Tim Burton may have helmed an exemplary Batman back in 1989, but it took Joel Schumacher to run the series into the ground with the wretched Batman & Robin, a motion picture so abysmal that to sit through the entire thing was comparable to having all 10 fingernails ripped out with pliers.
Batman Begins isn't a belated sequel; it's an attempt to start from scratch, to go back to square one and build the Batman legend from the ground up. That's an acceptable mission, and many of us would have been happy if the game plan had resulted in an exciting action yarn packed with (to borrow from the 60s Batman TV series) all the Bangs! Whams! and Pows! a hefty studio budget could provide. But director Christopher Nolan, who also shares script duties with David S. Goyer, clearly had no intention of just churning one out for the kids. Nolan, who established himself with the crackerjack crime gems Memento and Insomnia, has made another movie in which thought often speaks louder than either action or words. Never afraid to peer into the darkest recesses of the mind, Nolan has created a brooding picture that has as much in common with his previous efforts as it does with the storied saga of the Caped Crusader.
Fear is the motivating factor for almost every character, starting with young Bruce Wayne. As a boy, he's terrified of bats, and, in a perverse twist, his phobia indirectly leads to the murder of his parents right before his eyes. As he grows older and notes how his hometown of Gotham City continues to degenerate into a cesspool of crime and corruption (something his father fought hard to correct), Bruce (now played as an adult by Christian Bale) embarks on an international odyssey, hoping to learn all about the inner workings of the criminal mind. This journey eventually lands him in the company of Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) and Ra's al Ghul (The Last Samurai's Ken Watanabe), two powerful figures who run The League of Shadows, a vigilante group bent on wiping out evil wherever it exists. But the group's strong-arm tactics turn off Bruce, who decides instead to apply what he's learned from these masters to take care of the crime problem in his own city of Gotham.
Having finally conquered his fear of bats, Bruce decides that this creature of the night will be his symbol as he battles his burg's evildoers. He's always been able to count on the services of the family butler Alfred (Michael Caine), yet he also finds allies in Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), an inventor who works for his company Wayne Enterprises, and detective Jim Gordon, seemingly the only honest cop left in Gotham (it's nice to see perennial villain Gary Oldman cast in this sympathetic role). More ambiguous in her support is Assistant DA Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), who views Bruce Wayne as a shallow billionaire and Batman as a potentially dangerous vigilante. Yet even she would concede that the Caped Crusader is preferable to Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), the city's leading crime boss, or Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), a twisted psychiatrist who also operates under the guise of The Scarecrow.
The Scarecrow? Ra's al Ghul? These are second-tier Batman villains, with none of the marquee value of, say, The Joker or Catwoman. Yet by kicking off his series with these lower profile baddies, Nolan makes it clear he won't kowtow to anyone or anything, least of all commercial expectations. (Not sure how many kids will clamor for unsettling Scarecrow toys with their fast food fries; not many, I'll wager.) What's more, the director has tackled the project as if he were adapting one of the great novels of 20th century literature rather than a picture-book publication from a medium that's frequently been the target of scorn and condescension. Only once, during a frenzied finale in which Batman and a master villain duke it out aboard a speeding train, does the movie resemble an assembly line product designed to show off expensive special effects (besides, the skirmish isn't as memorable as the Spider-Man/Dr. Octopus subway square-off in Spider-Man 2); the rest of the time, Nolan's too busy building up his fascinating characters to be messing around with tinker toys.
Nolan's dedication appears to have rubbed off on his cast members, all of whom deliver deeply committed performances mercifully free of any wink-wink connotations. It was painful watching Tommy Lee Jones make a mockery of the great Two-Face character in Batman Forever, and equally torturous to see lead George Clooney sleepwalk through Batman & Robin. If anyone involved with Batman Begins harbors any similar contempt for the material, they disguise it beautifully. Old pros Michael Caine (just wonderful here) and Morgan Freeman receive the lion's share of the choice wisecracks, but they deliver them drolly, avoiding all opportunities to showboat. Cillian Murphy, the hero in the zombie flick 28 Days Later, brings a real sense of menace to his interpretation of Dr. Crane. And thanks to Neeson's guarded performance, it's hard to know at any given moment whether Henri Ducard, a father figure of sorts to Bruce Wayne, is about to salute or slice his protégé. As for Christian Bale, his brooding nature makes him a good choice to play the central role, even if he doesn't look quite as impressive in his Bat-garb as Michael Keaton.
Ultimately, Batman Begins is no less serious in its approach and execution than such hot-weather Oscar bait as Cinderella Man — dismissing this as merely escapist entertainment would ignore the myriad adult themes that bulk up the picture, issues ranging from the duality of man to the politics of fear.
Ah, yes, the politics. Much has been written about how George Lucas' latest Star Wars picture includes choice references to George W. Bush's evil empire, but that film's topicality is child's play compared to the dead-on parallels in Batman Begins. What is Gotham City if not the United States of America shrunk down to movie screen size, a place where the few decent people have their hands full trying to stop unbridled greed and corruption? When one criminal remarks that change will never come about as long as the "bad guys stay rich and the good guys stay scared," it's impossible not to envision the insidious Republicans and the gluttonous corporations on one side and the cowed progressives and the timid mainstream press on the other.
Think I'm stretching? Then what about the scene in which Lucius Fox shows Bruce Wayne a suit designed to stop any and all manner of enemy firepower? When Wayne asks why the government didn't snatch these up for the military, Lucius soberly answers that they obviously felt $300,000 was too much money to spend on each soldier — a direct dig at Rumsfeld, Bush and all the other hypocrites who view our American boys and girls as nothing more than expendable fodder.
Granted, these thinly veiled truths may fly right over the heads of most Americans who head to big-budget superhero sagas expecting nothing but surface thrills. But at least these truths are there, if for no other reason than to allow the future rulers of this planet (the apes?) to study them and marvel at how blind this generation could be, especially when the hard facts could be found all around them. Yes, even at the heart of a summer blockbuster that ranks with the best of them.