Batman Begins is the first Batman film that treats Batman as the main character in his own story. As much as Michael Keaton’s performance spoke volumes about both his versions of Bruce Wayne and Batman, it was up to him to do the heavy lifting, while the less said about Kilmer and Clooney’s lame versions the better.
For a superhero that had four movies in just under a decade, Batman was always more of the ideal of a superhero rather than a person in his own right. We know that the death of his parents is what fuels his crime-fighting mission, but we are always introduced to the character at the end of his preparation to his gaining notoriety in Gotham City. When looking at where you could take Batman next, after the franchise-killer that was Batman and Robin, director Christopher Nolan must have been shocked when he realized that Batman’s true origin had never been explored on film. Thank fuck no one realized this before, otherwise we wouldn’t have Batman Begins, or the now-iconic Dark Knight Trilogy.
Nolan and his writing partner David S Goyer (before the very mention of his name sent cold shivers down the spines of many a fan) had a blank canvas to work on with Batman Begins: meaning they could create their own distinctive cinematic Batman, one that could exist in a more realistic world than Burton’s gothic nightmare or Schumacher’s neon farce. To achieve this, they took a deep dive into the trauma inflicted on a young rich boy who saw his parents murdered in front of him. Batman Begins doesn’t stop at its main character, though – it also makes the city he is trying to protect the backdrop of many human stories featuring many human monsters to be defeated.
First and foremost, Batman Begins is about the origin of its hero. The movie itself is split into four distinctive acts with the first and second taking care of this origin and the third and fourth about the effect he has on the city. The first act shows us how the young Bruce Wayne became afraid of bats and how that fear led to his parents’ murder by a lowlife. Tim Burton had already put his own spin on the death of Bruce’s parents by making their murderer the younger version of the Joker, but Batman Begins keeps the comic version of the perpetrator, Joe Chill. Burton’s choice informs the idea that Batman and the Joker were responsible for creating each other, but Nolan uses Chill as a symbol for the poverty and desperation that was so prominent in Gotham at the time. In fact, the death of the Waynes acts as a motivator for Gotham’s upper class to help save the city for a little while before Gotham was overrun by organized crime. Bruce says it himself when he is reunited with Alfred after his training: that people need huge events like this to wake them up to the turmoil of their surroundings.
The death of Bruce’s parents has left him traumatized and empty, with nothing but the urge to murder the man who killed his parents carrying him through each day. It’s only when this chance is taken away from him, thanks ironically to Gotham’s biggest crime boss Carmine Falconie, as well as being chewed out by his idealistic love interest Rachael Dawes, that Bruce finds a purpose. This is an important part of Bruce’s development, he already had the urge to understand how criminals work in an effort to fight them, but he is given more focus and training when he is called up by The League of Shadows. The will to do good is already within Bruce, a principle that is ironclad even before his training. Each act of the film ends with Bruce overcoming an obstacle, and in act one, that obstacle is the true nature of the League of Shadows. Once he defeats them he is ready to return to Gotham to carry out his mission.
The second act is about using his training while coming up with a symbol in which he can fight under. The driving force of Batman Begins is the nature of fear and the power it has as a weapon and a method of subjugation. Bruce takes up the moniker of Batman because he is inverting the symbol of his own fear to use it against the criminal underworld: “Bats frighten me. It’s time my enemies shared my dread.”
As I’ve already mentioned, each Batman film before Batman Begins has introduced the character with his persona and gadgets already intact. Batman Begins shows the methods in which Bruce becomes Batman by introducing different parts of the character’s iconography while putting Nolan’s own spin on it. The bat suit is made up of different components that are retrofitted from the series’ Q, Lucius Fox’s original designs as well as aspects of the suit ordered through various dummy corporations from all over the world. The building up of the bat suit, the Batmobile (which is now a bat-tank) and each gadget is the visual symbol of all of the different skills and equipment that Bruce needs to become Batman. He puts all of these to good use as he reveals himself as Batman for the first time at the end of the second act as he defeats Falconie.
