PG Cooper: Batman Begins Review

Posted: July 11, 2012 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in Retrospectives

*Disclaimer: Review contains SPOILERS!!!

Release date: June 15th, 2005

Running time: 2 hours and 11 minutes

Written by: David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan

Based on: The character Batman, created by Bob Kane

Directed by: Christopher Nolan

Starring: Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, and Michael Caine

After the cinematic failure that was Batman and Robin, the Batman franchise remained in a state of suspension for a number of years. Rumours spread of various different Batman projects, and even today news still comes to light of proposed ideas to continue the franchise. Before Batman and Robin’s release, Warner Bros. wanted Schumacher to return. The plan was for him to direct a film called “Batman Trumphant”, which would feature Scarecrow using his fear toxin on Batman and Batman’s fear would be the return of The Joker. Harley Quinn was also set to appear, written as The Joker’s daughter. Needless to say, after Batman and Robin came out, the studio changed plans. Other rumours included a Batman vs. Superman film, a Batman Beyond adaptation, and a prequel to the Burton/Schumacher series based on Frank Miller’s “Batman: Year One” to be directed by Darren Aronofosky. But none of these projects would come to be. Instead, young director Christopher Nolan, known for his acclaimed thriller Memento, would be the one to bring Batman back to the big screen in 2005, eight years after the last Batman film, with Batman Begins.

As you can probably guess from the title, Batman Begins takes the series back to the early years in Bruce Wayne’s childhood. The film shows Bruce as a child as he experiences the murder of his parents. The film then cuts to Bruce as a young man (Christian Bale) and shows the effect the murder of his parents has had on him. He’s angry, confused, frustrated, and seeking vengeance. Unsure of his path in life, Bruce travels the world to learn about criminals. Through his travels, he meets Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson). Ducard is part of an organization known as The League of Shadows, who specialize in the fighting of crime. Ducard takes Bruce in and trains him in their ways. Bruce excels in the training and becomes accepted as a member. However, Bruce realizes their methods are two extreme, so he ops to leave. This does not go over well with The League, so Bruce needs to fight his way out. Ultimately, Bruce his successful and returns to Gotham City with a mission; to fight crime and reclaim the city for the good citizens. His faithful butler Alfred (Michael Caine) supports him, but has differing thoughts on the idea of Bruce fighting crime. After a trial run, Bruce decides to adopt the imagery of bats, which scare him, and use it against his enemies by becoming Batman. Though he faces opposition from mob boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) and corrupt psychiatrist Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), Batman also inspires good in the form of Sergeant James Gordon (Gary Oldman), one of the few good cops in Gotham, and Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), a young district attorney as well as one of Bruce’s childhood friends.

One of the key areas where Batman Begins excels is in the origin of Batman. The main reason is because the story from Bruce Wayne to Batman does not simply feel like an excuse to put Bruce in the batsuit. Instead, the change feels like a very real character development. The origin is there to reinforce why someone would take up a life of crime fighting and to allow the audience to understand Bruce’s mindset. It should also be said that exploring Bruce’s origins are very interesting and entertaining. Some have argued that there was no need for a film to extensively analyze Batman’s back story, but I disagree. Spending so much time with Bruce before he becomes Batman helps show the depth of his character, not to mention Batman has one of the best back stories in comics. Most of the first half of the film is dedicated to Batman’s origin, and the second half looks at his efforts to clean up Gotham. This second half is just as engaging as the first. The plot takes a lot of twists and turns, and the story also works as a thrilling crime drama. All of the characters are related in interesting ways, and everything blends together nicely. Everything builds to an exciting climax where The League of Shadows attempts to use Crane’s fear toxin to destroy Gotham.

Of course, an examination of Batman’s origins would have been wasted if the man behind the cowl was unable to make it all work. Thankfully, this isn’t the case with Christian Bale. Despite the jokes people make about his Batman voice, Bale plays an incredible Batman, bringing a lot of pain, frustration, and obsession to the screen and is able to really loose himself in the part. One of the great things about Bale’s work is the way he’s able to play three distinct aspects of Bruce’s personality. He plays a great Batman, he plays a great Bruce Wayne publically, and he plays a great Bruce Wayne privately. To this day, Bale is the only actor to nail all three of these aspects perfectly. A testament to Bale’s craft is that he does not become Batman until over an hour into the film, and never once does the audience find themselves wishing he’d just become Batman already. Bale’s performance is so strong that it doesn’t matter if he’s in the suit or not, what matters is the character himself. In a superhero film, that can be rare.

