Batman Begins, a restart of the stalled franchise, basically disregards the last four Batman films and is a triumph for those who take their graphic novels seriously. While director Tim Burton's Batman movies were OK, he never quite got it right in two tries. His work was respectable, but a little self-indulgent and goofy at times
Bat fans didn't know true suffering until Joel Schumacher took over the franchise from Burton, and Michael Keaton removed the cowl.
Schumacher regrettably thought Burton's dark, Frank Miller-inspired vision of the superhero was pallid, so he dolled up Bruce Wayne's alter-ego with fluorescent colors, campy dialogue and those blasted nipples. Something needed to be done.
Cheers to Warner Bros. for shutting down the franchise after the second Schumacher debacle (the nightmarish Batman & Robin), regrouping and hiring the right man to steer the franchise in director Christopher Nolan. Nolan, whose Memento and Insomnia are two of the more impressive films of the last five years, takes his movie and his previously abused character very seriously. Not since the first Superman movie has a superhero film been treated with the epic scope it deserves.
Stepping into the Batman role is Christian Bale, who establishes himself as the only man who should play Bruce Wayne for the next 20 or so years. He looks good in the suit and delivers the sort of angry, dangerous performance befitting the character. This isn't the kind of superhero performance that will get him typecast a la Christopher Reeve or Keaton. Bale delivers a real performance in a serious film, and I'm thinking he won't have trouble being accepted as different characters in the future. Bale is too good an actor to be labeled.
Batman Begins, as the title suggests, is an origin story. It spends much of its time telling us why, and how, Bruce Wayne became Batman. Disillusioned and haunted by the death of his parents, Wayne goes on sabbatical, winding up in a Far East mountain range under the tutelage of ninja leader Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) and the mysterious Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson). When Wayne returns to the United States, he's on a confused mission of justice and revenge. He reunites with his guardian and butler Alfred (now played by a truly likable Michael Caine), and his childhood friend Rachel (Katie Holmes), now a powerful attorney.
There's a great actor around every corner in this film. Gary Oldman brings a surprising sensitivity to Lt. James Gordon, the good cop who will be Commissioner someday. Morgan Freeman is fun as Lucius Fox, the man who will help Batman get his wonderful toys. In the villain category, Tom Wilkinson is his usual strong self as Carmine Falcone, a mob boss destroying Gotham. Cillian Murphy is the film's biggest bad guy in Scarecrow, a mild-mannered doctor who sprays his victims with a neuro-toxin while wearing a burlap sack on his head.
The look of the film has the infamous Gotham as a hybrid of Chicago and England. The city has some futuristic elements (the elevated train towering over many of its buildings), but does not go overboard to the point of being too unrealistic.
Those who want to see Batman from the first frame might be a little disappointed in the movie. The buildup is a lengthy one, and Batman doesn't appear in his true form for more than an hour. If the film were boring, this could be a problem, but the story is engrossing, and the pacing is such that the suspense mounts. When Batman does finally show up, it's an exciting moment.
This is turning out to be one of the best summer seasons in recent years. In May, we were treated to a totally satisfying Star Wars, and now Batman Begins is the best film of the year so far. Up next is War of the Worlds from Steven Spielberg. Let's hope for a blockbuster trifecta.