Looking back at Batman Begins

Feature Mark Harrison 12 Jul 2012 - 07:46

Ahead of the release of The Dark Knight Rises, Mark heads back to where Christopher Nolan’s trilogy started – 2005’s Batman Begins…

With his trilogy of Batman movies set to conclude with next week's release of The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan is adamant that he never originally intended to make more than one. “We never had a specific trajectory,” he told journalists at this year's Produced By Conference. “I wanted to put everything into making one great film, I didn’t want to hold anything back.”

Reflecting on Batman Begins in the context of Batman on film as a whole, nobody could deny that the caped crusader was in dire need of “one great film”. After the critically reviled box office flop that was 1997's Batman & Robin, Warner Bros spent several years trying to resuscitate one of their most lucrative franchises with a number of projects, including Batman: Year One, Batman Beyond and even Batman Vs Superman.

Batman: Year One, based on Frank Miller's comic book story arc, almost made it to the screen, under the direction of Darren Aronofsky. Having canned the project in order to pursue Batman Vs Superman instead, the studio came back around to the idea of telling Batman's origin story. This hadn't yet been seen on the big screen, except in 1993's Mask Of The Phantasm, the feature-length spin-off from Batman: The Animated Series.

And so, Christopher Nolan and David S Goyer were hired to write the script, with Nolan taking on directing duties, with the aim of grounding everything in reality as much as possible. This was achieved with minimal use of special effects, and a spin on the continuity in which Batman was the only DC superhero – to Nolan, it had to be about Bruce Wayne's journey.

Batman Begins starts by crossing between Bruce's childhood and his later descent into the criminal underworld, spurred by the tragic murder of his parents, Thomas and Martha, right in front of him. Gotham is the city that the Waynes spent much of their time and money on trying to rehabilitate, but as Bruce sees it, there is only one way to rescue its citizenry from the criminal and corrupt elements of its infrastructure.

Travelling the world, Bruce encounters Henri Ducard, a member of the ancient League of Shadows, who takes him in and trains him to fight criminals, and turn his own fears on those who prey on the fearful. When he learns that the League's leader, Ra's al Ghul, is less interested in rehabilitating Gotham's criminal malaise than wiping it off the face of the Earth, he turns his back on them in an explosive fashion, and returns home.

Using his newfound skills, he channels his childhood fear of bats into the persona of Batman, using the resources of his parents’ company to wage a high-tech war on crime. He finds allies in Rachel Dawes, an assistant district attorney and Bruce's childhood sweetheart, and Detective Jim Gordon, the one good cop in Gotham, but he also finds enemies in the form of ruthless mobster Carmine Falcone and sinister psychologist Dr Jonathan Crane.

As much as the film is grounded, Nolan has spoken of Batman Begins as the kind of film he'd have loved to have seen when he was young. He didn't include any bloody or gory scenes for fear of excluding that demographic of 10-year-olds, but it's certainly a far cry from the colourful, toyetic, Bat-nippled campery of Joel Schumacher's efforts.

Also linking back to the films that Nolan liked in his youth, much of the casting was undertaken with Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie in mind, with a view to making sure that even the supporting cast was made up of world-class actors. In addition to the superb roster of Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman and Tom Wilkinson, Nolan cast Christian Bale, who was in the running for Aronofsky's take, in the lead role.

In focusing on Bruce's journey, the film is a marked departure from any of the original four Batman movies of the 1980s and 1990s. In those films, especially after 1989’s Batman, the hero is something of a passive character, and you see less of him than of his adversaries. Bale makes a serious yet sympathetic Bruce Wayne, passionate about avenging his parents against crime in his city, and comfortably sparking up his Patrick Bateman shtick from American Psycho to play up the public persona of a billionaire playboy. 

His Batman seems to provoke a little more debate. Bale affects a rumbling growl whenever he dons the Bat-suit, which has gathered infamy in Internet comedy videos since its escalation in The Dark Knight. In this first film, it works just fine in the scheme of Batman's intimidation tactics. The bull-necked cowl of the rubber costume makes it harder to take him seriously than the voice, a design flaw that plagued all of the live-action Batman films up to that point, and would later be addressed in-universe.

Part of why Batman Begins feels so fresh is that it refuses to rehash certain elements of the previous continuity. We'd never seen the Scarecrow in a live-action film before, so Cillian Murphy's frightening turn is doubly effective. Although he ultimately turns out to be the secondary villain of the film, he chimes perfectly with the overall motif of fear, liberally bombarding foes and allies alike with his gaseous fear toxin.

