Batman Begins: A Retrospective
By John Saavedra
It’s almost impossible to imagine now, but there was a time when it seemed like we’d never get another Batman movie. If you’ve been following Batman’s film history since the Tim Burton days, you know that the Dark Knight’s exodus from movie theaters had to do with the massive critical and financial failure of Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin, a movie created to sell toys instead of to tell a worthy Batman yarn.
That was 1997. It would be eight years before Warner Bros. could resurrect the Batman franchise on the big screen, and it’s all thanks to visionary director Christopher Nolan. There had been other attempts to make a Batman movie, of course. Paul Dini, Neal Stephenson, and Boaz Yakin developed a script for a potential Batman Beyond movie that never happened. Most famously, Darren Aronofsky took a shot at making a Batman: Year One movie, co-written by Frank Miller himself.
While Aronofsky’s movie never got off the ground, there were certainly ideas WB liked about it, such as going back to Batman’s origin story. Aronofsky had also considered Christian Bale for the main role, which is exactly what ended up happening when Nolan took over the project.
From the very start, Nolan’s take on the Dark Knight was headed down the right path. While Schumacher had ignored most of the source material in favor of a more poppy homage to the ‘60s Adam West era of camp and the Batusi, Nolan decided to go back to the comic books that had made the character famous in the first place.
According to a featurette included in the special features of the Batman Begins DVD release, Nolan’s “jumping off point” for the movie was a story called “The Man Who Falls,” by Denny O’Neil and Dick Giordano about Bruce traveling the world after the death of his parents. This of course became the inspiration for the first third of Batman Begins, which shows Bruce traveling through Asia and honing his skills as a crimefighter.
Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, and Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One. All three of these books were the basis of all of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, along with The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland, The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, and Knightfall, and No Man’s Land. Nolan’s basically took some of the most important Batman stories ever written and synthesized a coherent story about the rise, life, and fall of the Dark Knight. It remains, and will probably remain for some time, the definitive cinematic take on Batman.
As for the opening chapter, it stands apart from the other two installments quite a bit. In fact, it’s the most comic book-y movie of the three. The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises busied themselves with post-9/11 social commentary, the surveillance state, and terrorism — movies that used Batman as a means to talk about the way the world had changed after the September 11 attacks. Meanwhile, Batman Begins is all about establishing the character for a new generation. The Gotham City of the first movie feels of more Gothic construction in a way, a rotting town with an underground full of scum and mob bosses. It’s filthy, it’s always raining, and much of it — even if we only see bits and pieces of this city — feels dilapidated. This obviously serves the narrative. The idea is that the city is falling apart before Batman shows up to save the day.
Nolan used Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner as an inspiration for the look of the movie. Scott’s movie shows a city in peril, of course. Below the very bright Coca-Cola billboards of the skyline is an almost subterranean society of city dwellers living in the rain leftover from nuclear war. Nolan’s movie emulates this look and feel quite successfully, although his Gotham features even less lights. Nowhere in sight is the neon of the Schumacher films. Things are dim in Gotham, as Nolan delivers plenty of shots of rain-soaked roofs and fire escapes and very little lavishness.
Beyond the presentation, the film is well-acted. Christian Bale, who got the role despite the fact that he had trouble getting the right weight for Batman (he’d just filmed The Machinist and then over did it when it came to bulking up for the Batsuit), is excellent in the role. His Bruce is a bit more subtle, a bit more held back, sort of the way Michael Keaton played the character. I’d say that Batman Begins offered Bale the most meaty role of the three movies, which took the focus off of Batman a bit, and he did not disappoint.
Michael Caine absolutely wowed as Alfred, and it’s impossible to imagine that any other actor could ever own the role quite like he did. His Alfred felt like a part of the operation, a true sidekick who handled things from the Batcave. I don’t mean to take anything away from the legendary Michael Gough, who was MY Alfred growing up, but there really isn’t any comparison. Caine just gets more to do and say in the Nolan movies. He even gets to hit someone during the League of Shadows’ attack on Wayne Manor!
Like in past Batman flicks, Bruce has a love interest. This time it’s Rachel Dawes, played by Katie Holmes in this movie, who was actually an original character added to the movie after the writers couldn’t figure out how to put Harvey Dent in the script. Little did they know that saving Harvey for the sequel would pay off big time. (Some might even argue that The Dark Knight is ABOUT the fall of Harvey Dent.) Holmes is formidable in the role, tough and a great foil for Bruce, who is pushed by Rachel to be better at a moment when he’s very angry.
Liam Neeson’s Ra’s al Ghul pretty much haunts Bruce throughout the movie. I really like that Nolan took a more hands-off approach to the main villain of the movie, only revealing Ra’s true nature in the twisty third act. Neeson plays the perfect villain, one who doesn’t just use his fighting skills to go head to head against Batman but his wit and wisdom. Ra’s is a mastermind, the type of villain Nolan clearly respects since he used the same method for his Joker and Talia al Ghul. In the end, the only brute in the only trilogy is Tom Hardy’s Bane.
Something I really love about the Nolan Batman movies is that the portray Batman as a flawed character who sometimes struggles to do the right thing. While Burton and Schumacher’s Batman almost never faltered (except that one scene where Michael Keaton clearly killed that dude from Penguin’s gang), Nolan’s version of the character is sometimes tempted by the easy way out, whether it be shooting Carmine Falcone or invading people’s privacy in order to catch the bad guy.
Nolan turned a franchise that had been the laughing stock of superhero movies into a serious look into the psyche of a complex and flawed hero as well as a microscope with which to examine post-9/11 America. It all started with Batman Begins, the story of a man trying to do the right thing, honor his parents, and save his city.