It took me about ten minutes into the running time of Batman Begins before I got that familiar buzz. You know, the one you get upon delivery of honest goods to the entertainment receptors of the brain that are used to being outright ignored or clogged by endless, half-assed repetition of tired themes and bloated budgets for big-ticket movies that should have never seen the light of day. I’ve felt that buzz already this year watching Kung Fu Hustle and Unleashed—it happens whenever it starts to hit me that, yes, the filmmakers are onto something, and that what I’m watching has a really good chance of turning out to be a good movie. And that’s what Batman Begins is that the other Batman films, including Tim Burton’s influential and moneymaking first foray into the world of Bruce Wayne, are not—an entirely terrific movie, and not just a stunning piece of set design directed by a man only sporadically interested in the telling of a ripping tale, or a shallow super-freak villain showcase which quickly degenerates into a hopeless can-you-top-this carnival of desperate, hammy acting.
Director Christopher Nolan manages to find a near-perfect balance of filmmaking showmanship, narrative energy and psychological weight to lend to the telling of the half-familiar tale of Batman’s origins. He takes matters seriously enough to wring real emotion from the assassination of Bruce Wayne’s parents (the only part of Wayne’s background Burton chose to dramatize, and then only half-heartedly). But then Nolan, along with coscreenwriter David S. Goyer, proceeds to devote, with some deft chronological imbalances familiar to those who experienced the temporally unmoored pleasures of the director’s ass-backward noir Memento, nearly another hour to Wayne’s isolation and training with a group of justice fighters called the League of Shadows, which provides the basis of the philosophy he grafts onto the facing of his fears (personified by his revulsion for bats) by battling criminal forces back in his home city of Gotham. It is only after this compellingly told back story is methodically laid down that the central figure of Batman, as we are familiar with him, ever makes an appearance on screen. By then our appetite has been whetted. We’ve been enveloped by a more realistic foundation on which the story of that winged hero must be built, and Nolan, with actor Christian Bale delivering a complex and nuanced performance as Wayne, turns out to be more than up to fulfilling that promise.
The Gotham of Batman Begins is definitely influenced by the expressionistically overwrought city Anton Furst designed for the 1988 film, but that influence does not fall into simple plagiarism—it has a festering, grotesque grandeur all its own, and it feels, from the air and the ground, like a city we might recognize, one in the midst of a breakdown, in a freefall from beauty. Also, there is no trace of the ghastly cartoon bloating of the Joel Schumacher movies—there is humor, but it is not italicized and punched up so obviously that even the most witless audience member might be sure to correctly interpret the jab in his ribs. Strangely, for some Batman Begins seems to have not enough villainy, or rather, villains not grand enough to constantly catch our eye and color in the operatic expectations left unfulfilled by the central superhero. Thus, the movie has been shrugged off by some who ended up feeling, ironically enough, that Nolan’s mistake was in overemphasizing that hero, that is, the titular character-- not a mistake often attributed to writers and filmmakers who are usually right to ensure that the eponymous character, be he Batman or Macbeth or Ivanhoe, ends up being the central focus of the story.
But Nolan’s instincts are right; the satellite disbursement of malevolence in Batman Begins is a perfect antidote to the maddening silliness of the Schumacher films, and even the off-putting grotesquerie of some of Burton’s concepts of criminality. Here, there are ever-increasing layers of Gotham corruption and evil embodied by three separate villains who share that focus, but never throw the balance of the film out of whack—mob boss Carmine Falcone (an excellent Tom Wilkinson), a perfectly skin-crawling Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), known also as the Scarecrow (whose fate, thankfully, is left open-ended, all the better for a future nerve-rattling reappearance), and Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), high priest of the League of Shadows, who exits the film early only to have his most twisted views of the perpetuation of justice carried out by a fourth figure more closely tied to Bruce Wayne. But the movie always returns to Wayne’s motivations—revenge, tempered by a sense of social responsibility, and a desperate need to use his newly assumed identity as a vehicle for confronting interior demons that rage nearly as dangerously as those on the city streets-- and they infuse the action with just the right flourish of righteous indignation and disoriented buzz.
The movie has also been criticized as a bit of a hash in terms of its ability to visually map out and make clear the geography and choreography of some of its fight scenes. As a pretty strong objector to the usual sort of slice-and-dice editing that tends to render movement and graphic continuity within action sequences incoherent, I saw this kind of approach in Batman Begins as having, if not a ultimately different narrative effect than, say, one in a routine bad action film, then at least a believable psychological rationale. In a crummy action movie, an overly edited sequence is usually a pretty strong indicator that the director may not be confident in his staging or his ability to convey the power of the fight in visual terms, and therefore he overworks the Avid machine to hopefully make a limp sequence somehow snappier, or at least cover up its flaccidity. Nolan may not yet be any more comfortable with more personal, small-scale fight sequences either—his are largely broken into shards of sudden movement from the shadows, an unexpected frenzy of chaos. But, at least in the initial sequences when Batman begins taking various groups of baddies by surprise, there is a psychological motivation to this kind of editing, which produces a disorientation in the viewer quite similar to the one being experienced by the surprised thugs who Batman swats around—a disorientation similar to the one the young Bruce Wayne feels when, at the bottom of a well, he has his first traumatic encounter with bats, enveloped and overwhelmed by the flapping of wings in his ears, claws and teeth pulling at his hair.
Unfortunately, this psychological rationale doesn’t hold water by the end of the film, when Batman must face his final foe. A one-on-one battle between two nemeses who once had a much different relationship would seem to suggest that Nolan’s camera (manned by the capable and talented director of photography Wally Pfister) might better serve the battle by stepping back a pace or two, and that his editors resist the temptation to punch up each arm movement and successfully delivered blow with its own cut. By editing the sequence in this fashion, the action (which by now most audiences will be willing to follow, no matter the aesthetic misdemeanors used to present it) is violated, the editing loses its effectiveness, and it reduces the impact of an otherwise powerful ending confrontation by a simple few, yet quite noticeable, degrees.
Happily, though, Batman Begins, cruising on the conviction of its director to virtually recreate a familiar mythology in more realistic, edgier film-noir strokes, survives to the end as an excellently told comic book movie. It’s a movie with little fear of its own darker hues that wants to be taken fairly seriously, yet is hardly so inordinately glum and posturing that it renders itself pretentious, and therefore unworthy of being taken seriously at all. It’s a beginning that shuffles the history of the Batman character and forces a different perspective on his various past incarnations. It’s a beginning that feels like a solid foundation for many more tales hopefully as well-told as this one. It’s a beginning that signals hope for the future, not only of Batman, but for the prospect of other intelligent, ambitious blockbusters making it through the straitjacket homogeneity of the Hollywood production mill with their brains, hearts and souls intact.