2005Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Christian Bale, Katie Holmes, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Cillian Murphy
or all the critical bouquets placed at the foot of the Spiderman series and the torrent of comic-book movies Spidey has inadvertently greenlighted, it took Hollywood until 2005 to produce an effort worthy of more than sub-genre accolades. Batman Begins finally thrusts off the yoke of, “It’s really good . . . for a comic book movie,” and shows that the graphic novel can provide fertile ground for a popcorn flick that is wildly entertaining, but also surprisingly thoughtful.
One look at the collection of talent gathered by Warner for Batman Begins explains the film’s success. Christopher Nolan (Memento) was handed the keys to a nine-figure production and a near-perfect cast. Veteran Michael Caine (ummm . . . everything?) thankfully decided to not mail-in his performance as Alfred, and proves yet again that he can stand out in any setting so long as he’s interested. Morgan Freeman (ummm . . . everything else?) plays for the 95th time the older-black-man who helps the younger-white-man, but he turns on the charm more heavily than in recent outings. And Tom Wilkinson (In the Bedroom, The Full Monty) provides a perfect example of how casting terrific actors for small roles (in this case, gangster Carmine Falcone) can add unexpected heights to otherwise mundane scenes. In short, the supporting cast is a serious boon to Batman Begins.
"This is definitely the most complicated Easter Egg hunt I've ever been on..."
But the backbone of any Batman film is formed by its superhero and supervillian, a structure for which Nolan had to rely on his younger stars. Christian Bale (American Psycho, The Machinist) delivers easily the most complex portrayal of Bruce Wayne ever, aided greatly by the inclusion of far greater screen time in which Bruce neither plays the billionaire playboy nor galavants as the caped crusader. By giving more time for Wayne to “be himself”, the screenwriters allow Bale to inhabit a much more human and conflicted character than the bereaved do-gooder of Batmen past.
Unlike previous incarnations, Bale’s Wayne is driven almost exclusively by conscience as opposed to revenge. Extensively explicated flashbacks shed light on how Bruce’s principles became so strongly forged, and the viewer gets the sense that Bruce’s greatest source of motivation is his fear of disappointing those closest to him. The change adds a dimension of shared experience to the usual sympathy evoked by the orphaned status, for wanting approval from loved ones is certainly a universal emotion.
Cillian Murphy is very good as the unnervingly calm Dr. Jonathan Crane and makes the bone-chilling Scarecrow an all too real nightmare. The audience’s introduction to Scarecrow is unexpected and very frightening, pushing the envelope of the film’s PG-13 rating without spilling a drop of blood. The effect of surprise greatly enhances the scene, so steer clear of the spoilers, Captain Internet. Scarecrow’s rather short screen time and budding-but-not-ripened evil-genius leaves the audience tantalized, and the script sets the stage quite well for his return in a sequel.
But the cast and characters are not all that goes right with Batman Begins; the peripherals are also well above par. Set designs are detailed and varied, providing the audience with emotional cues like the tension of Gotham’s dark and humid Narrows or the cavernous solitude of Wayne Manor. The film’s score is also top notch, often thundering but somehow never a distraction. And, for once, the special effects are seamlessly integrated into the rest of the movie. There are no, “Hey, look at this blow up for no reason!” moments and no overly CGI’d fighting moves. By using effects sparingly and adding some quality ol’ fashioned stuntwork, Nolan keeps the action sequences away from cartoonish elements; preserving a darker feel that blends well with the film’s overall air.
"I look fabulous!!!”
Even when one finds Batman Begins’s faults, they’re usually intertwined with positives. Bale uses a rather annoying and almost comically not-tough voice for Batman himself, but Wayne’s need for secrecy warrants the vocal disguise. The fight scenes survive close shots and confusing cuts by maintaining an authenticity of how a fight involving Batman would go (darkness, rapid motion, sporadic noise). And despite some cringe-worthy jokes making the final cut, a very respectable percentage of one-liners hit their mark.
By infusing a comic book story with plausibility and depth, Nolan and co-writer David S. Goyer craft a film that is entertaining without resorting to fluff. Part comic book fantasy, part Bourne Identity action flick (Batman has to run away sometimes), and part character-study, Batman Begins completes a hat-trick to please an extraordinarily wide swath of the movie-going public. It’s really good . . . period.