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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

eFilmcritic Archive: "Batman Begins" (2005)

No hero shot. No grand, memorable score. No forced romance. No action sequence that tries to be the end-all be-all action sequence. No hit radio single by current pop favorite. No singular, central villain. It’s serious, but not humorless. It’s artistic, but not off-putting. It’s fast paced, but not dumbed down. It’s dark, but not dreary. It has heart, soul, a mind and a reason to exist outside of generating cash flow for Warner Bros. It moved me, it thrilled me, it made me smile and I never looked at my watch once. Not the first time I saw it, nor the second time. How could this possibly be a Batman movie?

Simple. It doesn’t take a genius to see that combining a talented director, a flawless screenplay and a cast of unbeatable actors can result in a great movie that treats its audience with respect instead of a faceless mass of lobotomized chimps…while also treating the audience to a great time. The formula works that simply and Batman Begins—like the first two Superman movies and Spider-Man 2 before it—sticks to that formula. Never mind that the story concerns a man that dresses like a bat to fight crime. If you have those key elements in place, you can make a great movie out of anything.

Director and co-screenwriter Christopher Nolan knows this and treats his material as such. Unlike those other four Batman films (none of which I liked), this movie concerns a person, not an idea. It’s about the character finding his way through the depths of his troubled psyche, not about a bunch of actors wearing funny costumes and trading witty asides. Like the recent Star Wars film, this movie doesn’t try to win over a young audience, but a smart one. I bought every word of every line of every scene in this movie and I never once reacted to it with cynicism.

The movie opens with Bruce Wayne as a boy falling into a well and having the wits scared out of him by a herd of bats. As we have seen in Tim Burton’s 1989 film, Bruce also witnesses his parents getting killed in an alley by a mugger. These two key events warp Bruce’s mind as he grows into manhood. Instead of taking over the family business (Wayne Enterprises, the heart of Gotham City), he decides to live as a recluse to try and figure out the mind of a criminal. This lands Bruce in jail where he gets into brawls with fellow inmates.

One day, he gets paid a visit by a man named Ducard (Liam Neeson), who recruits Wayne as a possible fighter for the mysterious League of Shadows, a crime fighting vigilante unit that kill their prisoners first and asks questions later. This philosophy doesn’t bode well with Bruce Wayne, who believes that an eye doesn’t necessarily equal an eye.

The lessons learned from the group do not go to waste. Apart from the rigorous physical training, Bruce learns that when fighting crime on your own, you have to become something bigger than yourself. “You have to become an idea,” Ducard tells him. With that in mind, Bruce makes his way back to Gotham City, where corruption has become the favorite pastime. Bruce moves back into Wayne Manor, confides in Alfred the Butler (Michael Caine), enlists the help of an arms specialist (Morgan Freeman) and proceeds to conceive his alter ego, Batman.

I’m simplifying this, of course, but only because I have to. The movie could have, but thankfully does not. From here, the story concerns gangster Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), a crazed doctor, also known as Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), a cop who has yet to be corrupted (the typically unrecognizable and therefore great Gary Oldman) and Bruce Wayne’s once-childhood sweetheart, Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), who now works as an idealistic district attorney. The story gets more complicated, more surface oriented, but never, ever dull.

Furthermore, there’s not a wasted line of dialogue in this film. From the character Ducard, we learn about the loss of his wife, which led him to the League of Shadows. From Alfred, we learn about his loyalty to Bruce’s father and the ideals they share. And Bruce Wayne becomes as real and fully rounded a character as anybody we would meet in any Scorsese film. These characters (and others) and their actions are bound by one key line of dialogue having to do with falling from grace, but how you use what you’ve learned from the fall will, in the end, define you.

All of the movie’s high aspirations could have tumbled down were it not for the grounded and risk-taking actor Christian Bale, who I believe gives the best superhero performance of all time. Simply put, it is not so much a superhero performance as it is an actor making the most of a role that already has plenty of meat to chew on. Bale appears to have some sort of kinship with the troubled Bruce Wayne. When a situation calls for Bruce to pour on the charm, he can do it, but Bale effortlessly keeps Bruce’s darker, more troubled side in check. It’s a classic case of a great actor playing the part of a not-so-great actor and doing it beautifully. When he becomes Batman, Bale makes an interesting choice in adopting more of a villainous voice, as though Batman himself were on the verge of crossing over to the dark side.

Director Christopher Nolan brings the same no-nonsense, no-frills approach to the Batman franchise that Alfonso Cuaron brought to the Harry Potter films. Gotham City looks like a real city (Chicago, as a matter of fact) and less like a glossy matte painting. The Batmobile looks more like an armored tank than a super slick Camaro. The movie spends more time creating an authentic mood than in generating copious amounts of eye candy. The fight scenes have more to do with the rhythm, confusion and chaos of fighting than the graceful choreography to which we have grown accustomed. Nolan clearly doesn’t want the viewer to walk out comparing the special effects or the action sequences to films that came before his. He just wants us to believe.

“Batman Begins” makes us believe. It carves itself a niche in the comic book film genre as being the best one to ever delve deeply into the psyche of its hero. It may not be the most fun, or the most nostalgic, but it’s certainly one of the richest and gets better with repeat viewings. The fact that it’s better than any of the other Batman movies remains irrelevant. Those movies had little reason to exist. I look at the arrival of “Batman Begins” in the face of those other films much like one of the film’s fight scenes: The four thugs stand around clueless and before they know it, they’ve been mercilessly clobbered.

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