In the lead up to the debut of Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, I’m reviewing every single Batman film. Check out more Batman-related content in my Dark Knight Discussion column.
Batman Begins debuted at a crucial time in the cinematic history of superhero films. By the movie’s release in 2005, the superhero genre had been revitalized by the success of the Spider-Man and X-Men franchises after the stale and sometimes terrible comic book adaptations that filled the ‘90s. But there was still much left to be desired in what comic book movies could bring to the table beside bright and fun (even if incredibly well done) blockbuster action movies.
That’s where director Christopher Nolan and writer David Goyer’s Batman Begins left its mark. After lying dormant for years and experiencing several botched revamps in the time since Batman & Robin, Nolan’s take brought a new sense of gravitas and prestige to the genre that would create waves in the years to come, especially when reinforced by the critical and commercial success of The Dark Knight Trilogy as a whole.
Told as an origin story (which had been strangely neglected in all previous iterations), Batman Begins traces the story of Bruce Wayne, orphan millionaire who seeks to avenge the death of his parents and save his city. Intricately laced with flashbacks and tons of mood, this is a Batman who is propelled by deep trauma, only to become a symbol of dark justice in a world gone wrong.
What sets Batman Begins apart from the character’s previous films is its focus on The Dark Knight’s psychology and inner workings as a complex and layered individual. Through Nolan’s use of flashbacks and narrow focus on Bruce Wayne’s journey, the audience is allowed deeper into the mind of the hero than ever seen in live action films previously. Prior to Begins, we were only allowed to see him as either a psychologically scarred man from a distance or as a superficially dark hero of the night who had no real depth. Here, actor Christian Bale gives life to a three-dimensional and relatable Wayne, his humanity making his transformation into a mythic figure far more powerful than the pre-established cardboard cutouts of old. Yes, there’s torment and sacrifice, but he’s also charming and charismatic in ways that change depending on the presence of a mask. Bale shows his trademark commitment to a role through both a physical transformation and role emersion, which does, admittedly, lead to the devisive “Batman voice” – a raspy growl that borders on unintelligible. But that quirk is given limited screentime here and is never taken to the extremes of the follow-up films.
Of the three Dark Knight films, this is the entry that is truly belongs to him, as its entire narrative circles around the journey of Bruce Wayne from young victim of violence to fearsome defender of Gotham. While it may take half of the film to see Bruce officially transform into Batman, the lack of a cape and cowl is far from a hindrance. Rather, we are so deeply invested into the journey that the transformation feels earned and authentic, timed out just right to feel organic in its development. What Batman Begins lacks in the social or political commentary of its follow-ups, it makes up for in psychological exploration, which is most apparent during its first half as Wayne finds his greater purpose in life. Those ideas fade more to the background during the second half as Batman must save Gotham, but the ideas are still at play thanks to their thorough exploration and integration into the character. The deeper psychological underpinnings make his struggle against fear literally taking over the city something more interesting and dynamic than the typical superhero fight to save the day.
Thankfully, those themes of torment, sacrifice, and fear are balanced by out and out fun superheroics, which prevent the film from feeling too self-important – a burden that would be felt far more as the series continued. Just look to the film’s chaotic Tumbler chase or the visceral thrills of seeing Bruce jump into action as Batman for the first time. Yes, there’s a darkness and gravitas that infuses these developments, but they are designed to be as exciting for the audience as any superhero film made before or since. It’s also reinforced by the more exaggerated nature of the Gotham City explored here. Yes, it’s much more akin to the real world modern metropolises that find themselves split between rich high rises and inescapable slums, but the use of oppressive sets instead of location shoots adds a greater flair to it all. This is a Gotham that seems tangible, but one you would rather not visit.
Best of all, Batman Begins gives you everything you could want from Batman movie, even if the grounded nature of the world prevents massive action seen in Marvel’s superhero universe. Those darker and more mature elements of the character play out in full here, satisfying an urge never fully satisfied by decades of Batman film. While the final act does involve the use of a weapon that feels somewhat silly in the context of the more realistic film, the ideas explored by the climax make its inclusion worthwhile.
