Batman Begins (2005, Christopher Nolan)

Batman-begins

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Bruce Wayne is haunted so much by the murder of his parents that he decides to invent a vigilante persona to battle crime in Gotham City…

Good guys: As a young boy, Bruce Wayne falls into a well, where he’s scared by some bats. His millionaire father rescues him but is later murdered – along with Bruce’s mum – by a mugger. Aged about 20, and now played by Christian Bale, Bruce goes to the mugger’s parole hearing with the intent to kill him. However, a gangland assassin beats him to it – so instead Bruce travels the world and loses his “assumptions about the nature of right and wrong”. He ends up in a prison in Bhutan, where he accepts an offer from a strange man called Ducard to train as a ninja. But when he refuses to murder someone on the orders of Ducard’s boss, Ra’s al Ghul, Bruce returns to Gotham with a new crime-fighting agenda. Realising he needs a symbol – “something elemental, something terrifying…” – he focuses on his own fear of bats. A cave underneath his mansion provides a hideaway; the applied-sciences division of his father’s company gives him access to as much hardware as he needs. Bruce makes contact with Sergeant Jim Gordon, the only noble policeman he can find, then sets to work: his first target is local mobster Carmine Falcone and his drug trafficking. As the Batman – dressed in an all-black combat outfit and cowl, and with a growly voice – he soon becomes famous in the city. To ensure his cover, meanwhile, Bruce ostentatiously acts like an immature playboy in public. He soon has a run-in with the Scarecrow, a master criminal plotting to poison Gotham’s water supply, then discovers that Ra’s al Ghul is actually engineering the chaos… The inherent problem with the traditional Batman story – why should we feel sympathy for a good-looking, intelligent, ridiculously rich yet altruistic playboy like Bruce Wayne? – sadly isn’t helped by casting the po-faced and unlikeable Christian Bale, but there’s more interest elsewhere. Bruce has a trio of allies, all of whom are surrogate father figures. Michael Caine (fun) plays concerned butler Alfred; Morgan Freeman (droll) appears as Lucius Fox, Bruce’s pal at Wayne Enterprises; while Gary Oldman (excellent) plays Gordon. The latter’s look (glasses, moustache) echoes how the character appeared in Batman: Year One, a seminal comic book from 1987.

Bad guys: Liam Neeson, who used to be an actor before his recent conversion into Steven Seagal, plays Ducard of the mysterious League of Shadows. We also meet the League’s honcho, Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). As the story progresses, we get hints that someone is operating the principle bad guys – so it’s not a thundering surprise when Ducard reappears two-thirds of the way through and reveals that actually *he’s* Ra’s al Ghul. He wants to purge the corrupt Gotham City, so releases lots of dangerous prisoners to cause chaos and then pumps toxic gas into the air. Before his surprise return to the action, we think the Big Bad is Cillian Murphy’s chilling Dr Jonathan Crane. He’s a psychiatric doctor who uses a hessian scarecrow mask and a hallucinogenic spray to drive people insane with fear – one of his victims is Falcone (Tom Wilkinson with a hammy American accent).

Other guys: Bruce’s childhood friend/romantic interest, Rachel Dawes, is an idealistic Gotham DA. Katie Holmes is miscast in the role: she’s just not strong enough and the character makes little impression. Linus Roache plays Bruce’s dad, Thomas. Rutger Hauer is Earle, an executive at Wayne Enterprises who wants to take control of the company. Mark Boone Junior plays corrupt cop Flass.

Best bits:

* After brawling with a group of Bhutanese peasants, Bruce is pulled away by some soldiers for ‘protection’. “I don’t need protection,” he says. A soldier says, “For their protection!”

* Bruce’s training montage. (Shame there’s no 1980s pop hit, though.)

* Oh, look: it’s Gerrard Murphy from Doctor Who: Silver Nemesis as a judge.

* The trippy, shaky image when we see Bruce’s POV while he’s affected by drugs. (It reminds me of Mirrorlon, a TV technique used in early Doctor Who serials to create an unstable image.)

* Bruce says he’ll need a crime-fighting identity. Alfred suggests it’s to protect Bruce’s loved ones. “You’re thinking about Rachel?” asks Bruce. “Actually, sir, I was thinking of myself.”

* Oh, look: it’s Charles Edwards from Downton Abbey as a Wayne Enterprises executive.

* Oh, look: it’s Christine Adams (who’s in the Allison Janney episode of Studio 60, my single favourite piece of television) as a secretary.

* Alfred suggests they order 10,000 cowls in order to avoid suspicion. “At least we’ll have spares,” says Bruce.

* Bruce tests the Tumbler, a massive military bridging vehicle. “Does it comes in black?” he says, almost drooling.

* Bruce’s first outing as Batman – a creepy, slasher-movie scene at the docks.

* “What the hell are you?” “I’m Batman!”

* Batman tying Falcone to a searchlight, so the resulting image in the sky looks like the outline of a bat.

* Batman standing on a skyscraper, surveying his city. (Never really worked when Torchwood copied this idea, did it?)

* Alfred wakes Bruce up at 3pm. “Bats are nocturnal!” he moans.

* “Would you like to see my mask?” asks Dr Crane. Terrifying. Absolutely terrifying.

* Batman is dosed by the Scarecrow. “You look like a man who takes himself too seriously,” says the Scarecrow, pre-empting some of this film’s reviews. “You need to lighten up,” he adds as he sets Batman on fire.

* Bruce asks Alfred to keep some party guests busy. “Tell them that joke you know.”

* Batman squirts Crane’s gas in the Scarecrow’s face – so the Scarecrow then sees him as a demon.

* The Tumbler in action. Gordon looks on and says, “I gotta get me one of those.”

* Oh, look: it’s Shame Rimmer as a guy working in a water-company control room. (I’ve decided to assume it’s the same man he played in Superman II.)

* The climax on the monorail.

* The sequel-baiting gag at the end: Gordon mentions a new bad guy who leaves joker playing cards at the scenes of his crimes.

Review: Most versions of Batman mix up eras, styles and fashions, but this chooses to flatten those differences out. Whether Bruce Wayne is eight, 22 or 30, Gotham looks the same. It’s a recognisable, modern-day American city, with a vertiginous monorail system being the only outlandish embellishment. And that’s telling. Verisimilitude is the order of the day. Jokey self-referentialism and heightened production design have both gone. Other than a few dry quips from Alfred and Lucius Fox, there’s also precious little humour on show. This film actually heralded a vogue for take-it-seriously reboots of established film series – I’ve already reviewed 2006’s Casino Royale and 2009’s Star Trek, two films I adore. But as well as a play-it-straight agenda, it also has the feel of a graphic novel come to life. Scenes tend to be short, for example, and there are lots of pithy exchanges rather than conversations. Also, the threat is a sinister and secretive crime syndicate with grandiose plans. It’s an interesting combination. Perhaps it takes too long to build up steam, and I’m no fan of the dour Christian Bale. But there are lots of plusses. The second half is very enjoyable. Cinematographer Wally Pfister gives a real sheen to every image. There are plenty of interesting locations, which have been surprisingly rare in Batman movies so far. CGI is largely sidelined in favour of some stunning old-school modelwork. And Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s music is ace. Good stuff.

Eight rare blue flowers that grow on the eastern slopes out of 10.

Next time: Superman rebooted! Kind of. In a way. Well, not really. Look, it’s complicated…

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