Batman Begins casts thrilling new shadows on a dead franchise
A little bit of opera goes a long way," says young Bruce Wayne's philanthropist-dad, shortly before he's gunned down in a most un-operatic street crime: murdered in a filthy urban alleyway during a robbery gone wrong. Two shots, and the hero is a billionaire orphan, blaming himself because he was too frightened to sit through a spooky classical production featuring his worst fear: bats.
With apologies to Mozart, the Caped Crusader and opera have an unhappy history. As Batman fans know, Phantom of the Opera maestro Joel Schumacher was blamed for killing the franchise with 1997's Batman & Robin (the travesty starring George Clooney as the benippled Dark Knight). But the Batman movies (plus Catwoman) had already become a wandering, lost-in-Gotham affair, with carnivalesque, screechy villains and bored actors trapped behind the mask.
Now rising director Christopher Nolan, who made Memento and Insomnia, remakes the dark avenger myth. He might well be completing a trilogy: amnesia, insomnia and now phobia. Bruce Wayne's fear tends toward madness, and that makes him a hero more frightening than previous incarnations of this enduring comic-book figure. In the person of Bale, Batman himself is occasionally more sadistic than any of the movie's villains: He vows to become "something terrifying, something that will not stop until it gets its revenge."
Though Batman Begins delves too frequently into flashbacks of Wayne's traumatic childhood, it gains surprising power as the hero turns up in a Far Eastern prison and then a mountaintop monastery. As Wayne's martial arts antagonist/mentor, Liam Neeson strikes the right note of mysterious cool—a much weightier version of the role he sleepwalked through in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
After such a soaring start, the return to Gotham is almost a letdown: Even the fascinating urban landscape—a futuristic-yet-wrecked Chicago via Blade Runner—can't quite hold up once it's clear that the hero's mission to "defend the people" is something of a joke. We never meet more than two or three beyond stalwart butler Alfred (Michael Caine), the city's last good cop (Gary Oldman, cast effectively against type) and Wayne's district attorney/childhood sweetheart Rachel Dawes (Holmes), who seems to have been plucked from an eighth-grade social studies class.
The remainder of Gotham is populated by potential villains, the least intimidating of whom is the bizarrely miscast Tom Wilkinson, an English character actor so gentlemanly he practically carries an invisible teacup, saucer and walking stick in all of his scenes. Much better, and freakier, is Cillian Murphy (28 Days Later) as The Scarecrow (aka Dr. Jonathan Crain), an insane asylum psychiatrist who does Vincent Price-style experiments on his patients.
Despite its martial-arts movie sweep, the movie isn't perfect. The climax is cluttered and confusing. (As the hero and the uber-villain struggle in a speeding train, against a ticking clock, Nolan repeatedly cuts to a shot of two anonymous bit players at a fake-looking control panel, explaining just how dire the situation is: "The whole thing's going to blow!") Nolan and coscreenwriter David Goyer have made every effort to anchor the powers of Batman/Wayne in the real world: He doesn't fly—he climbs, rappels and hang-glides with the help of gear developed by the military end of Wayne Industries.
In a movie of secret weapons, Batman Begins has one in Bale. Watch him at a swank party separate his invited guests from assassins who have infiltrated the crowd. But who are these partygoers he's trying to protect? Friends, you'd suppose. But you'd be wrong. With his American Psycho smirk in place, Bale gives a nasty little laugh, raises his glass as if to call a toast, then clears the room by calling his guests a bunch of freeloaders who've shown up to drink his expensive booze. This is a man who doesn't care if he's liked or loved, ever. For a moment it's not clear if he even cares about saving his own life.
But, of course, Batman Begins ends with a nod towards its own sequel. This time, though, there will be a hero worth following.
Batman Begins opens in theaters Friday 17.