Superheroes say much about the culture that spawned them, and so it is with the various incarnations of Batman. In the 60s, he was a pop icon with more than a little camp fluttering around his satin go-go boots. In the 80s and 90s, it was a wallow in excess with sets that duked it out with the actors for attention and villains that out-cartooned the cartoons on which they were based. For the millennium, there is BATMAN BEGINS, wherein the Dark Knight is re-imagined as a ninja warrior going on an inner journey from the darkness to the, well, if not light exactly, at least enlightenment, though even that proves to be a murky sort of place for Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale).
The darkness is brought on by two traumas to the young Bruce, a rich kid whose best friend is the maid’s daughter, Rachel (Katie Holmes as the grown up version), and whose parents are not just the perfect couple and the perfect parents, they’re also socially responsible. It’s a quality Bruce has trouble clinging to after falling down a well where he’s terrified by the bats he’s riled up, and later, when he sees his parents gunned down in a classic senseless street crime. Fortunately, Bruce still has the family’s faithful butler, Alfred (Michael Caine as a dryly witty Jiminy Cricket) to play surrogate father, but it’s not enough to counter his inner demons. Bruce drifts emotionally and spatially, eventually ending up in an Asian prison, from which he’s sprung by a mysterious, and surprisingly nattily attired Brit (Liam Neeson), who, with the help of a traditionally black-clad ninja troop, challenges him to confront his fears and turn them to his advantage.
For a film that is a frank meditation on the difference between anger and fear, and between justice and revenge, there is refreshingly little speechifying once Bruce leaves the secret fortress of the League of Shadows, where he’s trained in the kinds of martial arts designed to dazzle, debilitate, and defeat any number of enemies. Actually, there’s refreshingly little there, either. Christopher Nolan, director and co-writer David S. Goyer, remains true to the action component of the story, but that doesn’t stop him from elevating it, turning the action sequences into credible externalizations of Bruce’s inner turmoil. In fact, using a palette suffused with shadows and a chronology that is emotionally, if not temporally, true, traversing the inner emotional landscape rife is a far more dangerous proposition than doing battle with Gotham’s crime lord, played by Tom Wilkinson as satisfied and sleek as a prosperous sewer rat.
Nolan and Goyer have also, while not eschewing the fantasy elements involved, put a sense of the real world into this Batman. Bruce may have the reflexes of a warrior god, but he hasn’t thought about what happens when his run-ins with the bad guys lead to a fall from a very high place. That’s when the cape that doubles as a parachute is added to the light body armor and other golly gee whiz gadgets dreamed up by Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman in self-deprecating Buddha mode), Wayne Enterprises R&D guy.
There are a few clunks. It’s virtually impossible to see Neeson training Bale in the niceties of using a samurai sword and not flash onto his character in THE PHANTOM MENACE. The evil psychiatrist, Dr. Crane (Cillian Murphy), who runs the deliciously monikered Arkham Asylum, looks to be all of 20, and Gary Oldman, decked out in nerd finery circa 1975, is wasted as the essentially bland Sgt Gordon, the one good cop in Gotham’s otherwise rancid police department.
Bale, fortunately, is not a clunk. Suitably brawny and with the lips to carry off the mask, he isn’t asked to chew the scenery with his angst. Instead, subtlety is the key here and Nolan has Bale make a credible transition from narcissistic grief to a troubled introspection that stops just short or actual happiness. Gimlet-eyed behind the mask, with a voice pitched low into a menacing rasp that his as intimidating as the ninja star Bruce has modified into a bat shape, or any of the other weapons in his utility belt. And there is a nice rapport with Caine, who never coddles his charge, but does fret about things such as coming up with a credible explanation for the injuries Bruce suffers after a night of crime fighting.
Much of the fun of BATMAN BEGINS is watching the pieces fall into place: the bat cave that becomes the Bat Cave, and the way Bruce’s eyes light up when he first sees what will become the Batmobile. But along with the fun, and there’s plenty of that, there’s a level of sophistication not seen before in this film franchise, a willingness to ponder the big questions and to respond to some of them with an answer that is bittersweet.