The larger threat is the League of Shadows, which seems, in retrospect, a bold choice for a reboot of a series whose iconography is based on distinctive individuals from a larger rogues' gallery. Combining the characters of Henri Ducard and Ra's al Ghul in the shape of Liam Neeson, their function of taking down decadent societies at the height of their corruption is perfectly at odds with Batman's mission of civilisation, making his League a perfect set of adversaries at the outset of his crime-fighting career. 

The world itself feels entirely believable. The strokes used to paint Gotham are never cartoonish, making the groundwork realistic enough for an exceptional figure like Batman to actually stand out as exceptional, once he arrives to try and salvage things. It could easily have become unrealistic, once Bruce visits Lucius Fox's R&D department, which is essentially this series' answer to the Bond franchise's Q Branch, but Nolan and Goyer give a practical answer to that hanging question that Jack Nicholson's Joker asked back in 1989: “Where does he get those wonderful toys?”

Oldman's Jim Gordon is particularly well-realised, seeming haggard, but never cynical; he's just downright good, and devoted to the cause of good. The film is basically about idealism in the face of fear, and the extreme measures through which Bruce tries to apply that idealism practically. It’s fairly optimistic, for a film so dark and gritty.

Up to this point, Nolan was only really known for the breakout indie success of Memento and his English-language remake of the Norwegian film Insomnia. As he has made more films, his interest in male anxieties has become more apparent in his storytelling, and it’s still hard to think of another director who could have constructed such a unique big-screen interpretation of Batman's psyche. Even if another director had come in to capitalise on the groundwork laid here, tonally, it feels so much like Nolan's own vision.

This isn't to say that the story owes nothing to Batman on the page. Echoing the arrested development of Aronofsky's film, much of the script's basis in the comics and graphic novels comes from Batman: Year One, but the film also owes a debt to The Man Who Falls and The Long Halloween. The former finds Bruce travelling all over the world and basically learning how to be Batman, much as he does in the first half of this film, while the latter provides the structure of Gotham's mob, including characters like Carmine Falcone.

Batman Begins can be seen to have popularised reboots in Hollywood, meeting critical acclaim and approval from the fans upon its release in 2005. Few other franchise kick-starters since have managed to match its popularity and success, because here is a film that is committed to a completely different take on a character we've seen before. With a superb cast, an admirable commitment to in-camera special effects and a rollicking pace, Batman Begins is that “one great film” that the character sorely needed at the time. 

We can take Nolan at his word about not having especially planned on a sequel, despite the fact that the film ends with a cracking sequel hook, because the scene comes from Batman: Year One. Standing on a rooftop where the newly installed Bat-signal shines into the night sky, Gordon warns Batman about the Joker. In Nolan's world, the killer clown represents an escalation that directly relates to Batman's presence in Gotham City, a theme that would explode into prominence in the film's follow-up, The Dark Knight.

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I watched it again recently, its strange that the Batman growl wasnt as distracting in this film aside from one or two scenes, i always feel dissapointed when Katie Holmes pops up too, I remember when it came out and it was almost everything I had ever wanted from a Batman film as a kid. It would have been nice to see Harvey Dent in this movie and more of Jim Gordons struggle against the force but thats just being picky. I also noted it was Bruces 30th birthday in this film, so he must be almost 40 in Rises, I cant help wondering if Bruces decision to not save Ras at the end will come back to haunt him in Rises

Not az gud az toY sTory tHouGh;

BeEcoz iTt deD gUd「&

It's here that I see the parrallels between this and 'The Amazing Spider-man' Both franchises suffered with previous films not being up to scratch. While 'Batman and Robin' was just a high budget version of the 60's TV show. 'Spider-man 3' lost it's way and even though there is argument that there should have been a Spider-man 4 instead of a reboot, you can almost see the Spider-man franchise slipping into 'Batman and Robin territory. The Spidey reboot was only 5 years away from the last however there was only 8 years between 'Batman Begins' and 'Batman and Robin'. As I recall, it always felt that 'Batman Begins' slipped quietly through the back door and gradually, through word of mouth it was common knowledge that Batman was indeed back. While 'The Amazing Spider-man' has had bigger promotion I hope it follows Nolan's trilogy for how this franchise has grown into something huge again and also hope that whoever nexts takes on 'the cowl' will do it Justice. These are both my favourite superheroes from DC and Marvel and I'm enjoying their current movie eras immensley. With these and the Marvel movies it really is a great time to be a comic book movie fan.

The strongest thing I took away from Batman Begins was the image of the nightmarish creature flying above the drugged citizens of the Narrows.

I thought "Yes! That's how legends are created!"

