Christian Bale Dons the Cowl for Christopher Nolan’s Batman Reboot
As Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Dunkirk, storms theaters, we take a look back at some of the director’s other notable film’s we’ve reviewed in the past. This is my own original opening weekend review of Nolan’s Batman Begins, starring Christian Bale, Cillian Murphy, Liam Neeson, Gary Oldman, Katie Holmes, Ken Watanabe, Michael Caine, and Morgan Freeman. Nolan made two more Batman films to complete this series, 2008’s The Dark Knight and 2011’s The Dark Knight Rises. In between those, he made The Prestige (2006) and Inception (2010). The following review originally appeared online June 15, 2005.
– Jim Tudor
DIRECTED BY CHRISTOPHER NOLAN/2005
Despite being a longtime comic book fan, and a Batman fan to some degree, I have to admit that my anticipation of this film never truly became the emotional giddiness that geeks like myself are supposed to feel about movies like this. Intellectually, I saw the awesome pedigree of talent behind Batman Begins (director Christopher Nolan, Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Liam Neeson, etc.), and simply fully expected it to be the best of the live action Bat-pics. Considering the fact that each of the four previous entries were flawed in varying degrees of magnitude, and that the animated feature, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm has been the best Bat-flick up to this point, this was a foregone conclusion. But, my summer-event-movie-lovin’ heart was still with Star Wars, thus leaving me to be won over. And I was.Pretty early on, it became apparent that this is not a movie that kids will love. From their point of view, it’s probably dull, talky, and torturous, waiting (and waiting… and waiting…) for Batman to show up on screen (which takes over an hour). But more seasoned movie lovers will be impressed and maybe even surprised at the level of complexity to which Bruce Wayne – both his inner psychology and his muddled past – is explored. It is with great rejoicing that I tell you that there is finally a live action Batman that is actually about Batman! And, it is really, really good.
Batman Begins is the best superhero origin film ever made, topping the original Superman – The Movie.
Vaguely reminiscent of Frank Miller’s now-classic Batman: Year One series, Batman Begins maintains a tone of real-world seriousness that wavers only for the occasional wisecrack. In every way, it couldn’t be further away from the last movie, Joel Schumacher’s universally reviled Batman & Robin. By the end, it becomes clear that this film is not intended to be lumped in with those, as it has made a clean break, and it is truly launching the franchise anew.
Before seeing this, I didn’t put a whole lot of thought into trying to figure out how a third-tier villain like Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) and a relatively obscure super-natural villain like Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) would fit into this revisionist version of the caped crusader’s overly-familiar origin. Screenwriters David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan certainly pull it off though, having crafted a meticulously tightly woven script. Everything that is set up, right down to the tazer Katie Holmes’ character carries, is paid off in a satisfying way.
Regarding the origin, gone is this nonsense about the Joker having killed Bruce Wayne’s parents. Also, we get to see what kind of man papa Wayne was, something that never really occurred to any of the previous screenwriters. The discovery of the Batcave is tied in closely with the childhood trauma of Bruce, and the very iconography of the character. For good measure, there is much psychological examination of the lead character (perhaps making up for lost time), and much talk about the ramifications of fear. In fact, unnatural but to-the-point “fear” speeches abound – much like my beloved Star Wars – tying into the character of the Scarecrow, and the evil mega-plot of the film.
There are a few minor quibbles. The big, wonderfully bombastic Danny Elfman Batman theme music (later effectively tweaked by the likes of Elliot Goldenthal and Shirley Walker) we’ve come to know and love is gone, not surprisingly. In its stead we have a functional but unmemorable score credited to both Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. (And call me old fashioned, but I also missed a cool opening credits sequence for the music to play over. Instead we merely get a logo – sort of.) This is too bad, since memorable music is such a staple of the classics of the comic book superhero movie sub-genre. Unfortunately Batman Begins is not alone in this musical mire, as none of the recent superhero flicks have fulfilled this requirement, even the indisputable titans X2 (which came close) and Spider-Man 2.
Also, it quickly becomes apparent that for all his strengths as a director, Nolan cannot direct fight scenes. Batman’s many skirmishes are understandably brief for the most part (he does, after all, kick butt), and rely on impressionistic filming and kinetic editing rather than legitimately staged choreography.
The initial major disappointment of the batsuit being another black rubber getup was something that I had gotten over before going to the theater – will we EVER see a live-action Batman in a down and gritty homemade grey and black outfit ala Year One? – but on the upside, the improved mobility of the character is noticeable. At least how and why the suit is what it is is all convincingly explained. Even that ridiculous tank-like batmobile makes some sense. It has everything to do with Morgan Freeman’s character Lucius Fox, the inventor of many of the bat-gadgets.
Finally, although Nolan and Goyer’s commitment to taking the character’s origins seriously are commendable, this may’ve been a good time for Nolan to pull one of his nonlinear storytelling tricks, if for no other reason than to deliver a full-on Batman action set-piece early on. Yeah, that’s the twelve year old boy in me talking, but even the action stuff in the early training sequences suffer for lack of Bat. As I said before, young kids will likely grow very restless throughout these passages, and non-devotees under the mistaken impression that all comic book movies should be a whirlwind of color and wonder will complain of the self-seriousness of the film (like they did with Ang Lee’s underrated Hulk).
Keep in mind that those are all MINOR quibbles in the grand scheme of this excellent film. The acting, especially that by Bale and Neeson, is all believable and more than serviceable. (Although Bale as Batman does sound a bit too intentionally gravelly most of the time.) Especially appreciated is the long-missing camaraderie between Jim Gordon and Batman. God bless good old Pat Hingle, but Jim Gordon he was not. It should be no surprise that this very important character to the bat mythos is in good hand with the age-appropriate and non mush-mouthed Gary Oldman.
Finally, a movie about the dark knight that isn’t so in love with its own constructed ambiance and art direction that it leaves the title character in the dark. Nolan did right to shoot so much of this film on location, thus further selling the reality and believability of this scenario that is admittedly far fetched in real world terms. Is this better than Mask of the Phantasm? It very well may be, but I’d need to see that again to officially decide. What I do know is that Batman Begins is the best superhero origin film ever made, topping the original Superman – The Movie. Although this film is being subtly sold as a prequel, it is actually the beginning of an all-new series of these films. Does that excite the inner comic book geek in me? Absolutely. And the film geek in me is pretty happy too.