It’s tough to believe now, but Batman Begins was a tough sell in 2005. After the disaster that was Batman and Robin (which I wrote about in a previous Way Too Late review) it took Warner Brothers seven years and several false starts before Christopher Nolan got the go-ahead to direct Batman Begins. The films we’ll never get to see from that creative drought include Schumacher’s Batman Triumphant, Batman directed by Darren Aronofsky and Batman: DarKnight, featuring Man-Bat.
Thank all the dark gods I don’t believe in that Warner Brothers went with Christopher Nolan, because Nolan knew what had to be done to get the film franchise back on track. This is how I imagine the pitch meeting went down:
NOLAN: I’ve got a great idea for a new Batman movie.
FILM PRODUCER: Oh yeah? Who are the villains?
NOLAN: Ras al-Ghul and Scarecrow.
FILM PRODUCER: Never heard of them. Is it funny?
NOLAN: No. We’re going to do Batman…wait for it…serious.
FILM PRODUCER: Serious huh? Well, here’s $150 million; go make that happen.
A serious Batman? Would that even succeed? It may seem like a cliche now, since that’s the tone DC is taking with its Extended Universe, but remember that 2005 was also the year Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and Son of the Mask were released. The dominant film franchise of the early 2000s was Spider-Man, which while good was not serious in the slightest. And while it seems crazy to ask “Who the hell is Christopher Nolan?” in 2005 he was still known for the indie mind-trip Memento. The Prestige, Inception and Interstellar were all years away.
Yet Nolan knew what audiences needed and, while a bit overlong and emotionally flat at times, Batman Begins was a welcome breath of fresh air. Starring future long-time Nolan collaborators Christian Bale and Michael Caine (as well as Liam Neeson when he was more known for Schindler’s List than Taken), Batman Begins is that familiar comic-book trope: the origin story. Yet because of the film’s serious tone, Bruce Wayne’s transformation into Batman has a gravitas not yet shown on screen. Traveling to the East to learn how to fight crime, Bruce Wayne learns his craft from the League of Shadows, and it very nearly kills him. Once he returns to Gotham City, Bruce must team up with Sargent Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and his childhood sweetheart Rachael Dawes (Katie Holmes) to take down crime boss Carmine Falcone.
By grounding Batman with the serious tone and placing most of the focus on his battles with Falcone instead of a supervillain, Nolan makes Gotham City as real as possible. His Batman is largely free of devices, masks, capes and gimmicks. There’s no bright yellow Bat symbol on his chest (and thankfully, no Bat nipples either). Scarecrow (the excellent Cillian Murphy) wears a mask that’s just a burlap sack. While Nolan includes many of Batman’s iconic gadgets, they’re portrayed realistically, such as the Batmobile, which was originally intended as a military vehicle.
I’m not saying Batman Begins isn’t without its flaws. at nearly 2½ hours, the movie is long. Nolan’s trademark device of not including the title at the beginning of the movie means you’re thrust directly into the story, and for two hours you barely have time to rest. This makes for a tiring movie experience. There’s also a lack of chemistry between the actors, which I find is a problem with many of Nolan’s films. Nolan may have recruited an A-list cast, but every one of them feels like they’re giving a master class in acting, rather than acting together. Finally, in hindsight the movie feels like a long prelude to its sequel, rather than a movie in its own right. During my rewatch I have the benefit of knowing exactly how the three films in Nolan’s trilogy play out. And I found myself anxiously waiting for Heath Ledger’s iconic turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight. While Neeson and Murphy were good, Ledger was transcendent, and Batman Begins almost suffers because its sequel is so good.
But these are all minor quibbles. Christopher Nolan managed to do the impossible: make audiences forget the travesties visited upon us with Batman and Robin. Batman Begins is what a reboot should be: a movie that takes the source material in unexpected directions and improves on it. For being infinitely better than Batman and Robin I’m willing to forgive a lot, and Nolan exceeded all my expectations.
Quick summary: A disgruntled Bruce Wayne travels to the East to learn how to fight crime and retake Gotham City. When he returns, he has his work cut out for him.
Too many writers? Twice as many writers as Batman and Robin, but infinity higher levels of quality.
My opinion in 2005: “Thank all the dark gods I don’t believe in; this movie is serious!”
My opinion today: “Damn this movie’s long.”
Verdict: After the mess Joel Schumacher made of the Batman franchise, Batman Begins was the movie we needed, not the movie we deserved.