What is it with maverick directors and superhero movies? Tim Burton started it. He’d had back-to-back sleeper hits (Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice) when he signed on to direct the original Batman. Bryan Singer made the fun and inventive film The Usual Suspects, then went on to direct X-Men, X2 and now Superman Returns. Sam Raimi worked his way up from genre flicks to his dark masterpiece, A Simple Plan—then took the reigns of the Spider-Man franchise. Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream) is working on an adaptation of the Japanese graphic novel Lone Wolf and Cub (and for a long time was attached to an adaptation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen).
And now we have Christopher Nolan, who created one of the most innovative films in years (Memento) directing the latest entry in the Batman franchise, Batman Begins. It stars Christian Bale (American Psycho, Reign of Fire) as Bruce Wayne/Batman; Michael Caine as his butler Alfred; Liam Neeson as Wayne’s mysterious mentor, Ducard; Cillian Murphy as Dr. Crane/Scarecrow; Gary Oldman as Sergeant Gordon (not yet the Commissioner), and Katie Holmes as Generic Love Inter—I mean, as Rachel Dawes. Rutger Hauer makes an appearance as the CEO of Wayne Enterprises and Morgan Freeman steps in as Lucius Fox, who is the Q to Batman’s James Bond.
With that sort of cast, you’ve got to expect something good out of the film. Fortunately, Nolan gives us a lot more. Batman Begins is the best entry in the franchise (though Burton’s first two films run very close behind). Gone is the sweeping impressionism and Wagnerian romanticism of the Burton era; Begins reboots the cinematic Batman myth. At least half the film is devoted to showing us how Bruce Wayne goes from millionaire orphan to costume-clad vigilante. The story does a good job of building Wayne’s character, and Bale gives us the most compelling and interesting Wayne to date (though it takes at least twenty minutes too long to finally see Batman in full regalia). Nolan seems interested in showing us the nuts and bolts of Wayne’s operation, and while this adds a degree of realism (if such a thing is possible in a superhero film), it starts to bog down the story.
Fortunately it picks right back up when Batman finally appears. What I like about this Batman is his humanity; the new bat-suit has a more pliable mask, allowing Bale to actually emote. Bale takes a cue from Keaton and gives Batman a harsh, grating voice. His Batman also screws up once in a while; he trips, he falls, he gets bruised and battered.
But as good as Bale is, the best performance comes, as always, from Gary Oldman, who vanishes beneath a thick rust-colored mustache to become Sergeant Jim Gordon, the weary Gotham City cop who clings to his integrity with a kind of resigned hopelessness. He’s the only one who trusts Batman (and vice versa).
The film does have a few problems. Composer Hans Zimmer’s lackluster score offers nothing in the way of memorable motifs; I sorely missed Danny Elfman’s epic themes from the Burton films. The fight scenes are mostly incomprehensible, giving us half-second close-ups of limbs with no indication of who’s hitting whom. And I didn’t care for Holmes, whose role seems wedged into the plot.
But Batman Begins is a promising start to a revitalized Batman franchise. Here’s hoping the same cast (sans Holmes) and Nolan return for the sequels.