One of the defining films in the elevation of comic book movies to adult fare, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) rebooted the Batman mythos for the big screen, bringing the often lighthearted hero back to the shadows, both figuratively and literally.
It’s quite a leap from the previous Batman revival launched by Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, a playful take on the dark knight for the modern world, but after his deliriously crazed and creative 1992 sequel Batman Returns, a revolving door of stars in two bloated, ridiculous sequels buried the franchise in the Gotham City graveyard of inconsequential icons. Nolan rescued the Dark Knight in a new approach that returned to the roots of the most mortal (and borderline schizophrenic) of comic book heroes: the violent tales of the early comics, the psychologically brooding rebirth in the seventies, Frank Miller’s gritty revision of Batman’s early days with young Lt. Jim Gordon.
The intense Christian Bale is an inspired choice for the part and Nolan gets the character right: Bruce Wayne is the secret identity and Batman is the real persona. Millionaire playboy Wayne is not a reprieve from crime-fighting, but a carefully built and cultivated identity created to distract from his real work.
Typical of director Nolan, who made his name with the structurally and dramatically ingenious Memento, he constructs this script around complicated flashbacks chosen for dramatic insight over narrative clarity and he directs the film with more interest in the subtext, the mood, and the psychological undercurrent than in the action set pieces. Ultimately it’s an effective method of creating the driven, somewhat psychotic hero, establishing the milieu of corruption and crime, and developing his relationship with the one good cop Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) and faithful butler and sounding board Alfred (Michael Caine), not to mention building up his Batcave of goodies. More importantly, Nolan connects to the isolated, nocturnal nature of the dual identity and the theatrics he uses to cast a supernatural aura around him. This Batman is a borderline psychotic obsessive battling childhood trauma in a cape and cowl, swinging through the cesspool of his crime-ridden city to battle the predators that made him an orphan.
Liam Neeson plays Wayne’s teacher and father figure, who trains the future crime fighter as a member of the Shadow Brotherhood in the Himalayas, Cillian Murphy is the demented Scarecrow, Morgan Freeman the Wayne Industries inventor who turns out Batman’s marvelous crime-fighting toys, and Katie Holmes is his love interest both in and out of costume, a spunky assistant DA who takes on the corruption no one else dares attack. Tom Wilkinson, Rutger Hauer, Ken Watanabe, and Linus Roache co-star.
Along with Brian Singer’s X-Men movies and Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man trilogy, Nolan’s Batman Begins and its sequels helped pave the way for the meeting of juvenile movie franchises and the new sophistication of comic books and graphic novel aimed at college readers and adult collectors. The superhero movie blockbuster is an inevitable meeting of storytelling forms and Nolan is one of its pioneers.
Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman is also on Netflix. Queue it up!