Main cast: Christian Bale (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Michael Caine (Alfred), Liam Neeson (Henri Ducard), Katie Holmes (Rachel Dawes), Gary Oldman (Jim Gordon), Cillian Murphy (Dr Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow), Tom Wilkinson (Carmine Falcone), Rutger Hauer (Earle), Ken Watanabe (Ra’s Al Ghul), Linus Roache (Thomas Wayne), and Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox)
Director: Christopher Nolan
It is hard to believe it but after all this time, the Batman franchise has finally get it right after the pointless tomfoolery of the previous movies. Christopher Nolan and scriptwriter David S Goyer attempt to fuse noirish drama with conventional slam-bang pyrotechnic action scenes in this latest addition to the Batman franchise and the result is not just a great movie but also a welcome closure to my wondering whether Hollywood will know what to do with Batman.
Unless I am mistaken, Batman Begins draws more heavily from Frank Miller’s darker comic series compared to the more typical DC Comics outing. Here, the movie chronicles the odyssey of young Bruce Wayne (played, unfortunately, by one of the worst child actors I’ve ever come across – he’s stiff and awkward that I end up wishing that the mugger has shot him instead of the fabulous Linus Roache-lookalike daddy and the extra from Chicago that the hot daddy married) from being a kid who fell into a well and developed a phobia of bats to a pathetic loser who dresses up like a bat. Although, in this movie, Bruce isn’t a pathetic loser as much as someone who hasn’t discovered the joys of long trenchcoats and muscle-Ts yet. Oh well, I guess we need to put him in a Batman outfit somehow or the purist fans will get angry.
In this movie, Bruce Wayne undergoes tremendous soul-searching that began when his botched attempt to kill the murderer of his parents led to his embarrassing but accurate taunting by the Gotham crime boss Carmine Falcone. He starts deliberately hanging out with prisoners and criminals, hoping to “learn their ways” so that he can combat evil, only to eventually fall under the wings of the League of Shadows, led by Ra’s Al Ghul, in some mysterious country that looks suspiciously like Hollywood’s idea of Tibet. Bruce receives lessons in swordplay and ninjutsu as well as plenty of unwanted advice from Henri Ducard, Ra’s Al Ghul’s right hand guy. However, the League of Shadows act as executioners as well as jurors and Bruce realizes that he cannot adopt their brand of bloodthirsty vigilante justice. The League is not amused and pandemonium erupts. However, in what I would like to believe is a not-racially motivated gesture, Bruce saves Henri – whom he’d clobbered earlier – while letting the other people who speak in funny accents perish in the obligatory Bad Place Goes Kaboom After Bad Guys Are All Dead Now scene.
Wayne then returns to Gotham City to straighten out the rife corruption taking place. He finds allies in his childhood friend (who is now one of the few honest DAs around) Rachel Dawes; the eccentric inventor languishing in the basement of Wayne Corporation, Lucius Fox; the rare honest cop Lt Jim Gordon (who will in the future use Batman’s brawns as his stepping stone to becoming Commissioner); and of course, the loyal butler Alfred. Lucius conveniently has all sorts of devastating weapons of mass destruction hidden around his place, including the Batmobile prototype, while Alfred offers an anchor of stability, dry wit, and a helping hand whenever Bruce needs him. Rachel… well, I guess we need a woman in here or people will start suspecting that Batman is, you know, gay or something. All that lycra gives people funny ideas.
The movie can be roughly divided into two halves, with the first half more of a drama where Bruce tries to sort himself out and figure out his role as Gotham’s future protector. The second half is pure pyrotechnic bang-bang-kaboom action scenes as Batman takes on the villains intent on destroying Gotham City. The second half is where some much needed humor kicks in after the relatively serious first half. That’s not to say that the first half is dull, though. Christian Bale and Michael Caine are to be credited for this.
Mr Bale manages to portray Bruce Wayne with just enough vulnerability at the correct moments so that Bruce comes off as very sympathetic while at the same time infused with this sociopathic obsession to avenge his dead parents and carry out a one-man crusade on what he perceives as evil. His portrayal is effective because I find it easy to believe and understand why Bruce sets out on the path that he takes as Batman. Considering how this movie is supposed to explain the origins of Batman, Mr Bale’s ability to make Bruce Wayne come off as simultaneously a tormented larger-than-life character and a confused boy looking for a way out of his confusion means that two-thirds of the battle is already won. While it is very clear that Batman refuses to kill the ones he hunt down, there is always a moral ambiguity about this character that makes Batman an appealing character. This movie captures the dual facets of Batman as hero and sociopath very well.
Michael Caine isn’t really stretching himself here in his role of Alfred but he doesn’t have to. All he needs is to provide some wit when his role calls for it and a comforting support when Bruce needs a father figure. What I really like about Alfred in this movie is how he doesn’t just remain the background. Instead, he is genuinely Bruce’s father figure as well as accomplice when it comes to Bruce’s setting up business as Batman. Morgan Freeman offers his trademark sardonic school of acting charm in his role as the eccentric and unappreciated ally whose inventions help Bruce set up shop. These two men complements Bruce Wayne’s character and brings out the best facets of him without totally overwhelming Bruce’s character and stealing the show. Mr Caine comes close to doing so at many moments in this movie, though. Gary Oldman plays Jim Gordon like a genial mild-mannered man caught up in the excitement that is probably a little out of his league. His character is a source of many unexpected chuckles in the later half of the movie.
I also enjoy how this movie doesn’t go overboard with the pyrotechnics and special effects. Gotham is a spectacular panorama of CGI, which is to be expected, but at the same time, special gadgets like the Batmobile, the Bat Boomerang, and even the Batmobile are realistically crude in their prototypical incarnations. Even the Batman outfit is down-to-earth, a delightful change from the camp-overboard nipples-gone-crazy travesty in the previous movies.
By getting several key players who are excellent character actors to step into the shoes of the main characters, this movie does what the previous Batman movies failed to do: it makes me view Bruce Wayne and even Alfred as human beings instead of just one-dimensional characters. For example, when Bruce pretends to be drunk and rips on the guests for being hypocritical pretenders in order to get them to clear the Wayne Manor as soon as possible, it is easy for me to get this impression that Bruce isn’t completely pretending in that scene. That’s the beauty of this movie – there are depths and human emotions playing under the CGI-driven facade of Gotham. It tells me that Gotham isn’t just all about a CGI-laden playground for Batman, it is a city gone crazy where there are genuinely suffering people needing someone insane enough to think that he can help them all. While I am not to keen on Batman’s ridiculously growly voice when Bruce is in the outfit, I really like this Batman. I also love the villains in this story who are understated yet remaining more menacing than the overly campy Riddlers and Doctors Freeze out there.
By humanizing Bruce Wayne by giving him poignant depths in his characterization, this movie is everything the last few dreadful movies of the franchise should aspire to be. This is a truly excellent movie in the Batman franchise and a very watchable attempt to fuse drama with conventional action scenes without going overboard with camp or CGI. For me, Batman Begins has it right: the Batman franchise has indeed finally began to come to life.