One benefit of not being a comic-book fanboy or -girl is the immunity such dispassion grants: No blood-pressure crises are likely to arise over arguments pertaining to whether Batman Begins lives up to the franchise launched 16 years ago by director Tim Burton and Batman No. 1, Michael Keaton, then sullied — tsk! — eight years ago by director Joel Schumacher and Batman No. 3, George Clooney, with that unholy nippled Batsuit. My intelligent-nonspecialist-person’s requirements for any summertime live-action movie based on a comic book are simply, neutrally these: (1) Make it fun (that’s where The Hulk fell down); (2) make it fresh (that’s where X2 was such an advance over X-Men); (3) make it meaty (that’s where Spider-Man 2 was a feast).
And by these standards, 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. The movie reenergizes Bruce Wayne and his winged mammalian disguise for a 21st-century relaunch, after the Hollywoodized Caped Crusader had giggled and vamped to a dead end with 1997’s Batman & Robin. And it advances and deepens the mythology by showing, quite meticulously (but with flits of fanged humor), how childhood trauma led the rich young orphan to burrow down deep into his anger and guilt so that when he emerged, he was able to become the Dark Knight, grim savior of a city going to hell.
That’s always the tricky part, isn’t it: giving a comic-book hero psychological weight, but not so much that the gee-whiz saving-the-world stuff is overtaken by psychoanalysis. Or giving the superhero-in-training so much instruction at the hands of an aphorism-spouting teacher that the Yoda-babble gets in the way of the learning curve. Yet Batman Begins avoids the deepest of these potholes with notable nimbleness. (The script is by Nolan and comic-book guru David S. Goyer, best known for the Blade trilogy.) When first encountered in a Chinese prison camp — those early images a blunt, swift-moving statement that Nolan is interested in the look of the real over that of the gaudy or grand — our not-yet-Batman is already on an independent-study trip to learn the ways of criminals. Then he’s plucked for training by Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson, possibly wearing old Jedi Master underpants), a recruiter for the humorless vigilante group that calls itself the League of Shadows. (”All creatures feel fear.” ”Men fear most what they cannot see.” ”Embrace your worst fear,” Ducard says, until our biggest fear is that he’ll say, ”We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”)
And only then does Batman find his wings, and his mission. That Bruce’s parents were killed before his eyes, and that the heir to the Wayne fortune would be nowhere without his butler, Alfred, even the greenest newbie to the hagiography knows. But knowing doesn’t pack the same pleasurable jolt as seeing primly smoldering Christian Bale’s Batman No. 4 play so comfortably against expansively proper Michael Caine’s Alfred (taking over for Michael Gough as if to the manor born) and watching the two devise the very first Batsuit. Any familiarity with Commissioner Gordon and his place as one overmatched good cop is only rewarded by the participation of Gary Oldman as the younger Detective Gordon.
Simpatico Wayne Enterprises inventor Lucius Fox contributes his mechanical expertise (handy when it comes to Batmobiles) and cool to the proceedings in the person of Morgan Freeman. Katie Holmes provides obligatory, chaste romantic interest — superheroes are notoriously dull boyfriends, if you ask me — as Bruce’s childhood sweetheart? turned?incorruptible DA.
It’s not just the birth of Batman we’re seeing here, it’s also the dawning of Gotham City’s age of corporate greed (Rutger Hauer plays a ruthless CEO), unchecked corruption (Tom Wilkinson swings by as a crime boss), and the insidious misuse of the mentally ill by those appointed to their care (Cillian Murphy is one great creep as psycho psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Crane). In Batman Begins, as Nolan tells it, Gotham is poised somewhere between the Jazz Age and the Space Age, a vertiginous time warp where only a risk-taking artist can navigate. Nolan ought to get back there soon and tell us what happens next.