Batman's history on the silver screen has been very uneven. His motion picture debut was Columbia serial, made on a shoestring budget in 1943, that was glaringly racist against the Japanese. His first feature film, a spinoff from the classic 1966 TV series, was played for laughs. While well done and funny, as a comedy it was then hardly loyal to the spirit of the original Dark Knight of the comic books. Batman from 1989 and Batman Returns from 1992 were both fairly loyal in spirt to the comic books, although the first movie played fast and loose with the hero's origin. Batman Forever was acceptable, although the portrayal of Two-Face was poorly executed and The Riddler's plot would have been more fitting of the Mad Hatter. As to Batman and Robin, only the first serial was worse....
At long last there is a movie that captures the Dark Knight as he originally appeared in the comic books and as he has appeared ever since the Seventies. That movie is Batman Begins. Batman Begins is the first movie to tell the origin of the Caped Crusader. While it does depart in some details from the origin as told in the comic books (which has never been excactly consistent over the years anyhow), the movie remains loyal to the spirit of that origin. Indeed, the scene in which Bruce Wayne's parents are murdered before his eyes is one of the most powerful in the movie, much more so than the portrayal of the same scene in 1989's Batman. As a result of his parent's murder, Bruce Wayne becomes a crusader obsessed with fighting crime, The Batman. Much of Batman Begins tells the story of how Wayne went from billionaire orphan to Caped Crusader.
It tells that story remarkably well. Like the two Spider-Man movies, in some ways Batman Begins is less about action than it is a character study. The script, by director Christopher Nolan and David Goyer, permits Bruce Wayne to develop as a character well before he even puts on the Batsuit. We see the murder of his parents and the effect it had on him. We see his early training under Ra's al Ghul. Indeed, Batman Begins is simply about a guy who dresses up as a bat and fights crime. It is an exploration of how one fictional character deals with the murder of his parents and the fact that his hometown has become a cesspool of crime.
Nolan and Goyer's strong script is assisted by some of the strongest performances to ever appear in a superhero movie. Christian Bale (probably best known for American Psycho) is perfectly cast as Bruce Wayne and Batman. He captures what so other many actors who have donned the cowl and cape have missed--the guilt, the anger, the lonliness, the desperation, and obsession that resulted from the murder of Wayne's parents. Bale's Wayne is eseentially a loner who must put on the masquerade of a billionaire playboy while dressing up in a costume to fight crime at night. For the most part the other perfromances match the high quality set by Christian Bale. Michale Caine is delightful as Alfred, a combination valet and father figure who permits Bruce his crusade on crime, all the while worrying about the boy he raised. Gary Oldman proves that he can play something beyond villains as he plays the only honest cop in Gotham City, Sgt. James Gordon (who will eventually become Police Commisioner, but not in this movie). As The Scarecrow, Cillian Murphy is perfectly cast. He is suitably creepy as the mad psychologist Jonathan Crane who had developed a fear toxin. Beyond Bale and Caine, Liam Neeson perhaps gives the best performance, that of the character who gives Wayne much of his early training. His is a complex character and he realises that character perfectly.
Of course, the well written script and great performances benefit greatly from Christopher Nolan's direction. Best known for Memento, Nolan is the first director to truly capture the feel of Batman comic books. Nearly every shot could well have been a panel from one of those comic books. Indeed, both the movie's direction and editing give it a very deliberate pace. Batman Begins does not drag, but at the same time it does not linger far too long on any given scene.
Even in the film's look, it evokes the comic books. Batman's costume has never looked better. Not only does it look more realistic than the costumes from previous movies, but it also looks more like the one from the comic books. As to Gotham City itself, it looks like New York City (which Gotham pretty much is, no matter what current DC Comics continuity might have to say...) after a long bout of economic hardship. This is an old city that has aged poorly, its glistening skyscrapers standing not too far away from drab slums. It is a city where one can realistically expect crime to be rampant. It is also a city where one could expect a crimefighter dressed in cowl and cape to take it upon himself to fight that crime.
I must admit that Batman Begins is now my favourite superhero movie, although that is not to say that I don't have two problems with the film. The first is that left what I have always thought to be one of the pivotal scenes in Batman's origin as told in the comic books, the scene in which Bruce Wayne decides to take on the guise of a bat to fight crime. The famous speech that begins "Criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot..." are among the most powerful to ever appear in a comic book panel. The second is that The Scarecrow does not appear nearly enough. He has always been one of my favourite villains to battle Batman. He is certainly one of the most interesting. That, in my humble opinion, that he does not get nearly enough screen time is made all the more lamentable due to Murphy's excellent portrayal of the mad psychiatrist. I can only hope that he appears in one of the sequels.
And I do hope that there are sequels, particularly if Christopher Nolan can return as director and David Goyer as his partner in screenwriting. An accurate portrayal of the Dark Knight has long been overdue on the big screen. For that matter, a superhero movie with this kind of depth (beyond the Spider-Man films) has been long overdue as well. Batman Begins is a unique film which allows a superhero and the characters in his life to actually develop in the way that real people do. Anyone who loves Batman, superheroes, or simpy well done movies should definitely go see Batman Begins.