A movie that completely lives up to its title. It tells the story of how Bruce Wayne becomes Batman.
Out of the Nolan Bat trilogy movies, this is my favorite. This is the only one that focuses on Batman. It also answers a lot of practical questions about the mythos. However, it has one basic flaw that’s interwoven in everything you see on the screen.
The first act is told through intercutting flashbacks. We meet Bruce while he’s traveling the world, studying criminality. We also meet his eventual mentor Ducard, who we later find out is actually Ra’s al Ghul. We see him as a boy, loving his life as the prince of Gotham. We see his parents killed. We see vengeance overtake him, but he realizes he needs to become more than an angry person to succeed. Ducard gives him skill, training, and focus. But their purposes diverge and they must part ways.
Bruce becomes the scourge of the criminal underworld. He begins his one man war on crime and it’s effective. Carmine Falcone, who’s been entrenched like a bedbug, is taken down by the mysterious Batman. Scarecrow is present and he’s smuggling drugs for someone larger. Alfred is wisecracking and supportive. Things are going relatively well. And then Bruce comes face to face with his mentor again. The larger force that Crane’s been working for: Ra’s al Ghul, back from the dead. Ra’s explains that the League of Shadows was much bigger than Bruce thought, and that Gotham is next on their list.
Ra’s plan is to cook the slums of Gotham, the Narrows, in fear gas. They will raze Gotham for him and finish the purge that the LoS started before Thomas Wayne died. Bruce enlists Gordon’s help and pulls out all the stops. He outthinks and out fights his mentor to stop him. But the people affected by the gas are still out there. He also becomes aware of the presence of the Joker and escalation. And Rachel realizes that Bruce is in love with being Batman and could never be committed to her. The Caped Crusader has established himself as the protector of his birth city.
1) The Focus – FOR ONCE, we get a Batman movie that’s actually about Batman. We see him build his empire. We see him go through his training and gather his tools. And we see him launch out on his mission. Everything about that is what makes this movie win.
2) Lucius Fox – Morgan Freeman automatically elevates anything that he’s in. Lucius Fox in this movie is crucial to Batman’s development. Their conversations about the practical applications of the redirected military equipment give us some of the best scenes in the movie. And he’s an intelligent ally; never a blind fool that can’t figure out exactly what’s going on.
3) Gotham City – Let me admit my bias here, because I’m from Chicago. But I’ve always imagined that Gotham would be more Chicago-like than anything else. Even though in the comics it’s right outside of New Jersey. Burton’s Gotham was noir perfect. This Gotham was practical perfect. And that chase scene on Wacker Drive? Holy cow I yell at the screen every time I see it! It was the first time we get a sense of the size of Gotham and why Batman’s work is never done. It also serves to heighten Batman’s mythical image. A small town wouldn’t work, and if the city’s too big, Batman could never be effective. This Gotham was just the right size.
4) James Gordon – Gary Oldman is another one of those brilliant actors that’s always a joy to see. I really like his James Gordon, because he disappears into the character. If Gordon was real, I’d believe that this version of him would be the actual one. Batman’s supporting cast (like Superman’s) has become iconic in their own right. They need to be played well, and Gordon here is spot on.
5) Carmine Falcone – Again, the veteran character actor Tom Wilkinson just crushes this role. Out of all the villains we see here, he is the most menacing. And he’s the one with no powers, gasses, potions or tricks. Just old fashioned coldhearted criminal menace.
1) The Tumbler – Don’t get me wrong, that Tumbler is an awesome vehicle. And it does what it was designed to do. It also makes sense because it’s military grade everything. Shielding, weapons, navigation. It was and is so much fun to watch. There’s only one reason it’s in this section and not above in the Good section:
Because it’s not the Batmobile.
Call it corny, call it traditional, call it whatever you want. Batman’s cars have always had the Bat Motif. And watching the first reveal of his car is a moment that always gives you chills. Nolan again with his “realistic” approach takes all of the fun out of the moments we look forward to the most.
2) Rachel Dawes – Katie Holmes will always look and sound like Joey Potter to me. And I absolutely hate Joey Potter. So I can’t take her seriously. Moving back to being more objective, Rachel Dawes as a character is completely unnecessary to the story. You could literally lift her out and the story stays the same. I know that writing wise she’s supposed to be Bruce’s conscience. The voice of conscience that makes him face himself and stay grounded. But Alfred fills that function just fine in the film. There’s no need for a failed love interest.
Plus once she slapped him in the car I was done with her.
3) The Batcave – Just like the Batmobile and Gotham City, the Batcave itself is a character. It may have started out as a setting, but it’s a character in its own right now. I actually really liked the touch of it being a real cave. And Bruce falling into it as a child to find it. Mask of the Phantasm did that well also. But unfortunately once we get into it feels more like a dank workspace. There’s not the same sense of it being Batman’s home base. Just a really dark wood shop.
