Batman Begins always felt like two different movies to me.
The first 40 minutes are all about Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) going abroad to deal with his parents’ deaths and to train to be Batman. In China, intentionally serving a prison sentence for stealing WayneTech merchandise (stealing from his own company so that he doesn’t truly become a criminal), he meets a man called Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) who trains him and prepares him to join Ra’s Al Ghul’s League of Shadows. However, due to ideological differences – they kill people and Wayne refuses to – he flees their compound and heads back to Gotham City.
The rest of the film tells the story of him becoming Batman. He builds the suit, acquires the Batmobile (known in this film as The Tumbler) and begins taking down the scum of Gotham. He must take on Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), a psychologist who uses fear toxins for his own research/amusement and Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), the mobster running organized crime in the city. There is also an unseen hand at work, pumping drugs into the city and preparing for a master plan.
Along the way, Bruce also reconnects with his childhood friend Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes). He also meets Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), the head of Research and Development for Wayne Enterprises, who supplies Batman with all of those wonderful toys. And Batman finds an ally in Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), the one truly honest cop in a sea of corruption.
Your mileage may vary, but I’ve always felt that the second half of the movie works much better than the first. There are certainly a lot of interesting moments during Bruce’s time abroad – particularly a great sword fighting scene between Wayne and Ducard on a sheet of ice (and Ducard tells him: “Your parents’ death was not your fault. It was your father’s.”) – but overall the whole thing drags on too long. Making matters worse, it beats you over the head with the film’s overarcing theme about overcoming your fears. We see young Bruce afrad of bats, older Bruce immobilized by fear when he sees his parents’ murderer and Ducard using a fear toxin to mess with Bruce’s senses. (If you took a drink every time someone talked about fear in this film, you’d be unconscious before Bruce Wayne put on the Batsuit for the first time.)
I wish Christopher Nolan had trusted us to get it without beating us over the head with it. The worst moment is when Bruce’s parents are killed in front of him as a child – a scene that should always have a huge emotional impact. But in Nolan’s version, right when his parents are lying on the ground dying, Bruce’s dad looks up at him and tells him not to be afraid. It completely undercuts the emotion of the scene by adding a completely unnecessary and overly melodramatic moment like that. And considering that in Nolan’s version the entire reason they are in a back alley alone is because they leave the opera early because Bruce is afraid of the bats on stage, it just feels like overkill.
There’s a scene at a landing strip where Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham in his private jet. He sees his butler Alfred (Michael Caine) on the plane and the two discuss his return to the city and how things have changed since he’s been gone. (It turns out in his seven years overseas, the CEO of Wayne Enterprises had him declared dead.) I’ve always felt like this moment was the beginning of the movie I wanted to see. I love everything that comes after it and have always felt like those previous 40 minutes could have been truncated to get to this moment quicker.
Origin stories are tricky, but Nolan finds an engaging way to establish his Batman universe. Since Bruce Wayne doesn’t have any special powers or any strange origins involving finding cosmic jewelry or being bitten by radioactive spiders, you get to see him train and acquire all of his various gadgets. Some of the best scenes in the film are simply Bruce Wayne and Alfred figuring out how to discreetly order the necessary parts to build his cowl or renovating the caves underneath Wayne Manor to make them hospitable.
Even with the flaws and the overdone opening, I’ve always loved the world Nolan created and his darker, more realistic Batman. You can tell that he researched the character, pulling little bits and pieces from various comic books over the years to create a Batman that feels distinct and original while still staying true to the character’s essence.
I’ve always appreciated Nolan’s very dry sense of humor, as well. The conversations between Bruce and Alfred are so dry and full of British humor that I’ve always really enjoyed. Often superhero movies go for broad humor, but I like that Nolan has found a more clever and fun way to inject levity into the story.
My only other complaint I’ve always had with Nolan’s film is the frantic, jerky camera style he uses during action scenes, which makes it difficult to follow what’s happening. I’ve softened on this a bit, it seems, as it didn’t bother me as much this time around, though that may be because I’ve seen this film so many times now that I know exactly what’s happening in all of those scenes. I still think that on first viewing, it’s impossible to keep track of everything that’s happening in most battle sequences.
Still, I really do appreciate this film and what it did for the Batman franchise. It rebooted things after the awful Batman and Robin and it elevated the discussion about what a comic book film could be.
- Retro Review – Batman and Robin (1997)
- Retro Review – Batman (1989)
- Retro Review – Batman: The Movie (1966)
- Retro Review – Batman Returns (1992)
- Retro Review – Batman Forever (1995)