Original US release: June 15, 2005
Production budget: $150,000,000
Worldwide gross: $374,218,673
Not too long ago, I did a #ThrowbackThursday on Tim Burton’s franchise starter, Batman. Well, here we have Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, the film that started the next Batman franchise. Unlike the franchise before it, this one ended up belonging entirely to a single director in Nolan, who made a name for himself with his brand of cerebral, gritty storytelling best exhibited by what I consider to be the Greatest Film of All-Time, Memento.
Even Nolan had a challenge in front of him, here, though, as the previous Batman film, Joel Schumacher’s overwhelmingly derided Batman & Robin from eight years prior, was a huge failure in every way imaginable and had soured the public’s perception of the Batman character as well as the franchise as a whole. So, what to do? Give the public the Batman they want, that’s what.
Batman Begins borrows heavily from the comic book source material. Screenwriter David Goyer cites The Long Halloween and Dark Victory as his primary inspirations (specifically stating that he did not use Year One, despite the film having several characters and themes in common with that particular story). Regardless, the inspiration is obvious, as much of the film feels as if it was ripped straight from the pages, themselves. The silhouette of Batman standing on the precipice of massive gothic architecture is as comic-bookish as it comes and the imagery in the film sends chills up the spines of any longtime reader. Nolan, Goyer, and company clearly wanted to craft a film that would appeal to diehards and casual audiences alike.
As made obvious by the title, Batman Begins traces the path taken by a younger Bruce Wayne following the murder of his parents. This path of course eventually leads him to a life of dressing up as a giant bat and fighting crime. The moment where Thomas and Martha are gunned down in Crime Alley is iconic and has been told over and over and over. But, before this film, the mainstream Batman stories have always jumped from that occurrence to Wayne as a fulltime vigilante, with little insight into what happens in the years between. So, this was a story that had yet to be told in this medium. And, needing a fresh start after the Schumacher debacle, it was the right story to go with.
While I do think the pacing could use a little work, the time is used well. A lot of attention is paid to giving Bruce Wayne his motivations as well as the logic behind why he chooses to go about his crime-fighting in the way that he does. At first, his moral center is somewhat fluid. He’s angry after seeing his parents die and he hasn’t had enough life experience to cement his ethical core. During his training, he comes across Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) and his right-hand man, Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson). After spending time with them and learning much, Wayne comes to the realization that, though Al Ghul and Ducard ultimately have the same goals as Wayne, they desire to achieve those goals by joining the ranks of the vile, not by standing in stark contrast to them. This discovery jolts Wayne. Combined with guidance from his childhood friend, Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), this is enough to set Wayne on the route to becoming Batman.
Much has been made about Batman’s willingness to let people die (in other words, “to kill”) in this film. Whatever. Batman doesn’t enjoy killing, but he’s certainly willing to do it, and that has typically been the case, even in the comics. These types of complaints have nothing to do with being true to the spirit of the property (which Nolan’s films were) and everything to do with being too cool for school. In addition to retaining the original spirit of the source material, as long as the characters stay consistent within this world (which they also do), there’s no space for these types of baseless criticisms.
The action set pieces are at once beautiful and enthralling. For me personally, the Batmobile (or Tumbler, if you prefer) chase across the rooftops and through the streets of Gotham City is one of my favorite scenes from any movie that features Batman. Sure, he’s a little haphazard in the way he deals with the police officers who are tailing him, but it’s a total adrenaline rush and is accompanied by a thrilling score from James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer. It just feels so authentically like Batman.
That goes for the entire film (and subsequent follow-ups). Nolan famously went for a more grounded approach, but that works for Batman. He has no superpowers, nor do most of his rogues gallery. There may have been some constraints placed upon the series in later installments due to that decision, but they were fairly minimal and did nothing to harm this first entry. Nolan changed the public’s perception of Batman from being campy and silly to being cool and relatable.
Something worth noting is that the film barely made enough money to warrant a sequel (the first of which of course ended up being The Dark Knight). Critics loved it, but most audiences used the film that came before to decide ahead of time if they like the new one. They weren’t aware of the new creative team or the new approach and unfairly judged the film based on the merits of another film, missing out on a much superior film. This isn’t the only time this has happened. They did it with the Hulk. They did it with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And, in each of those cases, it was a mistake. We’re lucky to have gotten The Dark Knight and it was only because Warner Brothers had faith in Nolan’s vision and because of strong word of mouth and box office legs (suggesting that audiences were discovering the film later into its life, and would continue to discover it once its theatrical run was finished) that the series continued. So, listen to the critics. See movies that other people love, even if you wouldn’t have expected that you would love it, yourself. It often pays off for everybody.
Batman Begins has gotten a little lost in the shuffle over time, but without it, where would superhero films be, today? It laid the foundation for so much to follow and elevated the entire genre to a new level. The story is a little simple, and at times a little slow, but it was a necessary one that had goals to achieve and a new status quo to establish. By the time the narrative kicks into high gear, there’s no question that this is Batman as he’s meant to be and that he was never the same, again.
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