4) Ra’s al Ghul – This character, played by the excellent Liam Neeson, was shortchanged. Not nearly as badly as Doctor Doom in the Fantastic Four movies, but still. This character was more Ducard than Ra’s. That was fine, and works for the movie…but if you’re not a comics reader you have no idea who Ra’s al Ghul really is. And what his relationship with Bruce is like.
1) The Biggest Flaw – Oh my goodness. Here’s my number one pet peeve with the Nolanverse.
Nolan strips all of the magic away from Batman.
I get that he’s a cerebral writer and director. I get that his brand of pseudo-grounded reality is just revolutionary for some people. For Batman however, it dilutes the character. People don’t watch fantasy or sci fi movies for realism. That goes double for superhero movies. The point is watching them do things beyond what normal people can do. And for all the complainers, I want you to imagine Wonder Woman being just a regular woman that’s in Olympic level shape. Like one of our gold medal winning gymnasts. Want to watch that movie? Didn’t think so. Batman is known for doing ridiculous things that even the best trained athletes couldn’t do. No one wants to see him limited by his humanity. Batman was born by Bruce pushing past human limits and becoming something else. Suspension of disbelief is required of course, but I don’t watch caped crusaders in the movies to see realistic action.
2) Year One Syndrome – I personally do not share the desire to watch my favorite heroes “learning.” I’m a fan of the old school Rocky training montages. We see the protagonist going up against new challenges and upping his game. In this movie Batman figures out that he needs a cape because of an almost botched exit from Gordon. I know it’s from the comics. Still don’t like it. Batman is known for his silent ninja exits. Not clumsy-ooops-I-haven’t-perfected-it-yet attempts. Just no.
3) The Fighting – What is wrong with people? How could Nolan not realize that we want to see Batman fighting? Instead we get very poorly edited glimpses of fights. Wrong approach. The Matrix gets it right. We want to see every frame of Batman using those multiple martial arts skills. It’s part of the fundamental appeal of the character. And what Bruce Wayne spent years training himself to do. WE. WANT. TO. SEE. IT.
4) Bale’s presence – Or lack thereof. Try as he might, he doesn’t have the presence that Batman should have. Maybe it’s his lisp, maybe it’s his eyes, I’m not sure. He doesn’t feel like the intimidating force that he should be. Kevin Conroy is able to do all of that with his voice.
5) Ignoring fundamental parts of the Mythos – This must be what Nolan went to school for. It’s what stops this movie and his whole trilogy from reaching greatness.
The Batsuit – That armored look is…just ugly. And impractical is it turns out.
The Gadgets – Again, I love Lucius Fox. But before he was introduced, Batman was always depicted as making his own stuff. In this movie it looks like he pretty much only makes batarangs. And the batrangs are no longer boomerangs. Plus, since everything Batman uses is repainted military equipment? People in the know could easily figure out who he is. How many billion dollar companies in Gotham? How many people would have access to that level of tech?
The Split Psyche – What Keaton got right, and what Conroy gets right, is what happened to Bruce on the night of the Wayne murders. His parents’ death before his eight year old eyes scarred him and split his psyche. It engineered such a rage, a feeling of helplessness, until something else was birthed inside that little boy’s mind. That something else would take its final form later on, but Bruce would never be the same. He’d always be crazy after that. Possessed by a rage, a desire for justice, and a need for vengeance that wouldn’t let him sleep. Bale barely communicates any of that. He’s often more annoyed than angry. And never gives a sense of being borderline psychotic.
The Bat in the Belfry – In the original comic the bat just flies through the window. In Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, the bat crashes through the window. Either way, it’s the defining moment as to why Bruce adopts the Bat motif. Mask of the Phantasm explains it better. “They weren’t afraid of me.” See, if Bruce didn’t want fear, he could’ve become a law enforcement officer. A special ops agent. Even a navy seal. But that’s not what he wanted. He wanted something personal, and it’s just configured wrong here. And the reason why is:
The Assessment – Bruce said that “Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot, so my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible… a… a… a bat!” NOT “Bats frighten me Alfred. It’s time my enemies share my dread.” Just no. Batman is not supposed to be afraid of bats. Again, this is a pivotal moment in his development and Nolan just sucks all the life out of it.
And the biggest ignoramus move of all?
The Vow – Bruce makes a vow as a little boy. A vow to dedicate his life to fighting crime. Again, a crucial moment in his development. And Nolan completely ignores that. All the other movies do too, but they aren’t named “Batman Begins.” It makes no sense to tout this as the genesis of Batman and there’s nary a scene with the solemn vow. Which he also makes Dick Grayson take later.
I was stunned when I first saw this movie. It was nothing like I expected. It took a very long time to grow on me. Once it did however, I enjoyed watching it. It’s a very specific take on Batman, but at least it’s Batman. So if Batman was a real character in the real world, he’d probably look something like what’s presented in this movie. I still enjoy watching it to this day.
There are a lot of books and DVDs you need to ingest. They showcase how Batman is actually defined. Dive into any of the choices below. They will help you see what I mean better about who Batman is supposed to be.