Right Off the Bat

In “Batman Begins,” Writer-director Christopher Nolan meticulously shows that the difference between Bruce Wayne and Batman is more than their appearance and preference in time of day. The origin of Batman takes flight early from childhood. After witnessing his parents’ gunned down at a young age, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) grows up a troubled young man, steep in guilt and anger. He abandons the security of his wealth and intermingles with lowlifes, until he lands in a prison camp in Asia. He is rescued by Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), who wants to recruit Bruce for the League of Shadows, an organization led by Ra’s Ah Ghul (Ken Watanabe). Ducard trains Bruce in martial arts and more importantly, helps him face some of his inner demons. When the time has come for Bruce to join the League of Shadows, he declines. He finds the organization’s teachings too ruthless, even if it’s for the good of the humanity.

Bruce then returns to the corrupt city of Gotham and develops his own brand of justice through Batman. He is aided by his faithful butler Alfred (Michael Caine), inventor Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), good cop Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), and District Attorney Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes). The obvious villains are the mob boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) and Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), a shrink who makes his patients even crazier. Yeah, I know. Big cast but they fit fine in a roomy 2-plus hour time period.

Just as it is exciting to see Anakin’s transformation to Darth Vader, it’s exhilarating to behold everything we know about the Batman persona fall into place: the get-up, the bat lair, the ride, the bat signal, and why bat in the first place. When I was young, I thought he could suck blood like a bat as a super power. Surely I was amazed to find he has no inhuman super powers. The coolest thing about Batman was that he’s a billionaire who can afford neat gadgets. Christian Bale is in fine form in the title role, convincingly fit and flexes considerable acting muscle. He easily surpasses his Batman predecessors, although to the others’ defense, their Batmans weren’t written in the same depth as Bale’s. I’d argue that Bale blandly resembles the others when he’s hidden in a costume and speaks in low whispery voice. To me, Bruce Wayne is far more interesting to watch than Batman.

“Batman Begins” is a fine flick in itself, but its weaknesses are obvious when compared to other films. Since it’s more introspective, the film is quite heavy for a summer blockbuster fare. The two Tim Burton versions are more fun, more visually arresting, had more compelling villains, and soars better in Danny Elfman’s classic score. If Nolan aims to renew the Batman franchise by dismissing the previous Burton efforts, he’d be thinking along the lines of Ra’s Ah Ghul. Those two films are not entirely bad, just as “Batman Begins” is not entirely good. But if you combine the strengths of all three films, then you have something formidable other comic book movies will be very afraid of.

Grade: B+