Nolan and writer David S. Goyer took a huge risk with their approach on the villains. Instead of choosing the most iconic villains, the two went with the villains who would best serve the story, eventually going with mob boss Carmine Falcone, Ra’s al Ghul, and The Scarecrow. All three villains are handled very well. While in theory a mob boss seems like they might be a boring villain in a super hero film, Falcone works very well, in large part because he lends himself to the realistic tone Nolan took. Mobsters have always played a large role in the Batman universe, and I like seeing the live-action films dive head first into that. Not to mention Tom Wilkinson gives a strong performance and brings a lot of personality to Falcone. Cillian Murphy plays a great Scarecrow. He’s creepy and unnerving, and his fear toxin makes for a good obstacle for Batman to overcome. My only complaint with Scarecrow is that instead of having a final confrontation with Batman, he’s just zapped by Rachel’s tazer and then he’s done. That’s extremely lame. Oh well, Murphy still gives a very good performance as Scarecrow. Finally, there’s Liam Neeson as Ra’s al Ghul. Though he poses as Ducard, it is revealed in the third act that he’s really Ra’s. The idea of Ra’s training Batman is brilliant, and Neeson plays this well. He makes for a good teacher, being challenging and authoritative, but also having a certain fatherly warmth to him. It feels like he genuinely cares about Bruce. But in the third act, when Ra’s goes full on villain, Neeson makes him extremely intimidating. The cold sense of control in Neeson’s voice and manner is perfect for the role. Despite having three main villains, the film never becomes messy. They all blend together well and feel seamless. I will say, none of these villains have the same mesmerizing effect as Jack Nicholson’s Joker or Michelle Pfieffer’s Catwoman, but that’s also kind of the point. The film never wants you to forget that the film is very much Batman’s story.

Batman Begins was also the first Batman film that not only carefully casted the hero and villain roles, but also carefully casted the supporting roles. Bruce’s faithful butler and friend Alfred is played by Michael Caine. I may have enjoyed Michael Gough’s work as Alfred, I feel Caine blows him out of the water. Michael Caine brings a great presence to Alfred, and I like that he actually challenges Bruce throughout. Despite this, Caine also brings the appropriate warmth to Alfred and you can tell he really loves Bruce. Brilliant actor Morgan Freeman also has a small role as Lucius Fox, a Wayne Enterprises employee and the man who creates Batman’s gadgets, effectively becoming Batman’s “Q”. It’s a very small role, but Freeman brings a lot of personality and charisma to the part and in effect becomes extremely likable. For me though, my favourite supporting cast decision is Gary Oldman as James Gordon. After five movies of Gordon being about as useful as a lighter is to a firefighter, they finally got Gordon right. Jim Gordon is smart and resourceful, and plays a large part in the movie. Oldman plays him perfectly. He has a subtle determination that I find admirable. Subtle is actually a very good word to describe Oldman’s work. Though you can see the distinct changes his character goes through, it also isn’t what would be called a “showy” performance. This subtlety is extremely appropriate for Gordon. Bottom line, Oldman is phenomenal and easily the best Gordon to hit the big screen. The only exception to this exceptional casting is Katie Holmes as love interest Rachel Dawes. Despite the positive reception Batman Begins received, the one thing that nearly everyone considered universally bad was Katie Holmes performance, she was even nominated for a Razzie for Worst Supporting Actress. Now I sill say, I don’t find Holmes to be that bad, or even bad at all. She’s okay, the problem is she just isn’t the level of her co-stars. In scenes where she’s supposed to act alongside Christian Bale, or Michael Caine, or Gary Oldman, she’s completely over shadowed. It doesn’t help that she’s probably the least interesting character in the film, who mostly just lectures Bruce. That said, I still like her more than Vicky Vale in Batman. At least Rachel has some personality. On the whole though, it’s a great supporting cast. Plus Rutger Hauer (Roy Batty in Blade Runner) is in it, and that is pretty damn cool.

