A much-needed fresh start as ‘Batman Begins’
Ask any comic book nerd. The most interesting part of a superhero is his backstory. His (or her) origin, what makes them tick. Without a strong alter-ego, the superhero is nothing but an inflated ego in a schmaltzy costume. Naturally, the best comic book adaptations examine the character behind the mask and do so in a revealing way that safeguards the spirit of the comic book’s interpretation.
This is why the first “Superman” movie was so compelling, what made the first “Spiderman” above average despite uneven special effects, and yet was lacking in Tim Burton’s flawed but memorable first two “Batman” installments.
But it can be a risky adventure because the story must still pulse with excitement something with which, to put it mildly, “The Hulk,” “Elektra” and “Daredevil” struggled.
Cult director Christopher Nolan whose superb previous work (“Memento,” “Insomnia”) proved inventive, was still an interesting but risky choice. Who knew he could bring life to a superhero franchise that after four movie versions seemed destined to the video store clearance bins?
Nolan’s “Batman Begins” re-boots the franchise and then some. First smart move: Getting stalwart actor Christian Bale to play the dark knight. Combining the right brooding attitude and burly physicality, Bale brings some renewed oomph to both the confident, millionaire Bruce Wayne as well as the superpower-less but brainy caped savior of Gotham City.
The first third of the film outlines Wayne’s childhood, from witnessing his parents being gun downed, the origin of his bat paranoia to his eventual dropping out of society and later his training by the mysterious Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson). Quite simply, though some may find the sequences too convoluted, these well shot and superbly narrated sections lay an important foundation to our understanding of Batman while answering nearly every question about his motivations, his environment, his family attachments, right down to the design of his bat suit. And the film picks up momentum along the way.
Nolan’s brilliant casting includes Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, and Tom Wilkinson — all veterans who bring gravitas to their respective roles.
Young Cillian Murphy (“28 Days Later”) is suitably freakish as the demented psychiatrist “The Scarecrow” who can bring out the hallucinogenic fear in someone with a quick flash of a white powder.
His presence in the film may not be as glorious as Jack Nicholson’s in the first “Batman,” but that film needed it. Only Bruce Wayne’s childhood friend turned DA assistant, as portrayed by Katie Holmes (Tom Cruise’s current infatuation), is underwritten. But this is forgivable considering Batman’s love interests have never been his Kryptonite.
Though there are plenty of action sequences, the filming and editing keep things close, a technique that works given the dark hues of Gotham’s landscapes and the nature of Batman’s hand-to-hand prowess. Hopefully future installments will open things up a bit — not that we need more big explosions or surface-to-air weaponry to keep us thrilled.
By keeping things personal, both in scope and story, Nolan has crafted a film that is dark but not decadent, intense but not irreverent, serious but not humorless. He restores the cool factor to comic books and a character once left for dead.
PG-13, for intense action violence, disturbing images and some thematic elements