The third and fourth acts are about Bruce and Batman becoming the symbols of justice that Ras Al Ghul and Scarecrow are trying to destroy. It’s in battling these two villains that Bale’s Batman proves his mettle. But the capture of Falconie is child’s play next to going up against the closet Batman Begins has to supervillains. Dr. Crane/Scarecrow, played with maniacal glee by Cillian Murphy, is too good to be a lackey of Ras Al Ghul as he is the only one who gets a proper win against Batman (he set him on fire, for fuck’s sake) despite not being a physical threat to the Dark Knight. The Scarecrow and Ras Al Ghul represent the shadow version of Batman’s intentions: Scarecrow literally weaponizes fear for gain whereas Batman uses fear in his quest for justice, and Ras Al Ghul represents what Bruce’s crusade for justice could turn him into – a man who thinks the only way to save Gotham is to destroy the city and rebuild from its ashes.
Like all of the best Batman stories, Batman Begins focuses on the duality of the character, but unlike previous films, Christopher Nolan investigates the duality of Gotham as well. The basic point of the story is to show how Bruce becomes Batman and Nolan does this by introducing Bruce and Gotham at the time where both the character and the city is at their lowest points. In Bruce’s absence Gotham has become a city of corruption in which the police are paid off and organized crime rules. It’s a city that is so tainted by crime that the League of Shadows can buy its way into every part of the city’s infrastructure in order to bring it down from the inside. Despite this, Gotham still has a few pure souls fighting for the betterment of the city. Both Jim Gordon and Rachael Dawes are good people trying to make a difference despite the corruption that surrounds them, and this leads to Batman Begins’ biggest strength: the use of the ensemble cast.
When we think of Batman we usually view him as some lone avenger, but Batman Begins forms the basis of a team for Batman to work within. Alfred is his companion in all things, Sargent Jim Gordon is his man on the ground, Lucius Fox is his tech guy, and Rachael Dawes is his contact in the district attorney’s office. Without these people Batman wouldn’t be able to make a difference on the large scale as he does in this film. When he’s through and Ras Al Ghul is defeated, the corrupt cops and criminals running scared, Gotham is a city with hope again.
But it’s not just the creation of Batman that Batman Begins is concerned with. Despite Rachael telling Bruce that his true self is Batman, the film gives Bruce a character arc that parallels that of the creation of Batman. The point of Bruce’s arc is to come to terms with what it means to be a Wayne- something he has avoided due to his parent’s death. While his fatcat friends won’t be too happy after his birthday remarks, Bruce’s purchase of Wayne Enterprises is the first step towards helping Gotham outside of the Bat suit, which is something we see more of in The Dark Knight. Batman Begins is the first film to show that being Bruce Wayne is just as important as being Batman, especially when it comes to enacting real change.
Batman Begins is a fantastic film that is often overlooked in favor of the more epic films in the trilogy. The cast is uniformly brilliant, even Katie Holmes, whose only problem is that everyone retroactively wishes she was Maggie Gyllenhaal, the action is exciting and creative, especially the Tumbler chase, and the story and themes are simple enough to sink your teeth into while also feeling suitably deep thanks to a tight script. My only complaints would be the wish for Cillian Murphy to have a bigger role as Scarecrow, and the hand-to-hand combat is edited far too heavily meaning that it’s hard to tell what’s going on at times. These are only minor quibbles, as Batman Begins succeeds in every other aspect while still leaving room for improvement in the future. And oh, how that improvement would come.
If you enjoyed this retrospective, please be sure to tune in next week for our look at the next Nolan Batman movie, The Dark Knight. You can also take a look at our other cinematic universe retrospectives, for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Jurassic Park movies! And, as ever, if you enjoyed this and want to see more stuff like it, please consider supporting us on Patreon.
By Kevin Boyle
(header image courtesy of televisione.it)