Other than that I was and still am indifferent to the films. Every time Alfred delivers a choice bit of encapsulating dialogue i'm waiting for a Wayans brother to pop up and shout.

"Message!"

Being a massive fan of Batman before Begins and loving all the Nolan movies since, I never really understood the hatred that Holmes got for her part in the movie. Whilst it may not have been my first choice, I think her performance was acceptable and other than peoples natural negativity toward her link to Cruise/Scientology, I think she was fine and doesn't detract from the movie at all.

Fellowship of the Ring is better than this because it just is okay.It just is.It's better I tell you.It is.Isn't it?

The only thing wrong with Batman Begins was the look of Scarecrow - man in suit with a potato sack on his head, how did everyone else on screen keep a straight face?

So, Batman and Robin was a box office flop was it?

Same here. I thought she was quite good in BB, and never got why so much venom was sent her way....but I think you nailed it.

Re-watched BB recently, and it still holds up. Certainly one of the better re-boots ever made, and I would count among those 2009's STAR TREK and the 2005 CASINO ROYALE and 2012's THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN.

Compared to previous Bat-films, yeah. Negative word of mouth killed it after a pretty big opening weekend, and Batman was the biggest franchise WB had at that point.

CORRECTION: OK, re-checked my facts. It didn't exactly lose money, but it underperformed, and was obviously enough to convince WB that they didn't want to continue in that direction for another diminished return.

"The strongest thing I took away from Batman Begins was the image of the
nightmarish creature flying above the drugged citizens of the Narrows"

Yeah--that scared the s**t out of me when I first saw it. Some parts of BB were almost like a horror film (the parts involving the Scarecrow), and that scene in the Narrows....yep, definitely raised some gooseflesh.

Sorry that the films don't really work for you, but at least you watched them. That said, while I liked THE DARK KNIGHT, I felt that some of the praise of the film went into the realm of the ridiculous. And I dislike the "Church of Nolan" fanboys with a passion. Make no mistake, I respect the man and his skills as a filmmaker, but when you see people saying that he should direct every freaking superhero film and that he's better than Speilberg (sic), Scorsesee, and every director known to man....that's just stretching the limits of believability.

I think it actually made money, shockingly enough. Better to check Internet Movie Database (IMDB) and find out, since they list the worldwide BO take for movies.

Great film. So was the second, and so will the third...why? Because they treated them seriously. Its that simple. Instead of camping it up and doing bright colours and going over the top, Gotham looked real, like a dark New York. The Bat suit looked real, the batmobile was not a thirty foot long comedy jet with bat wings on the back. It was an ex military vehicle that was a real prop, with a normal engine and then painted black. About the only thing that seemed a bit far fetched in Batmans techno arsenal was the cape with the memory fabric so he could glide down from buildings. The villains were real mobster types apart from Scarecrow who was a drugs expert nutcase doctor. It all worked in the real world. Hollywood should use this as an example and benchmark for any future batman films. Keep it dark, gritty realistic and grounded and treat it seriously and it works. I like the drak gritty stuff, it does not have to be depressing, just not too far fetched, probably one of the reasons the Bond reboots were a success is because they took this aproach.

I dont hate Katie Holmes and its fair to say that her performance is "acceptable" but she could have been so much better, but I dont buy the idea its because she married Tom Cruise. Christian Bale comes with just as much baggage after his rant on the set of Terminator Salvation was released and yet he still gets roles and it has never overshadowed him as an actor, Katie Holmes has done nothing since this I just think she was a poor choice for the role and it shows in the recast in the follow up but hate is a very strong word shes just an actress!

In keeping with the "real world" set up of the rest of the film, he would have looked even sillier I the full Scarecrow outfit

Just because it made or didn't make money doesn't mean a film is good or bad. A bad film can make money on name alone until word gets out its awful.

I intended that "critically reviled" would be the operative part of my point.

For me Batman Begins is on par if not a better film than The Dark Knight. Both were brilliant, but I loved the telling of the story in Begins. I have a feeling Nolan will trump both with The Dark Knight Rises.

He was scary once he started pumping the fear toxin out.

