Batman Begins (2005)

Rating:

USA. 2005.

Crew

Director – Christopher Nolan, Screenplay – Christopher Nolan & David S. Goyer, Story – David S. Goyer, Based on the DC Comic Book, Producers – Larry Franco, Charles Roven & Emma Thomas, Photography – Wally Pfister, Music – James Newton Howard & Hans Zimmer, Visual Effects Supervisors – Dan Glass & Janek Sirrs, Visual Effects – BUF Compagnie, Cutting Edge, Double Negative (Supervisor – Paul Franklin), The Moving Picture Company (Supervisor – Rudi Holzapfel), Rising Sun Pictures, Miniature Supervisor – Steve Begg, Special Effects Supervisor – Chris Corbould, Prosthetics – Nick Dudman, Production Design – Nathan Crowley. Production Company – Warner Brothers/Syncopy/Patalex III Productions

Cast

Christian Bale (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Michael Caine (Alfred Pennyworth), Katie Holmes (Rachel Dawes), Liam Neeson (Henri Ducard), Cillian Murphy (Dr Jonathan Crane/The Scarecrow), Gary Oldman (Sergeant James Gordon), Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox), Tom Wilkinson (Carmine Falcone), Rutger Hauer (Earle), Mark Boone Junior (Flass), Gus Lewis (Young Bruce), Ken Watanabe (Ra’s Al Ghul), Linus Roache (Thomas Wayne), Richard Brake (Joe Chill), Rade Serbedzija (Homeless Man)


Plot

Young Bruce Wayne is shattered when petty hoodlum Joe Chill shoots his parents during a stickup. Bruce is left as the sole heir to the wealthy Wayne Enterprises. Driven by the desire for vengeance, Bruce disappears while in his mid-twenties, leaving people to think he is dead. He travels into the Far East where he ends up at the mountainside training school of the mysterious Ra’s Al Ghul. Al Ghul sees Bruce as a recruit to his League of Assassins and trains him in the mystic ways of fighting. However, Bruce and Al Ghul differ over Al Ghul’s intention to use him to return and raze the pit of corruption that Gotham City has become to the ground. Bruce leaves the school in flames after a fight and returns to Gotham. In an effort to bring down the empire of mob boss Carmine Falcone who controls the city, Bruce adopts hi-tech armour and weaponry from the Wayne Enterprises R&D section. In order to hide his identity and become a mythical figure of fear, he creates a masked costume in the likeness of a bat to become Batman. As he sets out to stop Falcone, he finds that his childhood friend Rachel Dawes, now a crusading District Attorney, is in danger. At the same time, psychologist Jonathan Crane has developed a gas that amplifies people’s fears and is planning to unleash it on the city.


Batman Begins is the fifth entry in Warner Brothers series of Batman movies. While Batman had appeared on screen before – the serials Batman (1943) and Batman and Robin (1949) and the feature film Batman (1966) spun off from the Batman (1966-8) tv series – the big screen franchise began proper with Tim Burton’s breathtaking Batman (1989), a film that incarnated the masks and grotesque faces with a stunning degree of dark psychology. Burton followed this up with the equally dazzling Batman Returns (1992). There was also the excellent Batman animated series (1992-4), which brought the dark driven Burton look to animation. This spawned several mostly video-released film spinoffs beginning with Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993), as well as the futuristic Batman Beyond/Batman of the Future (1999-2001), all of which are well worthwhile. Alas, while the animated spinoffs flourished on the small screen, the Batman movie franchise died a horrible death on the big screen. After Tim Burton left the series, Warner Brothers made the ruinous choice of handing direction over to Joel Schumacher, who made Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997), two hideous grotesqueries that promptly turned Burton’s dark interpretation of the comic-book into ridiculous and infantile camp spectacle. Batman & Robin is in this author’s opinion one of the worst A-budget movies ever made. A further spinoff, the widely ridiculed Catwoman (2004) starring Halle Berry, only added another nail to the coffin.

