The last time we saw Batman in action he was wearing a rubber suit with nipples, had Elle Macpherson for a girlfriend, strolled around a neon-infested landscape, and fought ultimate evil in the form of Arnold Schwarzenegger (his weapon of choice being puns). Things were not well in Gotham. Eight years later, DC Comics and Warner Brothers, weary of constantly being left in the dust as Marvel chalks up win after win (the glorious "Spider-Man" and "X-Men" franchises), return to the silver screen with the definitive caped crusader adventure, "Batman Begins" (IMDb listing).
Unable to seek revenge over the brutal murder of his beloved parents, billionaire/heir Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) leaves his privileged world behind in disgust, only to end up in a seedy Asian prison fighting for his life. Bruce is rescued by a mysterious figure named Ducard (Liam Neeson) who offers the lost soul a chance to join his clan of ninja, led by the enigmatic Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe in a cameo). Bruce agrees, and he is soon tutored in the ways of stealth, honor, and justice. Fearing his home of Gotham City is sinking under the weight of corruption and crime, Bruce returns to Wayne Manor and sets up shop, building a bat suit and assorted crime-stopping toys with the help of a tech genius (Morgan Freeman) and Bruce's trusty butler, Alfred (Michael Caine). Stalking the streets of Gotham at night, looking to stamp out crime through intimidation, Batman/Bruce finds greater evil coming as the fear-mongering Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy, "28 Days Later") begins his nefarious plans to rid the city of whatever harmony is left in the streets.
Written by David Goyer (the "Blade" trilogy), "Batman Begins" is a confident origin story that starts this new franchise at ground zero. The film is a polar opposite experience from the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher series, which trafficked in pop culture and cartoon-like adventure to provide big-budget entertainment. "Begins" returns Batman to his dark, comic book origins, trusting the audience to be patient while cautious director Christopher Nolan ("Memento," "Insomnia") painstakingly builds and arranges this shadowy cinematic world from scratch. Those accustomed to the sweetened thrills of the earlier films are in for a rude awakening with "Begins," for it desires to construct a solid initial base for the character, not paint the town red with gags and style in a quest to keep the story mindlessly moving forward. Nolan's film handles exactly like 1978's "Superman," which also took its time getting the audience used to personalities and locations. Goodness, it takes a full hour before the film even hands the audience some actual Dark Knight action. However, patience is rewarded with a full-bodied representation of Wayne's journey from cowardice to heroism, ensuring that the leap into the fantastical isn't a disruptive one. The film may not reflect reality, but Goyer and Nolan do a terrific job capturing verisimilitude for Bruce and his bat world.
The theme of "Begins" is fear, and how it can affect all creatures regardless of might. From Bruce's conquering of his demons to become Batman to the Scarecrow and his deadly fear toxin (which paralyzes victims into a state of horror), the idea of fear is worked to the bone in "Begins." Since the movie is not afraid to get chillingly sinister in tone or cinematography, Nolan milks the idea of terror well, seen often in the macabre distorted images presented in the Scarecrow's toxin-induced hallucinations (which makes the picture inappropriate for young children). "Begins" isn't even close to the light fare that Schumacher brought to the series in the mid-1990s, which was layered with camp and one-liners. Nolan's film is fierce and brooding, which gives the film oodles of gravitas and energy, helped along significantly by the propulsive score from Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard.
In a wise move, Goyer's script only lightly touches on the cliched psychological investigation of Bruce's split personality in the bat suit. "Begins" makes Bruce a character constantly striving to do the right thing, not worn down by incessant reexamination. They can save that malarkey for the sequels.
Boasting an all-star cast of grand acting talents, "Begins" gives every actor plenty to work with, and the fun is written across their faces. Also appearing are Gary Oldman as the friendly cop Jim Gordon, Katie Holmes as Bruce's childhood friend, now Gotham D.A. Rachel Dawes, Tom Wilkinson hamming it up as mob boss Carmine Falcone, and Rutger Hauer as Wayne Enterprises chairman Richard Earle. The supporting cast works dutifully to flesh out the "Batman" experience, but the center of attention is Christian Bale, and he deserves heaps of credit for making "Begins" come together as expertly as it does. Taking a role with dubious lineage, Bale reinvents the Bruce Wayne character, making him a person of action and crafty intelligence, not of words. While Bale has understandable trouble emoting from within the restrictive rubber costume, the actor dives into the role, and he's a deciding factor in the film's successful grand design to strip the franchise down and piece it back together differently. It's wonderful work here from Bale, who gives Batman authority without winking.
The tone of the film stresses practicality while retaining a comic book mood, and nothing spells that out more than the film's final moment, which superbly sets up the villain for the inevitable sequel. And frankly, the filmmakers are welcome to it, for their hard work creating this origin tale is masterful, leaving any future adventures with the opportunity to go hog wild in the world they've brilliantly created.
Filmfodder Grade: A