Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Written by: Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer, Bob Kane (characters)
Starring: Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Katie Holmes, Cillian Murphy, Liam Neeson, Tom Wilkinson, Ken Watanabe, Rutger Hauer
Bruce Wayne: People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy and I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne, as a man I’m flesh and blood I can be ignored I can be destroyed but as a symbol, as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting.
Bryan Singer’s X-MEN (2001) and Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN (2002) justifiably deserve credit for returning a then moribund superhero genre to blockbuster prominence or status, but Christopher Nolan’s BATMAN BEGINS redefined the genre. Rejecting the garish, neon-studded camp and hypertrophied rubber suits of the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher era for a far more serious, gravitas-filled exploration of ideas and themes that reflected post-9/11 fears and anxieties, often literally. Based, in part, on Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s seminal reconfiguring of the Batman mythos, “Batman; Year One (1987),” Dennis O’Neil and Dick Giordano’s “The Man who Falls” (1989), and Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s “Batman: The Long Halloween,” BATMAN BEGINS simultaneously offered and delivered a refreshing, original take on Bruce Wayne’s transformation into the crime-fighting, caped crusader beloved by so many casual (and hard-core) comic-book fans and moviegoers.
When we first meet Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) as an adult, he’s consumed with grief and guilt; he’s consumed with rage; he’s consumed with the desire to seek revenge for his parents’ murder. It’s only an accident of fate (or the heavy hand of Nolan and Goyer’s script) that saves Bruce from going to prison for murdering or attempting to murder the man who killed his parents, Joe Chill (Richard Brake), a street-level thief and mugger. He leaves Gotham City, the city his family called home for several generations, ostensibly to find himself. Wayne finds what’s he’s looking for in a primitive Bhutanese prison. There, Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), a representative of the League of Shadows, a centuries-old organization that claims justice as its principal goal, approaches him, vaguely promising Wayne a meaningful life. Ducard offers Wayne the physical and mental training necessary to become a crime-fighter, but once Wayne learns about the true purposes of the League of Shadows, the destruction of Gotham City, Wayne refuses to join the league and returns to Gotham City.
In Gotham, Wayne reconnects with Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine), the family butler and Wayne’s legal guardian, and Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), a childhood friend, assistant district attorney, and BATMAN BEGINS’ obligatory romantic interest. As Dawes pursues crime boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) through legal channels, Wayne pursues him outside the law, as a vigilante, obtaining a key ally in Sergeant Gordon (Gary Oldman), one of Gotham City’s few uncorrupted cops, and developing the Batman persona with the help of Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), a senior Wayne Enterprises employee exiled to the Applied Sciences Division by the current CEO, Mr. Earle (Rutger Hauer). Wayne develops his costume from abandoned prototypes, including a vehicle, the Tumbler (and future Batmobile), created for military vehicles. As Batman, Wayne’s focus eventually shifts from Falcone and the mob to Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), an Arkham Asylum psychiatrist with ties to the underworld.
Given the post-9/11 environment, not to mention the then ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a terrorism plot involving a fear-causing toxin, a microwave emitter, and Gotham’s water supply that neatly (perhaps too neatly) literalizes BATMAN BEGINS themes and ideas, moviegoers at the time probably felt BATMAN BEGINS as a reflection, however imperfect and exaggerated, of their own fears and anxieties about terrorism embodied by the League of Shadows and the League’s plan to destroy Gotham City for its immorality and corruption. The League speaks in words that an anti-Western ideologue or fundamentalist extremist could easily understand because they use those words in their critique of the West every day.
The League of Shadows doesn’t align itself with a specific or particular religion, but their practices and rituals, their asceticism and beliefs suggest similar, if not identical, to an extremist religious sect. They have mentors and acolytes, mental and physical training, and an inflexible set of beliefs that elevates their actions above mere laws and rules. They decide who lives a moral life (narrowly defined to fit their precepts) and who doesn’t. They decide who lives and who dies (the line Wayne, as Batman, continually refuses to cross here and in his long-running comic-book incarnation). And in the case of Gotham City, the League decides it must be destroyed.
Seven years later, BATMAN BEGINS’ narrative flaws haven’t faded. If anything, they’ve become more prominent. Nolan’s tendency toward literalism, toward spelling out subtext and themes in dialogue, feels less like a concession to Warner Bros. executives and BATMAN BEGINS’ big-budget, blockbuster status, and more like Nolan being Nolan (as evidenced by his other non-Batman films). Every character uses the word “fear,” often repeatedly, making it seem like a collective verbal tic. And as much as Nolan wanted to ground BATMAN BEGINS in reality, the plot involving the fear toxin, the microwave emitter, and the water supply feels like a comic-book cliché (because, frankly, it is). Nolan’s first foray into big-budget filmmaking showed he still had a lot to learn when it came to action choreography. While admirable on one level, his decision to use models and miniatures instead of CG, especially during the last half-hour, seems dubious considering the sub-par result.
Despite those flaws, BATMAN BEGINS succeeded in resurrecting a character and a franchise that, just eight years later, seemed non-viable for the next quarter century (or more). Nolan took the Bruce Wayne / Batman mythos seriously. Moviegoers responded appropriately, turning BATMAN BEGINS into a box-office hit large enough to justify giving Nolan carte blanche to make THE DARK KNIGHT, a film many consider the pinnacle of the superhero genre, with little or no studio interference.