It was a long, long eight years after BATMAN & ROBIN delivered the franchise-killing thud heard ‘round the world. For the geek community it was like a loved one was killed in a horrific accident. Sure, in the intervening years they would eventually get X-,MEN, SPIDER-MAN and even THE HULK onscreen, but it just wasn’t the same without the pointy-eared Caped Crusader. Fortunately though, Warner Bros. started seeing the huge returns those other masked do-gooders were pulling in and knew…the Batman had to come back.
Many were interested in taking a new crack at the character. It was clear that this would be a chance to start from scratch without the baggage of bat-nipples or an over-extended Bat-family. However, that also meant that Warner Bros. was unsure in what direction to take the series. It led to some bizarre near-misses, such as when Darren Aronofsky wanted to make a direct adaptation of Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s “Batman: Year One” with the slight change of Batman being an amnesia-stricken car mechanic working for Big Al. Ultimately, the studio wisely kept looking until they found a young filmmaker named Christopher Nolan. The British-American director was known in Hollywood for intense small crime thrillers like MEMENTO and INSOMNIA. He was hardly a name on the lists for big budget spectacles. But as luck would have it, Warner Bros. was ready to take some wild chances on their deceased moneymaker and Nolan became a most unlikely steward for the Dark Knight’s legacy.
Nolan asked a very simple question for what would come to define his Batman movie. Why would a grown man dress up like a bat? This is a query that Tim Burton glossed over in 1989, because the world he created didn’t need an explanation. Nolan took a wholly opposite approach. Citing influences like Richard Donner’s 1978 adaptation of SUPERMAN, he wanted to ground Batman, as much as possible, in a world similar to our own. Instead of Batman being a product of a fantastically gothic world, he’d be a man who could justify costume dress-up as a lifestyle choice. To help with the shift, he brought in life-long comic book fan David S. Goyer to co-write the first draft of the screenplay.
Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is a broken man. After abandoning his name and the billions of dollars of wealth that went with it, he has traveled the world for seven years on a journey of self-discovery. What he claims to be seeking is the means to fight injustice, the kind that cruelly took his parents in an act of violence that still haunts him 20 years later. But Bruce has completely lost his way in a cloud of anger and self-loathing and has ended up in an Asian prison. It is there that a man who calls himself Ducard (Liam Neeson) finds the once and future king of Gotham. Ducard claims to represent the mysterious Ra’s Al Ghul and his cultish League of Shadows. He proposes to help train Bruce’s anger and fear into a focused energy that will give him direction. Bruce takes up his new mentor’s offer, but soon discovers the League of Shadows is a fanatical group with an ideological desire to destroy Bruce’s Gotham. Instead of joining them, Bruce takes his wealth of experience back to that city and reclaims his family name. With the help of his parental and doting butler, Alfred (Michael Caine), Bruce will build a symbol for the good people in Gotham to rally around. He willl slowly enlist the likes of the rare good cop Sgt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), Wayne Enterprises technical genius Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and childhood friend/Assistant District Attorney Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) to combat the entrenched crime lord Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) and the insidious madness of the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy). But ultimately, it will be up to Bruce and Bruce alone when a threat worse than either of these comes to town. The corrupt and decaying civilization of this all-American metropolis will find its beacon of hope in a man. A Batman.
The concept of Batman is a ridiculous one. He’s a grown man who wears a cape, fights crime as a vigilante and always wins. There is nothing realistic about the character. But it is a testament to Nolan and his take on the character that so many, geeks and general audiences alike, enthusiastically describe this film as “realistic.” The director achieves that in part by casting Bale in the central role. Bale spearheads a star-studded ensemble cast. While his supporting players are all superb (save for the woefully miscast Holmes who looks like she’s playing an ADA in a high school play), it is Bale who gets this movie to lift-off. He does not play Batman as the disturbed anti-hero of the Burton era nor as the omnipotent Bat-god of modern comics. Instead, Bale takes the novel approach of making Batman human. Instead of creating two alter-egos for the hero, he makes three: there is the real Bruce Wayne who is tormented by seeing his parents gunned down in front of him when he was a child; there is the public performance he creates for himself when he returns to Gotham, this one is the foolishly entitled billionaire playboy; and then there’s the Batman. The Dark Knight persona is one of personified rage and terror….Yet, this one can only exist with the help of the other two.
In Nolan’s world, Batman isn’t so much a character as an idea. He is a construct that Bruce Wayne creates to galvanize the people of Gotham to improve their rotten lives. His goal isn’t an eternal war on evil, but a targeted campaign against corruption and crime. Most of Batman’s toys were created by Fox for military application. The only thing Bruce adds are black paint jobs. Gordon isn’t so much a piece of expositional furniture as in the previous series, but a partner and confidant for the winged avenger. Only together can they wage war on the mob and clean up the police force. In this Gotham, it takes a village to make a Batman.
And that all feeds into the underlying draw of this Gotham. Events and characters have repercussions, because this time the city isn’t a fantasy island. In the previous four Batman pictures, Gotham always went through a subtle or massive reworking. The only major consistency for the urban environment is it was always created on back lots and sound stages. In Nolan’s iteration, Gotham is the scariest thing of all…an American city. Shot primarily in Chicago, Batman inhabits a living and breathing urban jungle. The film still pulls from Batman’s pulpy roots for its backdrop to a point. The initial threat is super-sized organized crime, reminiscent of 1930s gangland. However, Wilkinson’s deliciously broad mobster is soon suppressed by what the filmmakers know really scares us today. The villains are more than just criminals or the madmen of the comics. Scarecrow isn’t a demented gangster like Jack Nicholson’s Joker. No, these are terrorists.
The League of Shadows is an ideologically driven organization of non-state actors who want to make a statement by destroying a major American city. You can find that just as easily in a newspaper as a comic book these days. What is Scarecrow’s master plan? It’s to infect the city with a toxin that would literally cause citizens to destroy each other out of fear. In a post-9/11 world, that isn’t exactly a subtle metaphor.
Nolan may have originally pitched this as a Batman origin story, but what he made was an unbridled epic reflecting its time. He and Goyer pulled from several comic book sources, most notably “Batman: Year One” and Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s “The Long Halloween” and created a protagonist who more closely resembled his modern comic book likeness. This Batman would not kill, was not created by his villains and he was a worldly super-ninja detective. However, even if it still features a guy jumping off rooftops and gliding to our rescue, he now fights bearded fanatics bent solely on our destruction. It is a theme that would only become better articulated in its sequels, but it works just fine in BATMAN BEGINS. This is the movie that brought Batman back from the dead and reintroduced him as the king of superheroes for a whole new generation. It gave depth to Bruce’s problems while also telling a rip-roaring adventure. Even if it suffers from a far too conventional third act, BATMAN BEGINS’ overall approach was anything but that in 2005. It took the franchise and genr to new heights. And it did come in black.