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Batman Begins Movie Review

originally posted many years ago

We love superheroes not for what they are, but for what they represent. We love to dream of being them, yes, and to have their powers, their influence and their pristine moral codes, but we also love them because, beneath the capes and cowls, they are just like us. Peter Parker struggles like we do, and maybe even more so because of his responsibilities as Spider-Man. Superheroes are ordinary men who are, more or less, forced into the opportunity to do great things.

But what about Batman? Unlike Peter Parker, who is just a hopeless geek without Spider-Man, or Superman, who only masquerades as Clark Kent because society misunderstands him, Bruce Wayne is an odd choice for a superhero. He has no readily apparent reason to fight injustice-he is rich, successful, and lacks the super powers that obligate the others to do good. Bruce Wayne is not forced to become Batman, it is something he chooses. But why?

The first four Batman movies-Tim Burton's Batman and Batman Returns and Joel Schumacher's Batman Forever and Batman and Robin-never bothered to answer that question. Even Burton's Batman, which captured Gotham City's twisted, dark atmosphere as perfectly as this movie does, didn't seem to care about Bruce Wayne's motivations, his inner demons, or even his personality, really. In all four movies, Batman was portrayed as a hollow crime fighter, a mysterious masked man who thwarted villains because the screenwriters told him to. Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins is different-it is the story of the man behind the mask. We emerge from this movie as we would from any other movie like it, thrilled by exciting action sequences and tickled by grim fantasy, but more importantly, we emerge with an understanding of why Bruce Wayne chose his path. Through a surprising depth of character, terrific performances, and a inspiring sense that the director is redefining an icon, Batman Begins becomes the first in the series to absorb us and to capture what the Dark Knight is really fighting for.

Be warned, fans of nonstop action spectacles-while Batman Begins offers some high-octane kicks, this is primarily a story of origins and soul-searching. Most of the movie is spent setting up Bruce Wayne's unlikely transformation into Batman-in fact, Bruce doesn't even don the black suit until almost an hour into the film. That may sound like a strange angle for an action hero movie, but it works for Batman Begins. It never feels too talky or self-important. The dialogue-heavy scenes and the intricate probing of Bruce Wayne's past serve as buildup, as rising tension until Batman is born. Because Nolan so deeply understands the character, we are rarely bothered by his slow, methodic approach. It only makes the taste of ass-kicking action more sweet.

So what does Nolan teach us about Batman? We find out what a lot of Bat-Fans already know, that Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), heir to the wealthiest business empire in Gotham City, witnessed the brutal murder of his parents when he was only a boy. Poisoned by his hurt and anger, Bruce went into exile and adopted the life of a nomad, picking fights with thugs and winding up in a tucked away Himalayan prison. The movie begins when an enigmatic warrior named Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) rescues Bruce from jail and asks him to join the legendary League of Shadows, an organization dedicated to fighting injustice with vengeance. When Bruce accepts, he is thrown into a fierce training program, where Bruce's body and mind grow more powerful through anger.

As we watch Bruce get brutally beaten, we know Batman Begins is up to something far different than anything superhero movies have previously accomplished. We forget we're watching a Batman movie. We begin to feel pain, and we see the human side of the story.

Bruce eventually leaves the League of Shadows when he refuses to complete his final initiation test. He has learned that vengeance leads to nothing but suffering, and so he returns to a corrupted Gotham City prepared to restore true justice. However, the skyrocketing crime levels have nearly crippled Gotham ever since mob boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) strengthened his chokehold on the city's officials and citizens. Bruce knows that Falcone has to be stopped, but he understands that a mere man like Bruce Wayne can do nothing. What Gotham needs is a symbol, an emblem of justice that might inspire good men to make change. Thus, a superhero is born.