Batman Begins, which has also been known variously as Batman 5, Batman: Intimidation, Batman: The Intimidation Game, Batman Triumphant and Batman: Year One is a project that has been announced on and off since even before Batman & Robin premiered. Joel Schumacher was initially said to be contemplating Batman: Year One, which appears to have many nominal similarities to Batman Begins in offering up a Batman origin story and featuring The Scarecrow as a villain. Thankfully, Schumacher was dumped and the Batman 5 project then passed through a number of different hands. The Batman: Year One idea circulated for a time with Darren Aronofsky, the director of Pi (1998), Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006), Black Swan (2010) and Noah (2014), attached and Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett rumoured in the title role. There were also reports that Clint Eastwood would be playing the aging Batman in an adaptation of the classic graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns (1986), although this never appeared to be anything more than a fan mill rumour. There was serious speculation about the possibility of a live-action Batman Beyond movie under director Boaz Yakin. One of the more interesting rumoured versions was Batman vs Superman that was announced with Wolfgang Petersen, director of Outbreak (1995) and Troy (2004), at the helm and a script by Andrew Kevin Walker, the author of Se7en (1995), which would of course have combined DC’s two leading superheroes. However, it was the success of Marvel Comics on the big-screen in the 00s – Blade (1998), X-Men (2000), Spider-Man (2002), Daredevil (2003), Hulk (2003) etc – that brought about the revival of the Batman franchise. (Although, DC were surprisingly slow to take advantage of the popularity of comic books on screen in the 00s with a big-screen revival of Superman dithering around in development limbo for even longer than Batman Begins, before emerging as Superman Returns (2006) and various other adaptations of The Flash, Justice League, Shazam, Wonder Woman and Green Arrow still awaiting a green light with Green Lantern (2011) having been the only of these to go into production to date).

Of all the possible disasters that could have befallen it – Joel Schumacher back in the director’s chair, some of the teen casting touted for the title role – Batman Begins has emerged as far better than all reasonable expectations might have led one to believe. Firstly, there was the choice of director Christopher Nolan. Christopher Nolan gained great acclaim with his second film Memento (2000). When I first saw Memento, the ingenuity of the concept and Nolan’s extraordinarily innovative handling completely blew me away. Nolan proved somewhat less effective with his next film, the psycho-thriller Insomnia (2002) but regained strength subsequently with the fine The Prestige (2006) about rival Victorian stage magicians. Even more exciting prospect about Batman Begins was the name of David S. Goyer on script. In recent years, David S. Goyer has emerged as the pre-eminent screenwriter of filmed comic-book adaptations with his scripts for the likes of The Crow: City of Angels (1996), Blade (1998), the tv pilot for Nick Fury, Agent of Shield (1998), Blade II (2002), Blade Trinity (2004), which he also directed, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012), the Christopher Nolan produced Man of Steel (2013) and as executive producer of Ghost Rider (2007), not to mention the long-planned adaptation of DC’s The Flash and original works like the breathtaking conceptual sf film Dark City (1998) and Jumper (2008).

After Joel Schumacher cast such a bad smell over the franchise with his two outings, Batman Begins emerges like a gust of fresh air moving through a room. There is no neon glitter version of Gotham City, no campy one-liners, no Batsuits with nipples. It is hard to describe what a pleasure it is sitting in the theatre and immediately being plunged back into the dark, glistening world that Tim Burton incarnated so well and of seeing that finally there are some other writers and directors who understand exactly the dark places that the comic-book resides.

While the previous films delved into the nature of Batman’s psychology, it became increasingly the case as the series went on that Batman was only a supporting character to the freakish villains of the show. Batman Begins puts the focus back onto Batman and how he became who he is. In fact, the film does this so much so that the two villains of the film – Ra’s al Ghul and The Scarecrow – did not feature in any of the trailers or pre-publicity build-up. It is they that are the supporting characters this time. David S. Goyer has scrupulously studied the comic book and, even if he adapts freely at times, has invented psychological motivation for the familiar aspects and takes us through them and Bruce Wayne’s growth into the Caped Crusader one step at a time. Batman Begins holds a beautiful sense of seeing the pieces of the mythos falling into place – we see Bruce turning his feelings of murderous vengeance around towards a quest for justice, training as a fighter and learning how to use imagery that strikes fear into people’s minds, his vow of a refusal to kill (something that was ignored in the Tim Burton films), the origins of the bat symbolism, the creation of the Batsuit, Batarangs and utility belt, the origin of the Bat Signal, the Batmobile and Bat Cave, the friendship with Commissioner Gordon and so on. The film takes its time building up to the emergence of Batman – it is over an hour of running time before we get to see Christian Bale in the Batsuit. Although when we finally do, there is a superb shot with the camera cruising through the night skies and circling Bale as he stands in the Batsuit on the top of an outstretched turret, for all the world like a gargoyle, that makes one want to shout for joy.

