While the next Batman, due to make his debut in theaters next year, may be a new incarnation of the character, he seems inextricably predicated on the Bruce Wayne that came before him. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy delivered one of the most popular modern incarnations of the caped crusader (and there are certainly plenty of Batmen to choose from). Thanks to Nolan’s films, Ben Affleck and Zack Snyder have the advantage of a decade of goodwill toward the character—and it all began with the impressive, surprising Batman Begins.
Nolan’s Batman, as EW‘s Darren Franich put it, rose to prominence because he represented “the defining moral fantasy of the 2000s: a righteous man who lives above the system, a symbol of the goodness inside every person’s soul.” But since the series came to its conclusion in 2011, the franchise lives on mostly through discussion of The Dark Knight and its Oscar-winning villain and debate over whether The Dark Knight Rises was a fitting or disappointing conclusion. The trilogy’s debut—Batman Begins—isn’t always discussed with the same fervor, positive or negative, as its successors, but 10 years after its release, it’s clear that the film has been instrumental in elevating comic-book adaptations beyond spectacle and into character-focused films.
At first, Nolan’s take on one of DC Comics’ most popular heroes was widely assessed in relation to previous versions of the Batman mythos. Whether they were noting the obvious inspiration from Frank Miller’s comic version or the ways in which Batman Begins veered away from Joel Schumacher’s cinematic take and other forms of Batman throughout the decades, critics pointed to how consciously Nolan took prior Batmen into account.
“Batman Begins, directed by indie-oriented storyteller Christopher Nolan (Memento), is a triumph—a confidently original, engrossing interpretation, with a seriously thought-through (but never self-serious) aesthetic point of view that announces, from the get-go, someone who knows what he’s doing is running the show, and he’s modestly unafraid to do something new,” Lisa Schwarzbaum said in her EW review.
“Like [Frank] Miller’s Batman, Mr. Nolan’s is tormented by demons both physical and psychological. In an uncertain world, one the director models with an eye to our own, this is a hero caught between justice and vengeance, a desire for peace and the will to power,” Manohla Dargis wrote in The New York Times.
But Nolan memorably made his mark with the death scene that incites Bruce Wayne’s eventual transformation. There’s certainly no shortage of Bruce Wayne’s parents dying in film and television, but Nolan’s interpretation, which builds for a surprisingly long time before Batman appears in full cape and cowl onscreen, has become one of the defining iterations of the sequence, exploring the man behind Batman more so than most films had before. (As the Washington Post‘s Desson Thompson put it, the film had a “thoughtful, methodically structured narrative that works on you for days afterward.”)
And after Spider-Man and X-Men rejuvenated the superhero genre, Nolan’s take on Batman was primarily discussed not necessarily for the DNA it shared with its comic brethren, like costumed villains, incredible gadgets, and the rise of hero-and-villain narratives. Instead, critics’ praise—and some of their derision—focused on how it balanced its action inclinations with exploration of Bruce Wayne’s psychology.
“The movie doesn’t simply supply Batman’s beginnings in the tradition of a comic book origin story, but explores the tortured path that led Bruce Wayne from a parentless childhood to a friendless adult existence,” Roger Ebert wrote in his four-star review.
There wasn’t necessarily a consensus, of course, on whether that was a good idea. For some, this new, darker, even gloomier Batman may have been an unpleasant shock, while for others, the contrast with Batman’s other appearances made it all the better. The last time Batman had been glimpsed in theaters was in 1997’s nipple-plagued Batman & Robin—which starkly contrasts Begins‘ attempt to make everything “as plausible (one resists saying realistic) as possible, emphasizing that he’s a distinctly human hero with no super powers,” as Variety‘s Todd McCarthy wrote.
And perhaps that quest to ground Batman in a believable world is Begins‘ greatest lasting impact. Nearly every superhero origin story to which the words “dark and gritty” could even vaguely apply is framed in terms of its similarity or dissimilarity to Batman Begins—and from Daredevil to Arrow, Batman Begins has a number of direct descendants within the superhero genre. But Begins was originally favored, and continues to be such a source of inspiration, because of its content, too—not just its structure or its style. Batman Begins cared about making its billionaire-playboy hero someone audiences could relate to, even if he had some serious problems to work through.