But why a bat? It's funny-I always thought the choice was just a random, goofy decision, but in Batman Begins the origin is kind of poetic. The very first scene of the movie shows a young Bruce Wayne cowering beneath a stream of attacking bats-the brave boy's one major phobia. So when Alfred (Michael Caine), the Wayne family's loyal butler, asks "why a bat?" Bruce responds simply, "I'm afraid of them. It's time my enemies feel my fear."

What I love about Batman Begins is how real everything seems. Spider-Man and Superman, for example, both exist in decidedly fantastical comic book worlds, but Batman Begins feels like it could be happening among us. Because Nolan's delicate structure savors dialogue and careful character interaction, every element of fantasy in this movie is founded upon believable motivations and exists only through realistic means. Bruce Wayne spends hours grinding the Bat-arangs for his utility belt, the iconic black suit is loaded with flaws (the mask tends to crack), and the Bat-signal is a dim, indistinct shadow on the night sky. Even all the gadgets that Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Batman's own version of Q from the James Bond movies, creates for him seem like reasonable inventions. More and more, little by little, Nolan reinforces that this Caped Crusader is just a man, which allows us to easily be effected and even moved by what is happening.

The only unrealistic gadget Batman possesses is the new Batmobile, which isn't the sleek, sexy ride we all remember. No, this Batmobile is a monster, like a cross between a Hummer and a tank that can burst through brick walls without even breaking the speed limit. The Batmobile provides the film's greatest scene, a breakneck highway chase, but I often wondered why anyone would need that much armor plating.

The superiority of Batman Begins owes a lot, I think, to the casting of Christian Bale as Batman. There has never been a good portrayal of Batman by any actor in any of the other movies. Val Kilmer, George Clooney and even Michael Keaton all played Bruce Wayne with varying success, but beneath the Batsuit, they were all extremely boring. They all seem to have been cast, as Roger Ebert once said, because they have great chins, since the Batmask only allows the actor's jawline to peek through the icon. Bale, on the other hand, not only nails to the struggled development of Bruce Wayne, he turns Batman into a truly dynamic superhero. Batman finally has a personality-he is ruthless, intimidating and even darkly funny. It's obvious that Bale has worked harder than any other previous actor to make Batman into an emotive character, and he has succeeded in becoming, perhaps, the definitive Batman.

The other performances in Batman Begins are good too. At first, it seems unnecessary to cast Oscar winners Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman in such small roles, but their talent becomes entirely necessary to both of their characters. Both have limited screen time, but Caine and Freeman give us reason to like them and even care about them. I also like Liam Neeson as the nasty Henri Ducard, and Tom Wilkinson chews some serious scenery as the sniveling Falcone. Oscar nominee Ken Wantanabe also has a small and thankless role as League of Shadows master, Ra's Al Ghul. The best performer in the movie, other than Bale, is Cillian Murphy. He plays the super villain Dr. Jonathan Crane, aka The Scarecrow, who uses a powerful hallucinogen to make his victims go insane. In actual fact, the Scarecrow is nothing but a crazy guy in a burlap mask, but Murphy's twitching, serenely creepy performance sells the character as maybe the first genuinely scary super villain in movie history.

The weakest part of Batman Begins is easily the character played by Katie Holmes, a plucky young assistant DA who was Bruce Wayne's childhood sweetheart. In a movie that broods and thrives on so much originality, the Katie Holmes character feels glaringly formulaic. She's just an obligatory love interest who stands there and looks cute until the final five minutes of the movie when she gets to kiss the hero. Katie Holmes achieves nothing close to what Kirsten Dunst did in the Spider-Man movies. There, the damsel was a real person. In Batman Begins, she is useless.

The mythology of Batman, and all the choices, sacrifices and pain that goes with it, have finally been done justice. Here is a superhero movie with the guts to be about something; like Spider-Man 2, the greatest superhero movie of them all so far, Batman Begins understands that if we are to fly with Batman and join in his crusade for justice, we must first know Bruce Wayne. And once we know Bruce Wayne, and provided we are in the hands of a director as extraordinary as Christopher Nolan, some truly exciting things can happen. This is one of the year's best films.

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