Batman’s renaissance started here. After the cataclysmic train wreck that was Batman and Robin, Warner Bros, in a move that is now depressingly commonplace in Hollywood, opted for a complete reboot of the franchise.
Distancing themselves from the Schumacher ‘Camp’ Crusader output and bringing in that dude that made Memento, the tone was dropped from ultraviolet stupidity to a gritty reality in Batman Begins. Batman, finally, was the centre of his own film.
The master-stroke of Nolan and his crew’s first foray into the Bat-world is its sheer focus on making Batman real. In a real-world context, the idea of a Richard Branson style playboy millionaire dressing as a bat fighting crime is somewhat laughable, yet in dealing with Bruce Wayne’s hallowing origin story, the entire first act delivers a character ark so astute, that all memory of Clooney’s nippled Bat outing are quickly forgotten.
So what are we given here? In essence, it’s the origin story that was only mentioned during Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989. Whilst on a night out, ten year-old Bruce Wayne, son and heir to the Wayne household, witnesses the shocking murder of his parents in cold blood. As an adult, he channels his inner anger and guilt as a masked vigilante known as Batman. His goal? To strike fear into those who prey on the fearful.
Familiar though this may be, Nolan spends the majority of the first hour detailing Wayne’s fall from grace. We have never known the-man-who-would-be-Batman in quite so much detail and intimacy, his quest for revenge against the man who shot his parents, his disappearance from Gotham for seven years, his time in prison and, most crucially, his time with the League of Shadows, all given their own individual moments to form a whole. For once, we know why Bruce Wayne became Batman beyond merely the death of his parents. By the time we see Batman standing iconically amid Gotham’s skyline, we feel like we finally get the man behind the mask.
It’s a testament to Nolan that he has faith in his audience. As he has proven throughout his career, he understands that many film-goers are not stupid and, whilst Batman Begins remains very much a comic book movie, he asks us to empathise with our lost and wounded protagonist before any superhero antics start. There is an underlying motive behind Wayne’s decision to become Gotham’s protector that makes the final hour, where the plot fully kicks in, that more tense (helped in no small part by a third act twist that brings his past back to confront him, quite literally).
The sincerity towards Batman, Gordon (Gary Oldman), Luscious Fox (Morgan Freeman) and Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) gives the third act’s diabolical plan to destroy Gotham the required weight to evoke an emotional response. Despite ultimately being outshone by its successor, the stakes during the climax of Batman Begins are huge and whilst Batman wins, it is not without cost (the Narrows, home of Arkham Asylum, completely succumb to the effect of Dr. Crane’s Fear toxin), proving that for all his good intentions, Batman, whilst a new symbol of hope for the city of Gotham, is still human.
Nolan’s lack of action directing at the time of production shows in places as many of the set-pieces feel choppy and at times a little incoherent, yet this is the only major gripe with a film that does so much so well. As our first taste as to what Nolan can do with a summer blockbuster, it emphasised that a studio tent poll can have smarts amongst the bangs. The key thing, however, is that once you finish watching, you legitimately believe that a psychologically damaged billionaire can become a masked vigilante.
‘I’m Batman’ barks Christian Bale at a terrified Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson). Yes you are Mr. Bale, yes you are.
Batman: ‘And you’ll never have to.’