Unless you live under a rock (and even then it’s debatable), you’re probably aware that a new Batman movie opens today. The film is getting a lot of hype for its quality and for the late Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker. The Dark Knight will continue the reinvention of the Batman franchise that began with 2005’s Batman Begins – and if the film recreates the excellence of the first, the hype is not unfounded. After watching the franchise descend into pulp-goth silliness in the late 90s, director Christopher Nolan (Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige) was brought on board to bring it back down to earth. Throwing out the previous films and starting from scratch, he created in Batman Begins easily the best comic-book adaptation of all time and a tremendous film by any criteria.
The film follows the life of Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), the son of Gotham City’s most noted businessman and philanthropist. After seeing his parents murdered at a young age, Wayne sets out on a desperate quest for meaning and vengeance, eventually finding himself on the far side of the world, where a man named Ducard (Liam Neeson) finds him and gives him direction, training him to strike back against the criminal world and become an agent of justice. Returning home to find Gotham in disarray, Wayne takes on the persona of Batman, seeking to use fear against those who prey on the fearful. Aided by his loyal butler and father-figure Alfred (Michael Caine), friend and tech guru Lucious Fox (Morgan Freeman), and rare-good cop Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), he sets out to shut down the organized crime that has a deathgrip on Gotham and the mysterious young psychologist (Cillian Murphy) who seems to be pulling the strings – while maintaining his humanity, most clearly seen in his relationship with childhood friend and current assistant district attorney Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes).
As setup goes, it seems like standard comic-book fare. What elevates Batman Begins above the fray, however, is the way in which the material is handled by all involved. Nolan, who has a knack for exploring the darker side of the human psyche, gives each character deep and real motivations and presents the world of Gotham in an incredibly realistic fashion. As reviewers of the sequel have pointed out, the films feel much more like a deep crime drama than like something ripped from the pages of a comic book. That’s not to say that the film is at all dry and boring – the action sequences are intense and visually breathtaking and the film has a sharp wit about it. Yet the world of Batman Begins feels like the world in which we live, not a glossy, disconnected fantasy. The production design and art direction add to the realistic flavor while still giving the movie a great (and much subtler than its predecessors’) visual style. The film is perfectly cast – Bale gives a breakout performance that’s largely responsible for his recent mainstream success, seasoned vets such as Neeson, Caine, and Freeman provide supporting characters that are never thin or throwaway, Oldman shines in a rare good-guy role, and even Holmes turns in a solid performance that went largely unappreciated, especially in light of her decision not to reprise her role in the sequel. Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s score fits what’s on screen perfectly, adding an audible dimension to the film’s palpable mood. As pictures of this genre go, Batman Begins is perfect, to the point that it actually transcends genre and deserves to be held up as a classic. This is one of mine and Heather’s all time favorite movies, and we’ll be heading out to see the sequel as soon as we can line up a babysitter. If you haven’t seen the original, go rent it ASAP, comic-book fan or not. If you have seen it, go see the sequel – and if you can’t make it to the theater this weekend, pop Batman Begins in your DVD player to get caught up like we will be doing tonight. - **** (out of 4)
Batman Begins is rated PG-13 for intense action violence, disturbing images and some thematic elements.