With “Gotham” returning for its final season this month, I’m looking back at past “Batman” projects from the perspective of someone who enjoyed “The Animated Series” as a kid and now enjoys “Gotham.” Next up is “Batman Begins” (2005).
WHAT’S GOOD ABOUT IT
Hans Zimmer scores the hell out of “Batman Begins,” and it makes me temporarily wonder if something like, say, “Batman Forever” could be great if it had a score like this. But no, I think it’s the combination of the suspenseful music with everything else that makes this movie great. Every casting choice is pitch perfect. And director/co-writer Christopher Nolan gives us an origin story without getting bogged down in the origin, by mixing the present day with flashbacks to Bruce’s childhood and his training during the seven years he’s absent from Gotham.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD ABOUT IT
Some might be disappointed that the one rogue’s gallery representative – the Scarecrow – is a supporting player and not particularly scary. But I’m nitpicking for the sake of putting something in this category.
Christian Bale has the honor of playing the first totally serious Batman/Bruce Wayne in live action, and he’s totally up for it. He’s also the most human Bruce, thanks to the screenplay taking the time to show us his brutal but effective training under Ra’s Al Ghul, and – once he chooses the Batman guise — specifics about his outfit, weaponry and vehicles. When Batman takes a beating, he needs time to recover (note the scene where he’s still in bed at 3 p.m.), but the training and armor make us believe he can take that beating and keep functioning.
Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) is new to the lore, a romantic interest who goes back to Bruce’s childhood and who also serves as a moral compass. She’s not strictly necessary, perhaps, but I’ve been a fan of Holmes going back to “Dawson’s Creek,” and it could be argued that Bruce’s isolation is sadder since – rather than not having any friends – he keeps his closest friend at a distance. Like Vicki in “Batman” (1989), Rachel knows Bruce is Batman, and it’s cool that he trusts her enough to let her know. As a good-hearted lawyer, Rachel is also perhaps a replacement for Harvey Dent, a way to get a female into the male-heavy cast. But Dent will be in “The Dark Knight.”
Michael Caine’s Alfred Pennyworth is somewhere between Michael Gough’s turn in the 1990s films and Sean Pertwee’s in “Gotham.” He’s a morally upright butler, but he can be sardonic. And while he’s not a fighter, he is brave: He saves Bruce from the Wayne Manor fire.
Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman, having a blast) guides Bruce through all the Wayne Enterprises technology and equipment prototypes, and — along with old pal Alfred – helps Bruce make this stuff into functional gear for Batman.
As Sergeant Jim Gordon, Gary Oldman seems to have read “Year One,” then transferred the character directly to the screen. While there isn’t a lot of Gordon-Bruce interaction compared to “Gotham,” there’s a ton more than in the 1990s films, starting with Gordon being the officer who tries to comfort young Bruce in the wake of his parents’ murders.
Ra’s Al Ghul (Liam Neeson) is like a twisted version of Qui-Gon Jinn. His organization, the League of Shadows, apparently is responsible for all the course corrections (to use a blunt term) throughout the history of civilization, including the Black Plague. Its latest goal is to wipe out Gotham, which Ra’s sees as too corrupt to be allowed to exist. This broad, collectivist POV provides a nice contrast to Bruce’s belief in the merits and value of individuals.
Tom Wilkinson gives one of the film’s best performances as crime boss Carmine Falcone, especially in a scene where he outlines to Bruce the reasons why crime pays and why Bruce can’t stop him. Falcone may be slime, but he is smart and has clearly earned (for lack of a better word) his place in this corrupt city.
Bruce chooses the symbol of Batman because he (and most people, he presumes) finds bats scary, so it’s appropriate that the theme of fear is further drawn out by Dr. Jonathan Crane/The Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy).
Random thug Joe Chill (Richard Brake) is the killer of the Waynes, a refreshing return to traditional lore after the Joker had this role in 1989’s “Batman.”
- The concept of criminals running loose after escaping from Arkham Asylum is used in “Gotham” Season 3 and the notion of the city being cut off from the mainland with the raising of the bridges is central to Season 5. The former point will apparently still be in play in “The Dark Knight,” as this film ends with Gordon telling Batman about one of the most dangerous escapees: the Joker.
- Because it’s a mostly serious film, the moments of humor are always pleasantly surprising, like when Gordon says of the Batmobile: “I gotta get one of those.”
- I feel like everyone is pronouncing Ra’s Al Ghul and Carmine Falcone wrong in this film. Maybe I’m the one who’s wrong; I’m just saying it strikes me as weird.
Fans had to wait far too long, but they finally got a great “Batman” film 66 years after Bob Kane invented the world’s greatest detective. While this was no doubt the mission statement of “Batman Begins” (which came on the heels of negative reaction to the final two entries in the Burton/Schumacher continuity, “Batman & Robin” and “Catwoman”), the film isn’t stiff or deliberate under Nolan’s direction. “Batman Begins” announces that it’s time for superhero movies to be serious again, and few people cared to resist this premise.