As great as the genre-defining hallmark The Dark Knight is, I think it’s fair to say that it wouldn’t have been half as good without having the solid foundation of Batman Begins to build on. Until 2005, the (live-action) Batman adaptations were some of the best examples of wasted potential. Previous directors never really “got” Batman. He wasn’t a Gothic, limsy-wristed tragic poem of a man, stalking an Art Deco hellhole, nor was he a family-friendly, camp, action figure peddler who inhabited a headache-inducing neon nightmare. Christopher Nolan had a healthy respect for what made the comics great and, more importantly, knew that the most interesting way to get the audience to connect with the character was to get under the cowl and into the mind of the Bat.
In case 1) you haven’t seen it or 2) can’t decipher that cryptic-as-fuck title, Batman Begins is, unsurprisingly, about Batman beginning, exploring the origins of the Dark Knight and giving the series the reboot it so sorely needed. After his rich and powerful parents are shot and killed by a opportunistic mugger, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is recruited to the League of Shadows by the mysterious Ducard (Liam Neeson), a group of ninja assassins who believe it is their duty to purge the decadent and corrupt elements of society. Rejecting their judge, jury and executioner mentality, Wayne returns to Gotham City and uses his company’s money and technology to dole out vigilante justice as Batman. Gotham is a shadow of its former self with widespread corruption, mostly leading back to powerful mob boss Falcone (Tom Wilkinson). There’s also a new threat in the form of Dr. Crane (Cillian Murphy) a creepy psychopharmacologist (that’s a real thing, I didn’t just lean on the keyboard) who experiments on his patients and has shady dealings with Falcone. Batman vows to end the Gotham’s decay with the help of rare good cop Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), tech genius Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), tenacious assistant D.A. and childhood friend Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) and loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine).
Batman Begins is a refreshingly realistic and smart take on the Batman mythos. It chops and changes some of the most memorable comic stories like The Man Who Falls and The Long Halloween and manages to bring these various elements together into a solid, cohesive narrative. Yes, it is kind of silly to have a real, psychological take on what basically boils down to a nutter in a rubber bat costume, but you won’t question it for a second when you watch it. The cast are uniformly great. I feel Katie Holmes has been unfairly maligned as Rachel Dawes and it’s a shame she didn’t get to reprise the role in The Dark Knight as I think she would have silenced her critics. Stand-out of the film for me is Cillian Murphy who gives an unsettling, uncanny performance as Dr. Crane/Scarecrow, a man who possesses a stare that could melt Kevlar. Dude’s scary before he pulls the burlap hood over his head.
I’m hugely thankful for Nolan and David S. Goyer not messing up the Wayne’s deaths. In Burton’s Batman, they were shot by the man who would later turn into the Joker, a lazy attempt to add a personal stake in defeating the villain (see also: Spider-Man 3). What Burton (and Raimi) failed to realise is by doing that, you completely invalidate the reason why these heroes continue doing what they do. Once Keaton’s Batman defeated the Joker, why did he continue fighting crime? To have the culprit be just a random mugger means that Batman isn’t just seeking vengeance. He’s fighting something a lot more conceptual than that. Nolan understood this and to implicate that it may have even partly been Bruce’s father’s fault for not acting is a masterstroke. Batman is all about the guilt.
There’s something very scientific and methodical in Nolan’s approach. Everything that is iconic to Batman is explained in a satisfactory and believable way. For example, Batman’s gadgets are Waynetech’s abandoned military contracts, deemed too expensive for use. The new Batmobile, the Tumbler, exemplifies the new Nolanverse. It’s functional, realistic, anti-camp (unlike previous flimsier models) and undeniably kick-ass. My only real problem is with the origin of the Bat signal, where Batman leaves the unconscious Falcone lashed to a huge spotlight, creating a rudimentary bat shadow in the sky. I just can’t stop thinking about the heat those things pump out and the fact that Falcone would be sizzling like a cheap steak by the time the police cut him down.
Until rewatching it for this review, my opinion had always been that Batman Begins was very good, but The Dark Knight was the one that knocked it out of the park. Whilst I still believe that The Dark Knight is the superior film, it’s by a lot smaller margin than I originally thought. Batman Begins is a truly fantastic film. It’s the New Hope to TDK’s Empire Strikes Back and I don’t say that lightly.
Win Batman Begins/The Dark Knight on Triple Play (closes July 22nd, 2012)
Batman Begins – Trailer Published via LongTail.tv