WFTB Score: 17/20
The plot: Scarred by a childhood which saw him stuck down a bat-filled well and his parents murdered, billionaire Bruce Wayne sets out on a quest to understand criminality and put the world to rights. On his return to a decaying Gotham City Bruce seeks a way of anonymously fighting crime, and with help from his allies Batman is born. However, the new hero instantly gains powerful enemies who threaten the lives of everyone in Gotham, including those Bruce most cares about.
I have been unable (not that I tried particularly hard) to discover who first coined the term ‘reboot’ in terms of movies, or what they were talking about when they did it; but I certainly hadn’t heard the term prior to the release of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. It seems as though every subsequent re-invention of a franchise ([at the time of writing], Star Trek is putting the reboot in) is now accompanied by reference to Nolan’s film, which is a massive compliment since Batman, once the butt of jokes as a camp ‘Ka-pow!’-laden TV show, had gained some credibility with Michael Keaton in the role before falling into sniggering disrepute again under the dressy but useless direction of Joel Schumacher.
Taking several cues from Frank Miller’s dark graphic novel Batman: Year One, we begin Begins with Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) something of a lost soul, brawling with inmates in an Asian prison in his quest to find out what drives the criminal mind, a quest driven by fear and guilt after the death of his parents in a mugging some twenty years before. Set free from jail by the mysterious Ducard (Liam Neeson), Wayne finds the home of the mysterious League of Shadows and receives training in the ways of the ninja, honing his stealth and fighting skills to perfection; but when the time comes to show his ruthless dedication to justice, Bruce cannot kill a wrongdoer and flees, burning down the building of League leader Ra’s Al Ghul in the process.
Bruce returns to Gotham City and surprises lots of people who thought he was dead, including faithful Butler Alfred (Michael Caine), current Wayne Enterprises head Earle (Rutger Hauer) and childhood friend Rachel (Katie Holmes). His purpose: to use his skills and Morgan Freeman’s extraordinarily handy Applied Sciences Division of the business to create a symbol of hope for the fearful citizens of Gotham, against the likes of old-style criminal Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) and creepy psychiatrist Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), whose Arkham asylum is a convenient alternative to jail for his clients, but where a larger operation is coming together with Crane taking on the guise of the Scarecrow. As Bruce tries to balance the implementation of his new identity while maintaining a playboy lifestyle, he comes closer to the secret of why some of Falcone’s drugs are being diverted to the asylum and why a water-vapourising weapon has been stolen, apparently to order.
You will gather from this that Batman Begins is rather less dependant on costumes, puns and (frankly) fun to fill its two hours and twenty minutes than Batman and Robin or, for that matter, any of the Burton/Schumacher films; what is a real surprise and delight is the way Nolan creates such a mature film out of comic book themes. The battle here is not between good and evil so much as between ideologies of dealing with evil: The League of Shadows’ quest for purity is misguided, but would no doubt gain sympathy in many quarters. This adds a level of depth to the film that is a world away from the cartoon antics of (for example) Schwarzenegger’s Mr Freeze and is typical of the intelligence shown in Nolan and David S. Goyer’s script. The fear and guilt that motivate Bruce’s decisions are omnipresent but not allowed to dominate a host of impressive action sequences, including the nerve-tinglingly tense disruption of Falcone’s drug supply at the docks and the final sequence when Gotham’s population falls victim to hallucinations. Here, Batman Begins is often simply incredible, projecting Batman as a black demon with, when he soars above the crowds, flaming eyes and mouth. Additionally, his gadgets are not only feasible, they actually work – the ‘tumbler’ version of the Batmobile both looks the part and does its job, all with the minimum of CGI work (or, if there is, it’s unfussily integrated into the real world).
Nolan is clearly a visual director, then, filming the remoteness of Al Ghul’s hideaway with an epic sweep and the action and fight scenes with gusto. But he is an actor’s director too. While this doesn’t particularly show itself in Bale’s embodiment of Bruce/Batman (he’s solid rather than spectacular), other performers have a whale of a time, most notably Cillian Murphy (his unctuousness combining with effects to make the Scarecrow truly horrible) and old-timers Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman. Caine particularly impresses, combining a weary obeisance to his master’s wishes with a paternal arm round the shoulder. In a movie with much to recommend it, he may just be the highlight. And I shouldn’t neglect Gary Oldman, who plays Batman’s contact in the otherwise corrupt police department, Jim Gordon, with a measured balance of duty, bewilderment and humour.
Detractors will point out that the film’s exposition is comprehensive to the point of overkill, with its training montage that resembles that of Highlander, only on ice, delaying the point that ‘The Bat’ is seen in his entirety until the hour-mark. Also, the plot does lay on layers of complexity, with Falcone being manipulated by Crane and someone else controlling him, with the added complication of the missing weapon and a side issue over the ethics and ownership of Wayne Enterprises. Still, the story is ultimately circular and works out in very satisfactory fashion; a more legitimate complaint would be that with the boys having so much fun with their toys, Katie Holmes’ Rachel is barely given enough time to convince as a prosecutor, let alone develop a deep relationship with Bruce (the fact they were childhood friends has to be sufficient motivation for Batman to look after her). But would anyone, let alone comic book fans, sacrifice any of the action for dewy eyes and a bit of smooching? Of course not. (The super-critical might also ask why Gotham’s Opera house has an exit straight into the worst part of town, but you would rightly tell them to shut up).
Not all reboots have been as successful as Batman Begins (Superman Returns, for example, was greeted with less a hearty ‘Welcome back!’ than a tired ‘Oh, you again’), and in general the trend to start legends from scratch has had less to do with making good cinema than studios finding a way to make easy money from flagging intellectual properties. Whether or not this is the first film to have been considered a reboot, it is only right that Batman Begins is considered the daddy of them all.