I don't have a problem with Katie Holmes in this movie - but the character of Rachel Dawes is the one part of Batman Begins that I would like to have seen differently. There's several great comic stories that describe the relationship between Bruce Wayne and pre-TwoFace Harvey Dent as them being friends - I'd like to have seen the Rachel Dawes character actually being the young Harvey Dent. They could still have been childhood friends; Harvey could still have been Bruce's conscience at key points. And the resonance of Harvey's turn into Two Face in The Dark Knight would have been just as poignant as Bruce's loss of Rachel.
The only downside to this is that there would be no female characters (at least, not significant ones) in Batman Begins. And I suspect that if using Harvey Dent in this role was even considered, that at least part of the reason for creating the character of Rachel Dawes was to redress the gender balance. I can imagine this is something the Hollywood 'suits' would insist on! Maybe this is part of the reason for some of the negative reaction to Katie Holmes - her character just seemed too much of a token female? That said - I liked her performance and loved Batman Begins. And am ridiculously excited about Dark Knight Rises!

This was a great movie, superior to TDK. I loved the feel that the overcoming-fear plot line gave, as well as the awesome ending and lovely set design. BB fully reserves the right, along with the first Spiderman, to be called the comic-book movie that changed everything.

Hahahaha! I forgot about the old guy watching the train in Wayne Tower! "When that thing hits the entire citys water supply is going to blow!!!" you could easily edit out his scenes and it wouldnt harm the film at all, it should also be pointed out that Katie Holmes saved King Joffrey from the Scarecrow, its like she wanted to be hated!

I think Batman Begins is a pretty much perfect film, and I quite enjoyed Katie Holmes' performance. I was, however, terribly disappointed that she was only allowed to be the damsel in distress and then die in The Dark Knight. The film didn't even leave enough time for Bruce to mourn her properly. The main flaw for me with Nolan's Batman films is the lack of female characters. I'm hoping Rises will fix that, since we have at least two new female faces filling out the cast.

I agree with you apart from one point: I think whoever takes over after Rises should take a different approach. I love Nolan's take on the Bat, but I also enjoyed Burton's, and that of Batman: The Animated Series, the DCAU movies, and Batman: Arkham Asylum (both the comic and the game). They all differed slightly, yet all provided interesting takes on the character. As long as they stay away from Schumacher's 'vision', I'm happy with further experimentation.

For me, Batman Begins is a better film also, though it generally seems we're in the minority there... EDIT: I've now read two other comments agreeing with this, so it turns out we're not quite so alone as I thought. ;-)

I agree. I enjoy The Dark Knight but it's hard work to sit through that film - there's a lot of information crammed in, and some of the plotting doesn't quite make sense in retrospect.

Fair enough but you did say "box office flop". I'm not having a go mate, just saying.

" It didn't exactly lose money".
No, it made money.

Thank you for a well written and fair review of the best origin story on film. I'm a Marvel die-hard. This origin story will always be the litmus test others should compare.

It's a real shame they couldn't have the same person play Rachel for both films, because the trilogy has been so carefully put together and that's really the only little hiccup. I'm not really a fan of Katie Holmes, and Maggie Gyllenhaal is one of my favourites, but actually I think Katie Holmes was better for this role.

You need that old guys direlogue so Americans can understand what's happening.LOL

Well three people agree with me and four disagree it seems and one agrees with you and two disagree lol. For some reason Begins doesn't get as many plaudits as The Dark Knight does. I normally get told I'm an idiot for believing Begins is better. I still believe we are a minority in this. I do think a lot of people would have seen Begins after The Dark Knight though.

Exactly. I particularly don't like the end of the Joker's arc seeing as he doesn't get a big ending and is just sort of sidelined by Harvey Dent who doesn't really get long enough to be interesting as Two Face.

I've always loved Batman Begins. I think The Dark Knight is (slightly) better, but Begins one-ups it in a lot of ways. It has a better Gotham, one where you can smell the corruption and fear in the air. It's also the only Batman film of seven to properly feel like it's about BATMAN, and Bale is sublime. A true underrated classic.

Preach on brother Mark

I was always really frustrated with the scene in the narrows where Batman rescues Rachel and the child from the mob. It seemed to have been set up so perfectly with the ongoing motif of the batman persona being designed to frighten criminals and the evolving persona as Batman as a hero. The criminals were infected with the fear serum, Rachel was already immune. The film seemed perfectly set for a thematic note of Batman appearing to save Rachel while the mob see him as some horrific image that terrifies them and Rachel sees him as the hero. But instead we just get a brief fight scene. Really annoys me to this day that it had been set up so well and then not done...

Shhh... they'll hurt you.

Batman fandom is truly bizarre. this comments section looks like a fairly innocuous bit of fan chatter, with people talking about the various things they like in the films, and yet i have never seen so much downvoting, ever on DoG. It's like the fans are so intoxicated with their own love that anyone else's words, even if positive, somehow take away from their one true sublime experience of a comic book movie. it's creepy.

Unbelievable as it sounds, memory foam is a real thing. So is skyhook and the 'sonar' from DK.

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