One of the most interesting elements about Batman Begins was the more grounded and realistic approach the series took. While the film does still have elements that aren’t entirely realistic, the film still feels believable at all times. This is why I say the film works just as well as a crime drama. This realistic tone is enhanced by Nolan’s take on Gotham City. Instead of creating a fantastic, other-worldly gothic playground, Nolan instead makes Gotham City feel like a real American city by filming in a real American City; Chicago. Now, some have complained that the city feels too much like Chicago, but I disagree. This version of Gotham may feel drastically different than most incarnations, but that is by design. This less gothic atmosphere gives the film that realistic feel. Gotham City is very much a character in the film though, and I do really like the depiction of the city. Specifically how hopeless and depressing the city feels. Gotham truly feels like the worst American city in the world and you can understand why Ra’s would want to destroy it.

Batman Begins also raises the action standards of the series, but only slightly. The fight scenes aren’t very good mind you, though the series has never excelled in fight scenes. The fights are shot too close and the ending has a tendency to become a jumbled mess. I will say there’s a certain brutality to these action scenes that was lacking in previous films, but they still on the whole are not very good. There are however, some great action set pieces. This includes a great chase with the tumbler (the new Batmobile), the scenes where Batman picks off goons from the dark, and a great nod to “Batman: Year One”. Despite the fight scenes, Batman Begins does stand out on an action level when compared to its predecessors, but at the same time, still pales in comparison to some of the other superhero films of the same era, such as X2 and Spider-Man 2.

Batman Begins is not a perfect movie, but it does a lot right. It portrays all the characters in a dignified and respectful way, it’s an exciting film, an engaging story, and very dramatic. Batman Begins is a movie that can be enjoyed by both comic book fans, as well as regular film fans on an equal level, which can be rare in the genre. The film, like Burton’s original, was a game changer. After Batman Begins, several comic book films tried to take the more realistic/darker route with their characters, and that influence has even spread to non-comic book adaptations. Batman Begins also revived the Batman series, and had an ending that left fans eagerly awaiting the inevitable sequel. They would not be disappointed.

Rating: A

Comments
  1. BrikHaus says:

    Excellent review. I agree with pretty much everything you said, including the aspect of the fight scenes being shot too close-up. However, I think it worked in terms of brutality and making the film seem more grounded in the real world. To me, this is not only the perfect Batman movie, but the perfect superhero movie. Dark Knight was great, but for me, it didn’t top Batman Begins.

    • pgcooper1939 says:

      Perfect superhero movie huh? That’s a bold statement, but I can definitely see where you’re coming from. I will say, at the time of it’s release, Batman Begins was the best superhero film of all time, and is still one of the best to this day.

  2. le0pard13 says:

    Fine review, Daniel. Yes, after Schumacher’s B & R debacle Batman as a franchise virtually disappeared. I don’t know if you recall the Onstar commercials from 2001, but the buzz they generated among this superhero’s fandom I think got more than noticed. Even though it was an homage to Tim Burton’s Gotham, with much of the same props and stylings deployed in it, I think helped to solidify support and momentum that this franchise was far from dead, at least among moviegoers, and a new iteration (thankfully under Nolan) could find purchase.

  3. Great review. You already know where I stand on a lot of this, so I’ll just say I agree completely about Katie Holmes’s performance. It’s not up to the super-star levels of the other actors, but she was nowhere near as bad as some people made her out to be. (And frankly, I don’t even value the opinion of the Razzies any more… they make more questionable decisions in a typical year than the Oscars have in their entire history.)

  4. r361n4 says:

    Loved this movie, it’s pretty much set a bar for gritty reboots which hasn’t quite been equalled by any films since its release. I’m a huge fan of Nolan’s work and was a bit nervous when he took on such established main stream material, but Batman Begins showed me that there isn’t much cinematically that is beyond the director’s reach. I don’t give a crap about how douchey Christian Bale is off camera, he’s still my favorite batman yet and his performance wasn’t even the highlite of the film.

    Anyways great review, I’m going to be seeing this and the Dark Knight again as I’m waiting for DKR to come ou. Here’s to hoping that Nolan keeps up his high standard for the trilogy’s finale :)

  5. Ipodman says:

    Nice review… I agree that the origin of Batman here is an extremely well told story and you can really feel the pain of Bruce Wayne. Easily my favourite Bat film!

  6. Great review! I agree with almost every single line you wrote. I loved Cillian Murphy as the Scarecrow and I even liked that they threw in Victor Zsasz to really emphasize (at least to the fans anyway) that this is opting for a dark path. He was a really demented character in the comics! This movie made me proud to be a Batman fan again.

    -Steve

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