Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2005)
Christian Bale (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Michael Caine (Alfred), Liam Neeson (Henri Ducard), Ken Watanabe (Ra’s Al Ghui), Katie Holmes (Rachel Dawes), Gary Oldman (Jim Gordon), Cillian Murphy (Dr. Jonathan Crane), Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox). Screenplay by David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Rating: 12. Running time: 140 minutes.
The reason The Dark Knight can hurl us right into a bank heist in its opening scene without ever stopping to apologise for neglecting the background of its characters is not only because of the history of this cinematic series; it’s also because of the groundwork Nolan gives us in Batman Begins. Unlike Bruce Wayne’s mansion that crumbles in the course of the action here, the foundations for future instalments predicated on this effort are well and truly unshakable.
We’re given an explanation of almost everything: from falling into an old bat-infested well as a child that provoked a long lasting but eventually conquered phobia, to witnessing his parents being murdered by a petty thief, inciting a life-long concern for his hometown’s crime levels, both character quirks and motivations are dwelled upon here. As are the source of his beliefs: the Kantian categorical commitment to never murdering took time to accept, but a girl and District Attorney he is fond of inspires him to accept justice is not about revenge. And his training: out in the East he learnt his way in the martial arts, eventually leaving that circle due to their decent means but disturbing ends.
This lasts just the right amount of time, taking up about a third of the film. And whilst slightly slow, the flicking around from one time period to another along with the rushing music ensures it always feels strictly preparatory. You know it’s not going to take up the whole film.
But there’s another thing about these scenes of importance, and that’s just how crucial they are to establishing Batman as a superhero that isn’t supernatural, but who is nevertheless the most compelling comic-based hero of the lot. He hasn’t sat studying ethics and human rights law, but he’s got a good idea of what his principles are. The same cannot be said of Superman or web-spawning Spiderman. Batman’s on a level so elevated that in comparison both of them may as well be with Travis Bickle.
His point – and this is made explicitly in some very crucial exchanges – is to be more than a vigilante. He won’t be working against the police and it won’t be motivated out of self-interest. Instead, by becoming an elusive figure of fear, but one that does not stoop to the scum on the streets’ level, he can complement the state’s work and make up for its inadequacies. He thus sets out as a billionaire playboy by day with the most unexpected of night jobs, tackling the underworld slowly but surely and making a name for himself as the most obscure but effective of protectors.
When the action arrives, then, it’s big. It doesn’t have the aura of grandiosity the film’s successor does, predominantly because the cinematography is good but not special like in The Dark Knight. There’s also the fact that many scenes take place in a Gotham ghetto as opposed to the crisp clean streets actually belonging to Chicago. The reason this has gone by the time the next film arrived was because of the plot development’s here – those disturbing ambitions Wayne’s teachers in the East had included conspiring to wipe all the dirt (read: people) out of Gotham by contaminating the water supply with hallucinogens that drive people to self-destruction. Forgive the Taxi Driver reference again, but it’s probably what Travis would have done to New York if he was a little more connected.
You may have sensed a bit of cheesiness in the plot-structure as I just described it, and I think you would be right. Coming from the man who went on to write Inception, I’m surprised this is the case. But the nature of the first mission that unfolds for Batman really is a little suspicious in its prophetic Doomsday-like implications. The main character behind it is equally unconvincing. Liam Neeson’s role doesn’t work. He even has to say at one point ‘now excuse me, but I have a city to destroy.’ Deary me.
The action-sequence this culminates in is equally frustrating, no moreso than because of what precedes it. We get subjected to a train screeching down a track and heading for a destination that spells disaster, and it’s Batman fighting Neeson to bring it to a halt…
I’m not sure what happened here that made Nolan momentarily lose his eye for corniness, because it really is out of character not only in relation to his other four films, but even for the majority of this one. Batman Begins is a huge success in its thought and groundwork, and equally promising in its action. The only thing that had to be worked upon was the nature of the evil activities and the character of the men that Batman fought against. With the arrival of the Joker and his devilish antics in The Dark Knight, that missing piece was found. But it doesn’t stop Batman Begins also being top draw in every other respect.
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