It took the storytelling skills of British director Christopher Nolan to finally get Batman right. The 1960s TV show, starring the late great Adam West, had a lot of action, but was overly campy. The Tim Burton films felt very much like comic books come to life, but the villains stole the spotlight. Then there was Joel Schumacher who nearly killed the franchise by turning it into a live-action cartoon and by putting nipples on the suit. However with Batman Begins (2005) the spotlight was firmly placed on the character of Bruce Wayne as he becomes a vigilante, the villains were much less campy, and the action sequences seemed to be set in our world.
Like many people my expectations for Batman Begins were pretty low for what would be chronologically the fifth theatrical Batman movie. I had watched Batman Forever many times on VHS, but Batman & Robin, the last Schumacher entry, had left a very bad taste in my mouth. Going into theatres in Quebec City in the summer of 2005 all I knew was that the bad guys would be the Scarecrow and Ra’s al Ghul, and that this new story would take a more in-depth look at the early days of the caped crusader. Christopher Nolan was relatively below the Hollywood radar, and Christian Bale was mostly known for having played a murdering stockbroker in American Psycho. Yet I walked out of the theatre having seen the best Batman interpretation to date filled with anticipation for what was next.
As this was a restart, or that ridiculous word, a “reboot,” for the franchise writers Nolan and David S. Goyer took Batman back to his roots, using classic graphic novels such as Batman: Year One and The Long Halloween as inspirations. The previous films had all done the iconic scene in which the parents of billionaire Bruce Wayne are shot by a mugger in an alley of Gotham City, but in Batman Begins the story digs into what happens after that and how exactly Batman gets all those wonderful toys.
A man born in comfort does not overnight become a vigilante who dresses like a bat. Wishing to understand the motivations of criminals, Bruce Wayne chooses to leave Gotham and travel the world in search of answers. In Asia he draws the attention of The League of Shadows, an organization that teaches him how to fight and master his inner fear. His mentor Henry Ducard (Liam Neeson) tells him he can accomplish much more by being not just a man, but also a legend. That indeed sounds promising.
When he realizes The League’s ultimate goals are too drastic even for him, Bruce leaves them and returns to Gotham to fight crime and corruption on his own term. Flying home with loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine), he lays out his plan to become a symbol of hope. First off though he needs a bulletproof suit, a strong vehicle to pursue criminals, and a secret lair where he can tinker on those items in secret. Fortunately there is a large cave full of bats beneath his mansion, and as for the tools needed for his crime-fighting nights, Wayne Enterprises archivist Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) shows Bruce an impressive military vehicle called The Tumbler. “Does it come in black?” Bruce asks with a smile.
The filmmakers show all of this with a relative degree of realism, despite the fact it is after all a ridiculous conceit. Gotham looks like a real city, and it should since most of the production took place in the streets of Chicago. Even the villains have a plan that is somewhat within the realm of plausibility. Mobster Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) uses corrupt psychiatrist Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy) to give his thugs the insanity plea in order to get them out of jail. What Falcone does not know is that Crane, soon to be known as The Scarecrow, is also working on a plan to spread a chemical weapon into the city using its water supply. Crane is receiving his orders from The League of Shadows, whose leader believes the only way to save Gotham from its corruption, is to burn it to the ground. These villains don’t just have an evil plan; they have understandable motives.
Batman of course saves the day, but as he is only just beginning he takes a few stumbles along the way. He gets back up with the help of Alfred, who here gets to act as much more of a father figure than in previous incarnations. Batman’s other allies include childhood friend and assistant district attorney Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) and of course good cop James Gordon (Gary Oldman, for once playing the good guy).
Once the city is saved they will all have to stay strong for the next fight, because the filmmakers were also smart enough to look at the effect a man like Batman would have on the criminal underworld. As Gordon explains to Batman next to the newly installed Bat-signal, in response to this new war on crime criminals are upgrading to automatic weapons and armour-piercing bullets. Then there is the matter of a new theatrical criminal, one that leaves a calling card behind: a Joker card. Uh-oh.