If there is any justice in the box office, Batman Begins would be awash in moolah. Alas, while it appears to be doing well, its box office still appears to be below expectations (perhaps a real indication that the home entertainment phenomenon is having a significant and lasting impact on movie theaters).
As excellent as Memento was, that marvel of indie filmmaking from 2000 hardly hinted at the big-budget confidence of director Christopher Nolan. Taking the helm for this prequel marking a return to the Batman franchise, Nolan presents what some might have thought unthinkable: a quasi-realistic, intelligent and provocative movie based on a comic book hero.
Christian Bale stars as our brooding Caped Crusader, the son of a Gotham City philanthropist who was a child when he saw his parents gunned down by a mugger. The trauma spurs his personal odyssey to East Asia, where he apparently bums around the likes of Tibet, living as a petty thief until he falls under the guidance of a shadowy cult, the League of Shadows. It is there he learns to become something of a super vigilante, although Bruce bails once the group’s leadership, portrayed by Liam Neeson and Ken Watanabe, start crazy talk about destroying Gotham City.
So Bruce returns to his hometown after a seven-year absence. Drawing upon his education from the badasses of the League of Shadows, the heir to the Wayne fortune begins the painful creation of Batman, dedicated to cleaning up this city overrun by mobsters. During such scenes, the movie provides a kick of familiarity in the same way that the final 30 minutes of Revenge of the Sith tickled moviegoers. We are watching the birth of an icon, from the Batman costume (sans Joel Schumacher’s plated nipples, thank God) to the Bat Cave to Batmobile. And best of all is that Nolan grounds his story in a veneer of realism.
Batman Begins delivers plenty of bone-crunching action and some edge-of-the-seat sequences (particularly a chase involving the Batmobile), but screenwriters Nolan and David S. Goyer conspicuously avoid much of a body count. For all the darkness inherent in the Batman myth, the filmmakers are not afraid to examine timely questions of what separates vengeance from justice. Batman refuses to play executioner.
Bale is terrific in the lead, an actor blessed with a tough action-hero presence but one who is also capable of acting. Katie Holmes is fine as Bruce Wayne’s childhood pal-turned-honest assistant district attorney; the only downside to her performance is that she’s a bit of a distraction in the wake of the TomKat media deluge. But the cast is uniformly top-notch, and cinephiles are sure to appreciate the litany of great character actors: Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Rutger Hauer, Cillian Murphy and Tom Wilkinson all get a chance to shine.