Batman Begins (2005)
Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Liam Neeson
Synopsis: After training with his mentor, Batman begins his war on crime to free the crime-ridden Gotham City from corruption that the Scarecrow and the League of Shadows have cast upon it.
Eight years after Joel Schumacher’s disastrous turn at the wheel of the Batman franchise, Christopher Nolan wiped the old formula from the board and drew up one of his own. Gone was the heavy Gothic feel of the old incarnation, replaced by a world recognisable as — but different from — our own; no longer did the villains hog the limelight — Nolan turned the focus back onto the Caped Crusader and relegated the villains to the sidelines, a secondary diversion while he revisited the origins of the Batman legend. Given the vast amount of back-story necessary to flesh out the legend while simultaneously turning Bruce Wayne into a real, flesh-and-bone human being, it’s hardly surprising that the sheer scale of the task at hand left the film feeling a little too stretched at times.
Batman Begins literally takes as its starting point the moment which triggers the beginning of the legend, when the boyhood Bruce Wayne falls down a well inhabited by a colony of bats, instantly sparking a phobia that haunts him into adulthood. Shortly after, his parents are gunned down by a mugger, leaving him orphaned and feeling responsible for their deaths.
The theme of fear is a recurring one throughout the first half of the movie. As an adult, we meet Wayne (Christian Bale) in an Asian prison. His defiance when outnumbered by a gang of fellow prisoners, and the ferocity with which he fights them off, brings Wayne to the attention of the mysterious Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), who becomes the younger man’s mentor. Ducard is a member of the mysterious League of Shadows, a secret organisation run by Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) which is dedicated to wiping out criminals who prey on the fear of others.
Wayne learns the way of the Ninja from Ducard, as well as the ability to apparently appear and disappear at will, a trick he performs with annoying frequency. Sometimes you get the impression he only does it for effect to impress the ladies, but it does at least unnerve machine-gun wielding bad guys. Having learned all the ways of the Ninja, Wayne falls out with his mentor over an order to execute a criminal to prove his commitment to the cause and returns to his mansion in Gotham City, and the fatherly concerns of Alfred the butler, played with a calm equanimity by dear old Michael Caine.
Having learned to face his fears under the tutelage of Ducard, Wayne slowly creates his crime-fighting alter-ego, the Batman, with the help of Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) the creative boffin at Wayne Enterprises, which has fallen under the control of the mercenary Earle (a sorely under-used Rutger Hauer) while Wayne has been off on his adventures. Fox introduces Wayne to a variety of shelved prototypes from which the young billionaire fashions an eye-catching outfit and some serious armoury.
Having finally brought together the pieces that make up the origin of the Batman legend, Nolan belatedly brings the movie’s villains to the fore. Realising how much screen time he would need to present Batman’s back story, he wisely employs the services of some of the Caped Crusader’s minor foes, saving the big guns for later movies. Here, the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), does the honours, planning to destroy the city of Gotham by contaminating its water supply with a vapour that sends those inhaling it insane. To be honest, this strand of the story has something of a tacked-on feel about it, and you get the distinct impression that Batman Begins was always primarily intended to lay the foundations upon which the later films in the trilogy would be constructed.
While Christian Bale shows admirable dedication in his role as Bruce Wayne, he’s a lot better as Wayne than he is as Batman. It’s trivial, I know, but Bale has a noticeable lisp that just doesn’t sit right with a super-hero. Cillian Murphy, who was up for the role of Batman at one point (and returns for The Dark Knight Rises, the final film in the trilogy) delivers a quietly chilling performance as the breezily reasonable Dr. Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow, while Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon, Gotham’s only incorruptible cop, looks like he’s auditioning for the role of Ned Flanders in The Simpsons. However, like Katie Holmes in the role of Rebecca Dawes, Wayne’s childhood sweetheart who is now a fearless district attorney, Oldman has little to do on-screen.
There’s no denying that Batman Begins represents a welcome rebirth of a failing franchise that is immeasurably superior to the 1990s version in almost every respect. While there are plenty of explosions and action set pieces, there’s also a solid story behind all the pyrotechnics. Batman Begins never quite reaches the heights that has The Dark Knight still providing the benchmark for all superhero movies, but it certainly provides a suitably sturdy launch pad.
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