on patients.
The problem comes when the film starts to amp up for its major finale with the grounded elements being replaced by typical super heroics. Whilst the finale isn’t bad it feels like a betrayal of the good work set up previously. Batman trying to escape the police in his modified tank is a thrilling piece of vehicular action but it also throws the intelligence the film had been building out of the window. Similarly the major action set piece on board of an overhead tram has stakes that are too high for the modest beginning of the film and reduces Gordon to little more than a comedy sidekick.
“Does it come in black?”
Part of the problem is that Nolan whilst being a great director when faced with character and thriller elements doesn’t seem to know how to film an action sequence and as such most of the action beats are incredibly confused. In fact the final fight on the tram itself is so muddled that it starts to become unclear exactly who has done what. As such the earlier moments where Batman is prowling around the city trying to find information work far more effectively than any of the later action climaxes.
Christopher Nolan’s vision of Batman however is one that actually works. Having Batman work against mobsters in an art-deco (with a hint of Blade Runner’s drizzly dystopia) version of Gotham actually seems to suit the character really well. Like Batman ‘89 it just feels like there is a conflict over the story and tone of the film with the influence of Goyer and Nolan apparent in several key scenes.
Still with a fantastic score (the combined work of James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer is some of the best stuff that either composers have created in a while), some incredible cinematography and a fully rounded central hero it is hard not to view Batman Begins as the best Batman film in the series.