For hardcore Batman fans -- or just fans of movies -- there have been two somewhat decent, engaging entries in the Batman saga, one camp spectacular, two laughable jokes and, now, one of sheer inspiration and utter brilliance.
The first two Batman films with Michael Keaton succeed more because of the style and interpretation of TimBurton's vision of the character more than the stories, actors and situations themselves. The last two films, well, let's skip those. And the 1966 Adam West/Burt Ward movie is fun to watch but, let's face it, really poor for a Batman movie. But here comes Batman Begins, a film that begins its exploration of the Batman character at its creation, while humanizing him, the villains, the secondary characters and the background players while placing them in grounded, realistic (for a comic book movie, anyway) scenarios.
As the film opens, we discover a scruffy, trainwreck of a Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), imprisoned (or hiding out?) in a prison in some Asian country. After engaging in a knock-down, drag-out brawl with six bad dudes and being dragged away by guards for the protection of the people Wayne just destroyed, he's visited by a shadowy figure calling himself Ducard (Liam Neeson). Ducard shows up with all sorts of insight into Wayne and his life ("A man like Bruce Wayne can't simply disappear," Ducard says), before offering Wayne a way off the path he's on now and onto a new road that will lead Wayne to his ultimate goal -- avenging his parents' murder -- by training with the even more shadowy Ra's al Ghul (Ken Watanabe).
After an all-too-unimpressive quest -- intentionally easy, that is -- Wayne shows up at the headquarters of Ra's and his League of Shadows. It's here where Wayne 's training begins, as does our look into what led Wayne here in the first place.
In the previous films, any mention of Batman's origins is fleeting at best. There's the extended flashback in the 1989 Batman that shows Bruce Wayne's parents being gunned down, but the scene is there more to expound on Batman's hatred for the Joker rather than give us insight into his psyche. In Batman Begins, though, this seminal event is treated with deep reverence and much more screen time.
We see Bruce playing at Wayne Manor with young Rachel Dawes (played later by Katie Holmes), and we see him fall down an abandoned well to discover a cave full of bats. This discovery of what will become the Batcave has never been shown on screen, and thanks to that -- as well as the cinematography of shot choices by director Christopher Nolan -- this is a stand-out scene in the film. But more than that, it's one of the most important. After Bruce falls down the well, he's confronted with a flock of bats, instilling in him a deep, unflinching fear of the animal. He has nightmares which his father tries to assuage, but at an opera where bat-like figures loom ominously on the stage, young Bruce is frightened to the point of forcing his parents to leave the show early. They exit a back door which leads to a dingy, grimy back alley and into the clutches of thug Joe Chill. A victim of the recent depression sweeping through Gotham City, Chill demands the money and jewels from the Waynes. His nerves ultimately get the best of him and his shaky trigger finger kills Thomas and Martha Wayne dead.
This all-important scene is played perfectly: mood, acting, lighting and, again, shot choice create an atmospheric, tragic event. But what makes it more tragic is how it ties into the earlier scene of Bruce falling down the well. If his fear hadn't gotten the better of him at the opera, his parents would still be alive -- in other words, his parents' death, while not his fault, had an indirect cause in Bruce and, because of that, his drive for vengeance is that much more powerful. It's a motivation that has never fully been explored on-screen like it is here.
What follows is the meat of the film. We get more exploration of Bruce's relationship with Ducard, Ra's and the League, we see how he becomes Batman, and we meet the other important character in the film: Sgt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman), Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillius Murphy), a psychiatrist on the take who moonlights as Scarecrow, Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) and Lucious Fox (Morgan Freeman). So as not to enter into spoiler territory, all that can be said is what follows makes the almost-decade-long wait for a new "Batman" film worth it and then some.
From the pitch-perfect acting of literally everyone in this more-stars-than-in-Heaven cast to the expert direction of indie-fave Nolan, this movie nails it -- dead on. Bale and Oldman, though, steal the show. They play their characters straight and without novelty, which is key. In every other Batman film, there's a certain amount of scene-chewing from the cast (Nicholson in Batman, DeVito in Batman Returns, Carrey in Batman Forever and everyone in Batman & Robin). But not here. These guys know their characters, no doubt about it. Bruce Wayne/Batman and Gordon are played as honest guys in dishonest times trying to make it work. There is a deadly serious world out there, and they know -- Wayne and Gordon, Bale and Oldman -- that being cute, being cartoony signals the end. And they avoid it like the plague.
What also should be singled out for special attention is the screenwriting of Nolan and David S. Goyer. Goyer, who cut his teeth (no pun intended) on the Blade movies, knows what makes a comic book movie tick. And from reading how much research he did into the Batman legacy and mythos, it's no wonder the film feels real, weighty and true. But more important is the characterization of Wayne and the villains. In the previous films, no matter how dark they were, the characters where never really played straight. The villains are horrific cartoons -- or just plain cartoony -- and Bruce Wayne was never any more than Batman who sometimes takes off the suit.
Here, it's just the opposite. This is about Wayne, not Batman; Wayne becomes Batman, not the other way around. Wayne doesn't go looking to be a masked crime fighter, and he doesn't ask for the role of protector of Gotham. But he finds himself in those roles nonetheless, and what Nolan and Goyer concern themselves with more than anything else is how Wayne -- and the people around him -- deals with that harsh reality. It's an absolutely inspired move that, alone, sets Batman Begins apart from the other films.
Of course, where it's similar is that it has to end with the set-up for a sequel, but here again Nolan has taken the convention and spun it on its head. We're left with a description from now-Lt. Gordon about a crazy burglar/murder who leaves an odd calling card. To reveal what that card is would be to reveal the likely next villain in the next film, and to reveal that would be to ruin one of the best moments in the film. The revelation of this character at the end is done with subtly and nuance. We don't get the image of some crazed lunatic on the loose in order to whet our appetite for the next installment. Rather, we're treated to a deliberate and intelligent reveal that will drive hardcore fans crazy with anticipation and casual fans, well, crazy with anticipation.
In an era when most event movies are a let down, Batman Begins makes up for them in a big way. It might not be the best comic book movie -- Spider Man 2 might still hold that distinction -- but it comes damn close. And if there is a sequel, and if this cast and crew return, there's no telling how much better the series can get.
It took a while, but it looks like Batman -- and DC Comics -- is finally on the right track at the multiplex.