When it came to bringing this new vision of a darker and more real world vision of Batman to the screen, Nolan made sure to stack the deck concerning actors. Michael Caine as Alred, Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon, Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, Cillian Murphy as Scarecrow, and Liam Neeson as Henri Ducard are all stellar in their respective roles and give ample to do, unlike their roles later in the trilogy. They each represent a different inspiration or challenge to the hero, leading to Bruce growing in new ways throughout the hero’s journey. Most importantly, they truly add something special to the film as a whole, as their stellar acting elevates the film past common superhero entertainment. If there’s a weak link in the chain, it’s Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes, who is saddled with a character mainly meant to give Bruce a meaningful connection to his life beyond Batman. She’s not at the same caliber as the actors who accompany her onscreen, but she is by no means a bad actress here.
It’s not just the acting and writing that operate at the next level here, Batman Begins is the product of an extremely talented team behind the camera. Nolan is actively pushing for a serious tone throughout and his focus on a trademark fractured timeline reinforces the connection between Batman and his traumatic childhood. Notably, memory plays a massive role in the narrative, with Bruce’s past being both a source of inspiration and torment to him. It’s an idea that informs much of Nolan’s work, with Memento, Inception, and The Prestige all using the theme to a great extent. Cinematographer Wally Pfister brings the darkness of the story to thrilling life, with his lens turning the darkness of Gotham into a living and breathing thing. The night pulsates and consumes, smoke and steam billowing out of every crack as Batman stalks his prey. There’s a certain cold comfort to be found in Gotham’s nights, wrapping around you and constantly pulling you in. In particular, it’s Bruce’s entry to the Batcave and his first night patrolling Gotham that showcase Pfister’s gorgeous cinematography most of all.
And special mention must be made of the score created by the duo of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, who create a score which balances the dark menace of Batman (his theme being little more than a two-note blare of darkness) and the warm memories of young Bruce (which use delicate pianos and strings to gently underscore the influence of the past). Future entries into the series would see the score have a heavier focus on Batman’s darkness as the stories focused on present day moral choices, but the split here creates a much more dynamic and interesting score.
Batman Begins is a film that succeeds so thoroughly not because of the script checking off boxes on a to-do list that seemingly informs every superhero film today or because of a massive budget. It succeeds because it is the result of a vision so sure of itself and so committed to the true spirit of the source material that everything and everyone involved steps up in quality in order to match that vision.
Best Batman Moment: Meeting next to the newly furbished Bat Signal, Lieutenant Gordon and Batman talk of themes of escalation and the newly arrived Joker. Before The Dark Knight leaves, Gordon tells him, “I didn’t get to say thank you.” Turning before he leaps off into the night, Batman responds, “And you’ll never have to.”
When They Got Batman Wrong: Finally thwarting Ra’s al Ghul’s plan to destroy Gotham, Batman leaves his enemy to die on a train that is about to crash. His justification for letting his nemesis die? He won’t kill him, but he doesn’t have to save him. That logic is shaky at best and a slippery slope that would most certainly lead The Dark Knight to snapping foes’ necks in no time. Then again, quite a few people die from Batman’s actions in The Dark Knight Trilogy.
Comic Book Inspirations: While the origin of Batman can be traced to the character’s earliest comics, this take on his early days is most certainly lifted from Frank Miller’s revision of Batman’s beginnings in “Batman: Year One.” The dueling storylines of Gordon and Wayne, the police hunt for Batman, and the timely intervention of a bat swarm all come from this story.
Fun Fact: Prior to Nolan’s take, director Darren Aronofsky planned to shoot his version of Batman: Year One. While the film shares a name with Miller’s comic book and would have tracked the origin of the hero, Year One shared little else in common with the comic books. Here, Bruce would be homeless, drive a souped-up Lincoln Continental, and get his idea to be Batman due to punching criminals with a ring that forms the shape of a bat. This all makes very little sense.