Batman is back, as he doubtlessly will be for years to come, so long as the box office take continues to fill the coffers at Warner Brothers. (Batman Forever grossed over $184 million; Batman Returns – $163 million.)
Batman Begins delivers what the title promises, telling Bruce Wayne’s story from his traumatic encounter with bats as a child, to his witnessing the murder of his parents in a street holdup (for which, of course, he assumes the blame), to the details of his reinvention of himself as a super-hero fighting injustice in Gotham. The screenplay, by director Christopher Nolan (Insomnia, Memento) and David S. Goyer, is fluid, efficient, and occasionally imaginative. It is also humorless, heavy-handed, and devoid of the irony which might have lifted it out of the realm of adolescent comic books.
Especially miscalculated is an extended early sequence in which Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) and his band of Ninjas (The League of Shadows), high in the Himalayas, offer Wayne "a path of true justice" and train him as a warrior. It turns out that Ducard, et. al., have a philosophy of destructive vigilantism that has a distinctly fascist ring to it. This is all delivered in dialogue of such stilted pretentiousness that it makes George Lucas sound like William Shakespeare.
Things improve when the scenario returns to Gotham and Batman is confronted with an evil gangster anda mad scientist (The Scarecrow) who experiments on the insane, the latter drawing on fascist associations once again. But, as per formula, the ultimate villain isn’t revealed until near the climactic ending–that is, for those who haven’t already guessed his clearly telescoped identity.
The mise-en-scene for Gotham works well, looking not unlike major metropolises today, with the addition of a monorail network that adds a futuristic look. (The monorail also offers the opportunity for Nolan to mimic a Spiderman 2 episode with a speeding elevated train.) Within the forest of gleaming skyscrapers there is a underside of slums and poverty, reflecting the theme of economic injustice which pervades the film–the ever-wealthier capitalist elite ever-plotting to get more for themselves as the legions of the poor grow ever-larger. Gee, that might even have some political relevance today.
The only female character in the film is Wayne’s childhood friend, Rachel (Katie Holmes), who grows up into a beautiful, crusading assistant D.A. The film is honest to the Batman zeitgeist in not suggesting any genuine romance between Wayne and Rachel. The sidekick, Robin, who adds a subtle homoerotic subtext to the legend, does not materialize in this early history.
Christian Bale, more buffed than ever, is perfectly suited to his role as Wayne/Batman. If only Nelson had managed to inject a bit of lightness somewhere into this portrait of neurotic obsession, the performance might have seemed less of a Johnny-One-Note. A superb cast of supporting actors (Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Tom Wilkinson) is underutilized–the script doesn’t give their roles sufficient complexity to allow them room to shine.
This is a film that aims for mythical grandeur, underlined leadenly by a pseudo-Wagnerian orchestral score, only to become mired in pretension to Jungian psychological veracity. Still, engulfed by the gargantuan IMAX screen and sound system, the viewer’s brain goes into sensory overload and intellectual neutral. Under those conditions, Batman Begins is an amusing enough diversion, but no one should be fooled into thinking this "dark" approach has transcended its target audience of teen-aged males.