Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 26, 2010)
Although it made $107 million at the box office, most people view 1997’s Batman and Robin as a bomb. For one, Robin took in $55 million less than the next-lowest-grossing flick in the series, 1992’s Batman Returns.
In addition, virtually no one liked it. The flick made about 40 percent of its final gross during its opening weekend, and once word of mouth got around, it collapsed.
Batman & Robin also darn near killed the franchise, as the Batman flicks took seven years off to give movie-goers time to forget the bad taste left in their mouth with Robin. Rather than continue the series in a “business as usual” way, the next film would reinvent things with a return to the start.
That means a glimpse of Batman’s early years and a look at how he became the Caped Crusader. 1989’s Batman alluded to some of this information and gives us a cursory “origin story”, but for a full exploration of this area, we check out 2005’s Batman Begins.
The film’s first act depicts a few different facets of Bruce Wayne’s life. These occur in a non-linear fashion, but to make this synopsis more readable, I’ll place them in chronological order.
We meet an eight-year-old Bruce (Gus Lewis) and see some seminal events. First, he falls in a hole and gets surrounded by bats, an incident that causes a deep-seated fear of those beasts.
Next, after a depiction of bats in an opera scares him, Bruce gets his parents (Linus Roache and Sara Stewart) to take him out of the concert hall. As they leave, a street crook named Joe Chill (Richard Brake) robs them. This goes awry and ends in the shooting deaths of the elder Waynes.
Unsurprisingly, this leaves psychological scars on the young Wayne, and when we meet a college-aged Bruce (Christian Bale), he returns to Gotham City to attend a parole hearing for Chill. It turns out that Chill was a cellmate for crime boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) and will trade testimony for an early release. Bruce plans to shoot Chill but one of Falcone’s underlings beats him to the punch.
Bruce’s childhood friend Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) – now an assistant to the Gotham DA – tells him that the real roots of Gotham’s problems lie with the Falcones of the town, not the Chills. Bruce confronts Falcone, but the crime boss dismisses the wealthy youngster because he knows the kid has no understanding of the underworld.
Bruce sets out to gain those experiences and he renounces all the privilege that the Wayne name brings to make an anonymous trek. Eventually he ends up in an Asian prison where Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) approaches him.
Ducard works as the representative of Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), the leader of a vigilante organization called the League of Shadows. Ducard promises Bruce that they can help train him to be a more effective tool against crime.
Bruce takes up this work and becomes a star pupil under Ducard’s tutelage. He earns a spot in the League but balks at the final test.
Ducard orders Bruce to execute a criminal, a task that Bruce refuses because he doesn’t see this as justice. This launches a brawl that kills Ra’s and almost snuffs Ducard as well, but Bruce narrowly saves his unconscious mentor and splits before his tutor awakes.
From there Bruce heads back to Gotham to take on crime in his own way. Thus starts the linear portion of the film as he reclaims his stake at Wayne Enterprises and also launches an ambitious plan to wreak havoc among the lowlifes of Gotham.
The latter enterprise occupies most of the screentime as we see Bruce’s plans come to fruition. Bruce lets longtime Wayne Manor butler Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) in on his plans and makes his old pal part of the program.
In addition, Bruce takes on a role in an obscure part of Wayne Enterprises so he can access the armor and weaponry he’ll need. He works with Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) to obtain and modify what he wants, and this leads to a formidable arsenal.
With all that at work, Bruce becomes the Batman, a dark force who quickly strikes fear in the hearts of Gothan lowlifes. He impresses some with his capture of Falcone, but Commissioner Loeb (Colin McFarlane) sees him as a vigilante and wants him captured. At least Bats has one cop on his side: Sgt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), the same officer who comforted young Bruce after his parents’ death.
The movie mostly follows a story related to attempts to poison the populace of Gotham. Led by the Scarecrow, the evil alter ego of court psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), a psychotropic powder will be placed into the water supply of the city and then dehydrated to literally eradicate the citizens with fear.
Eventually we learn that a mysterious figure runs the show from behind the scenes and uses both Crane and Falcone as his pawns. Naturally, Batman wants to stop this, so the flick shows us how he attempts to save Gotham.
As a longtime Batphile, I really looked forward to Begins. Arguably, it stood at the top of my “must see” list for 2005, though Revenge of the Sith was on about the same level. While not a perfect Batman movie, Begins mostly lived up to expectations.
First the bad:
1) Katie Holmes. While beautiful, she takes a completely inappropriate approach to Rachel, as she makes the character smug and condescending. Because of this, it becomes awfully tough to see why Bruce cares what she thinks; she’s so self-righteous that you want him to tell her to take a hike.
Holmes also lacks maturity and force in the part. In her hands, Rachel’s not a strong adult woman, so instead she feels like a pouty girl upset her daddy didn’t buy her a new convertible for Sweet Sixteen.
2) The first act. Of course, the movie needed to tell some of the origin story – and with a title like Batman Begins, it required more of an emphasis on the character’s start than I’d expect from other movies of this sort. The name implies it’ll follow how he came to be Batman, so I welcome a longer take on his beginnings.