That said, I do have to query some of Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer’s interpretation of Batman. One of the resolute aspects of the comic book has always been that Batman had no superpowers, that his only skills were acrobatics and detective work. Here though we are given the impression that Batman is granted seemingly mystical training and powers by Ra’s al Ghul. (This Eastern mystical training aspect takes the character of Batman much closer to The Shadow – Liam Neeson all but talks about the ability “to cloud one’s presence from the minds of men” at one point). Nevertheless, there is a beautiful sense of myth-making to Batman Begins – of a story investing a comic-book with gravitas and dignity, rather than turning it into a camp absurdity viz Schumacher and the 1960s tv series.

Somewhat more mixed are the villains. I was a little disappointed with the film’s Ra’s al Ghul, who was always one of the more intriguingly mysterious villains in the comic book. We do get a Ra’s who masterminds an international terror organization, is a master swordsman and it is hinted in one line of dialogue is possibly immortal. Alas, Nolan and Goyer fail to build Ra’s up with the degree of inscrutability that the character has in the original comic book – there is nothing of the suggestion that Ra’s’ origin is lost in the centuries. Particularly disappointing is the lack of a Talia – Ra’s daughter whom he was always grooming Batman as a possible husband for – and no Lazarus Pit. Even more noticeably, there is no longer any suggestion of Ra’s being Arabic, which possibly comes out of a desire to placate either American prejudices or Arabic fears over their stereotyping as militant terrorists these days. There is also not much time given over to the exploration of Jonathan Crane/The Scarecrow as a character. In the role, Cillian Murphy, then a hot new name as a result of 28 Days Later (2002) and purportedly once a contender for Christian Bale’s role as the Dark Knight, seems all of about the age of 18 and much too young to play an experienced psychologist – although Murphy’s piercing blue eyes do give the role an undeniable intensity. One of the downsides of the film’s desire to place the Batman mythos in a real world does seem to be that of robbing Ra’s and The Scarecrow of their essential larger-than-life stature as villains.

Nolan and Goyer have also thrown out any continuity to the foregoing films. They return to the comic book origin story in having Bruce’s parents killed by petty hoodlum Joe Chill, whereas Batman 89 changed this to make Joe Chill into Jack Napier, a young version of The Joker. Elsewhere we have Batman befriending Commissioner Gordon while he was still a sergeant, whereas the other films did not have Gordon meeting Batman until he was full commissioner. The film also has Gordon be the one who pioneers the use of the Bat Signal, while Batman presented it to the city at the end of Batman 89.

Batman Begins also seems to be trying just a little too much to be avoiding connection to the other films. The Hans Zimmer/James Newton Howard score anonymously pulses and barnstorms away in the background and left one feeling disappointed, wishing they had returned to the fabulous themes of the Danny Elfman scores for the first two movies or even Elliot Goldenthal’s elaboration on Elfman’s style in Joel Schumacher’s entries. The Batmobile has been reinvented from a sleek black machine it always was in the films and comic books into a far less striking armoured Humvee. Gotham City is also much more of a realist milieu than in the other films. Aside from a hi-tech monorail system and Wayne Tower planted in the midst of the downtown city centre, there is nothing to distinguish Gotham City here from any other major American metropolis – indeed, it is hard to guess that most of the city shown here is a miniature rather than a real location until one reads the various effects credits at the end of the film. This means that Christopher Nolan’s Batman takes place more in the real world than the stylized comic-book realm of the other movies. The disappointment that this holds is that Batman Begins is a film lacking the beautifully operatic heights that Tim Burton’s films had. There is not the same exquisitely glistening and stylised urgency to this film. Batman seems merely to have been thrown into a real world setting of a crime thriller, rather than a setting that seemed like a literalised projection of the dark, turbulent turmoil in the minds of the characters. This means that when the action scenes occur at the end, they seem not like a fabulous comic book battle but more like an action sequence grafted on from a standard blockbuster action movie. While Christopher Nolan does quite competently in these scenes, one gets the sneaking suspicion that directing action scenes is not entirely something he is interested in.

