Looking back at Batman Begins

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.

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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. 

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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.

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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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