But not quite this long – though it’s not the length that makes the film’s first act a bit tedious. Instead, it’s the sluggish pacing and the awkward time-related transitions.
I admire the movie’s attempts to avoid the standard chronology, but they don’t work especially well here. Maybe that’s because it become more difficult to figure out when the flick will skip the preliminaries and get us to the real action that we want to see.
3) Cockney Alfred? I understand a desire to make Alfred a little rough and tumble, but I think prior incarnations of the role worked just fine. This one seems a little off to me, as he lacks the polish to make sense as a butler.
4) Changes made to the origin story, where my biggest complaints relate to the relationship between Bruce and Joe Chill. In the comics, he got away with the murder of Bruce’s parents - it wasn’t until years later that Batman tracked down Chill and dealt with him.
That was much more interesting than the crook’s easy capture and convenient demise here. He gets Jack Ruby’d and that’s it.
I get that the movie wants to leave Bruce without the feeling of satisfaction he may have received from pulling the trigger himself, but it feels too convenient in a couple of ways. First, it ensures that Bruce doesn’t become a killer, and second, it creates a connection to Falcone.
Frankly, Falcone’s a pretty unnecessary character in the first place, but even so, we don’t need him tied to Bruce in this way. I guess this is all better than the lame way Batman made the Joker the killer of Bruce’s parents, though.
And now the good:
1) Pretty much everything else.
That may sound like too much praise, but it’s true, as once Bruce returns to Gotham, the movie rarely makes any missteps. It immediately becomes significantly more interesting and picks up its pace to a terrific degree. I get the feeling director Christopher Nolan felt relieved that the preliminaries were out of the way so he could move on to the meat of the tale.
Or perhaps I’m confusing my own sentiments with the director’s. When Bruce’s plane sets down in Gotham and act two formally launches, though, I do experience a serious sigh of relief that the preliminaries are finally done and we can actually get on with the action.
Granted, we still get some preparatory action at that point. After all, Bruce doesn’t return to Gotham already set up as Bats, so he needs to get the mechanics of that alter ego in place.
Somehow these seem much more interesting to me than the activities in the first act. Maybe it’s because I can sense we’re closer to actual Bat-action, but I think it’s cool to see Bruce go through all the issues connected to formally turning himself into a superhero.
The move rarely lets up after that. To a degree, the story gets lost along the way, but that’s a complaint one can apply to all the Batman movies, and I’m not sure that the narrative matters all that much anyway.
The Batman flicks aren’t particularly plot-driven, so their tales exist to give us lots of dark action and colorful baddies. What happens within those stories is simply a means to an end, and that’s definitely the case here.
One might criticize Begins for its lack of a relatively strong Bat-nemesis, as you’ll find no one as interesting as the Joker, the Penguin or the Catwoman here. The movie depicts the Scarecrow well, and Cillian Murphy’s performance makes him surprisingly effective.
It’s cool to have a villain who’s so unintimidating physically. Scrawny Murphy looks like a good gust of wind would blow him down the street, but he manages to infuse the character with enough menace and bravado to make it work.
Not that he has a ton to do, however, and the film’s structure requires it to obscure the identity of the real main villain until well into the third act. Surprisingly, none of this matters.
Prior Batman movies relied heavily on their baddies to carry the stories, but this one doesn’t. That comes as a positive since it lets us concentrate on other issues.
The excellent work of Christian Bale certainly makes all of this fly more effectively, and he captures all sides of the role very well. Not only does he come across as a menacing and powerful Batman, but he fills out Bruce better than any of his predecessors.
I especially like the way he shows Bruce’s fake playboy side. Those parts got lost in prior Batman flicks, but Bale realizes them nicely.
He also presents true depth in the part, such as during the scene in which he acts the fool at a society function with his two supermodel dates. When he encounters Rachel, he immediately sobers up – to a degree.
He doesn’t negate his earlier silliness, but we can sense his regret that he needs to put on this face and look like an idiot in front of his longtime friend. Bale delivers real dimensionality in the role and gives us these feelings without overstatement. Bale becomes the best Batman yet seen on film.
An absolutely top-notch cast helps support Bale well, and except for Holmes, I can’t find a dog in the bunch. I may not care for the whole Cockney Alfred choice, but I can’t fault Caine’s performance in other ways. He doesn’t act like the Alfred of the comics, but he fleshes out the role with life and verve.
Freeman does exceedingly well with a small part - heck, I thought he made a greater impression here than he did during his Oscar-winning role in the tiresome Million Dollar Baby. Usually when Freeman “slums it” in blockbusters, he phones in his performance, but not so his turn as Fox. He looks like he’s having a ball in the role and makes the part much more memorable than it should have been.
Oldman may well be the best of the supporting bunch. We’re so accustomed to seeing him play over the top, outrageous characters that it’s a little strange to watch him as a straight arrow.
Oldman reins in his hammy tendencies to make Gordon believable and warm. I like the way the film depicts the burgeoning relationship between Gordon and Batman.
All of these factors leave Begins as a satisfying first entry in Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy”. The subsequent films top it, but that doesn’t alter the fact Begins delivers a solid film.