These days we take the abundance of DC/Batman films and TV series for granted, but back in the first half of the 2000’s there was a massive drought left on the land thanks to Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin, which we won’t go into here. Then Christopher Nolan came along and changed that forever, not with necessarily a bang, but the thoughtful, moody, introspective Batman Begins, a film that served as catalyst to one of the most celebrated motion picture trilogies of today. That’s not to say it didn’t blast into the scene with a bang, this is one seriously fired up action film that left iMax screens reeling and sound systems pumped. It’s just that Nolan gave the Batman legacy the brains and psychological depth that it deserves to go along with the fireworks, while Schumacher & Co. were simply making live action Saturday morning cartoons, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing either but after two films seemed a bit beneath the potential of what Batman could be.
Nolan bores into the roots of Bruce Wayne’s anguished past to expose themes of fear, not only facing his childhood fears but eventually becoming them to release the anger he’s harboured since that night in the alley. Christian Bale finds both the cavalier flippancy of Bruce and the obstinate, short tempered dexterity of Batman and yes, he makes an impression with a voice that has perhaps since become more well known than the films. Trained in the heartlands of the Far East by mysterious Ducard (Liam Neeson), Bruce returns to Gotham years later to find it rotting from the inside out with crime, corruption and poverty. Nolan shows the rocky road he sets out on and the failures he endures in his first few ventures onto the streets in costume, crossing paths with Cillian Murphy’s dangerous Dr. Jonathan ‘Scarecrow’ Crane, uneasily aligning forces with Gary Oldman’s stalwart Jim Gordon and assisted at every turn by Michael Caine’s Alfred Pennyworth and Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox. Nolan assembles a cast full of roles both big and small including Richard Brake, Mark Boone Jr, Ken Watanabe, Linus Roache, Rade Serbedzija, Joffrey Lannister, Rutger Hauer and more. I have to mention Katie Holmes because she gives one of the most underrated performances in the whole trilogy. I’m not sure what went on behind the scenes when recasting her with Maggie Gyllenhaal for the next film but it did no service to the character, Katie made it her own, is full of personality and will always be the real Rachel to me. Special mention must also be made of Tom Wilkinson as mob boss Carmine Falcone, who is only in a handful of scenes but scares the pants off of everyone with his off the cuff blunt dialogue, violent tendencies and shark-like personality.
I can’t say this is my favourite film in the franchise or even the one I’d call the best (Dark Knight holds both those honours), but it is definitely the one that stands out to me the most when I think of the trilogy as a whole. Why? Visual aesthetic and production design. With the next two films Nolan cemented a very naturally lit, real world vibe that became his signature touch on the legacy, but Begins is different. There’s a burnt umber, earthy, elemental, very gothic tone he used here that just isn’t there in the next two, and whether intentional or not, it sets this one in a Gotham slightly removed from Knight and Rises. The mood and story are also rooted far more in mysticism and the fantastical as opposed to the earthbound, economically minded, concrete edged sensibility of what’s to come. Just a few observations.
In any case Nolan pioneered an arresting new Gotham for Batman, his friends and foes to do battle in, he injected the smarts, philosophy and character development that the franchise had been thirsting for a long time before. Wally Pfister’s swooping cinematography, Hans Zimmer’s cannonball original score, Nathan Crowley’s spooky, cobwebbed production design and every performance in the film work to make this not just one hell of a Batman film, but an overall excellent fantasy adventure that truly transports you to its world, the mythology, development and destruction of which leaves a lasting imprint on the subconscious. Brilliant film.