Certainly, Batman Begins is much more of a character-driven, talk-driven (as opposed to graphic novel imagery-driven) Batman movie than the other films were. For all the quibblings about difference of approach one might make, it is a film that soars and for the most part quite beautifully. It brings respect back to and welcomely reinvigorates the Batman franchise.

Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale returned for a further Batman prequel with the even better The Dark Knight (2008), followed by The Dark Knight Rises (2012). He went onto other DC Comics properties as producer and coming up with the story for the Superman reboot Man of Steel (2013) and producing Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). Batman Begins was spoofed in Superhero Movie (2008).

Batman was subsequently revived starring Ben Affleck in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), Suicide Squad (2016) and Justice League (2017).

Christopher Nolan subsequently went onto make the science-fiction films Inception (2010), Interstellar (2014) and the non-genre War film Dunkirk (2017). He has also produced Man of Steel (2013), Transcendence (2014), Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and Justice League (2017).

The other Batman films and tv series are:- Batman (1943) and Batman and Robin (1949), two 15-chapter serials from Columbia; the campy tv series Batman (1966-8) starring Adam West and Burt Ward, which produced one film spin-off with Batman (1966); the animated tv series The New Adventures of Batman (1977-8); the excellent animated series Batman (1992-4) inspired by the Tim Burton films and its follow-up The New Batman Adventures (1997-9), which spawned several film spin-offs with Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993), Batman and Mr Freeze: SubZero (1998), The Batman Superman Movie: World’s Finest (1998) and Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman (2003), as well as the later DC Universe Original Animated Movies Superman/Batman: Public Enemies (2009), Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010), Superman/Batman: Apocalypse (2010), Batman: Year One (2011), Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part I (2012), Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part II (2013), Batman: Assault on Arkham (2014), Son of Batman (2014), Batman vs. Robin (2015), Batman: Bad Blood (2016), Batman: The Killing Joke (2016), Batman and Harley Quinn (2017) and Batman: Gotham By Gaslight (2018), as well as Batman: Gotham Knight (2008), a compilation of anime Batman shorts; Batman Beyond/Batman of the Future (1999-2001), the futuristic follow-up series from the same creative team featuring an aging Bruce Wayne and his young apprentice, which also spun off one animated film Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2000) and another animated tv series Static Shock (2000-4), which featured several appearances from Batman; the animated series The Batman (2004-8), which badly revised the basics of the series and was also spun off into a film with The Batman vs. Dracula (2005); two further animated series Batman: The Brave and the Bold (2008-11), which placed Batman alongside other DC superheroes, and Beware the Batman (2013-4); the live-action tv series Gotham (2014– ), which tells the origin stories of the familiar characters and villains as Bruce Wayne grows up; Batman turns up as an animated character in The Lego Movie (2014) and gets a whole film to himself in The Lego Batman Movie (2017); the animated films Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts (2015) and Batman Unlimited: Monster Mayhem (2015) spun off from a line of action figures; the animated Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders (2016) and Batman vs. Two-Face (2017) featuring a return of Adam West and Burt Ward; and the anime film Batman Ninja (2018). Batman also makes appearances in the line-up of superheroes in various other DC-related animated series such as SuperFriends (1973-7), The All New SuperFriends Hour (1977-9) and Justice League/Justice League Unlimited (2001-5), as well as the films Justice League: The New Frontier (2008), Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths (2010), Justice League: Doom (2012), Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox (2013), Justice League: War (2014), Justice League: Throne of Atlantis (2015), Justice League: Gods and Monsters (2015), Justice League vs Teen Titans (2016) and Justice League Dark (2017). Other spin-offs include the short-lived live-action tv series Birds of Prey (2002), featuring the women of Batman – a paraplegic Batgirl, Cat Woman’s daughter and Harley Quinn – and the Halle Berry starring Catwoman (2004), while Robin appears as a member of Young Justice (2010-3) and Suicide Squad (2016) features a team-up of DC villains including The Joker and Harley Quinn. The Batman-Robin relationship is also excrutiatingly spoofed in the Superhero Speed Dating segment of Movie 43 (2013). Also of interest is Batman & Bill (2017), a documentary about the unacknowledged co-creator of Batman, Bill Finger.

(Winner in this site’s Top 10 Films of 2005 list. Nominee for Best Director (Christopher Nolan), Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor (Christian Bale) at this site’s Best of 2005 Awards).



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