Since Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997) devolved an already campy superhero franchise into a sub-Vegas monster’s ball, it seems fitting that Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins is fastidiously grim. That is, it strives to take post-teen sturm und drang seriously, just as it must accept Tim Burton’s expressionistic cityscapes as ordained. The promise of the comic book, in both its original Bob Kane incarnation and Dark Knight resurrection, was of existentialist hyper-noir with a Fritz Langian remorselessness, and Nolan aims for the dark heart, drenching the movie in orphan grief and questioning the fascist pathology of vigilante violence.
In the movie’s bid for solemnity, even Jung is explicitly invoked, but Nolan and his co-screenwriter David Goyer can only press the big buttons so hard—it’s still an old-school superhero summer movie, the plotting tortuous, the characters relegated to one-scene-one-emotion simplicity, the digitized action a never ending club mix of chases and mano a manos. As the title sez, we start at the beginning (again), when Bruce Wayne is but the wee scion of billionaire parents—who, the film struggles to insist, are not in the least responsible for the rampaging poverty and social decay of Gotham City. (The subway that Linus Roache’s Dr. Wayne built is seen as an act of beneficence, to help the poor get to the jobs they presumably don’t have since they’re all junkies and petty crooks.) Indeed, the screenplay performs ludicrous contortions trying to conform the fact of Batman’s bottomless wealth to the urban blight he conscientiously battles at night.
After his parents are gunned down by a mugger, Bruce grows up to be Christian Bale, broods, rejects the rich-boy lifestyle, and ends up in a Chinese prison, where he is salvaged by Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) and Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), the leaders of the League of Shadows, a ninja army dedicated to restoring “balance” to suffering civilizations via spare-no-collateral intervention. Laboriously trained, Wayne returns home determined to bring justice to the streets.
The “how” is where Nolan and Goyer have focused their energies, providing explanations for every aspect of Batman’s regalia, down to the cape (just like his father’s tux jacket, placed over the boy’s shoulders at the crime scene). Since his ninja training required him to “Conquer your fear!” Wayne’s childhood phobia of bats becomes his chief criminal-terrorizing guise. (Fears need to be confronted, combated, and wrestled into submission, we’re told ad infinitum, but all I could muster was the fear of a Dolby-bludgeoned tympanic cavity.) Soon, a chemical plot to destroy the city arises out of the busi-ness relationship between a mobster (Tom Wilkinson) and an effete psychiatrist
(Cillian Murphy), proprietor of Arkham Asylum.
Stuck in a glower groove, Bale acts only insofar as the context and the equipment will let him; the movie’s tidbits of bemused humanity are the sole responsibility of Morgan Freeman, as a Wayne Industries techie, and Michael Caine, as Alfred. Scrambling villains and motivations from three decades of comic books, Batman Begins seeks out a middle ground between the
Spider-Man films (boyish rectitude and romance) and the
X-Men series (pseudo-sophisticated political ideas, including an archnemesis monologue that suggests the WTO has always been part of Ra’s al Ghul’s secret clan, doggedly destroying societies around the globe with “economics”). That it more or less succeeds hardly calls for drinks on the house. Nolan, like many filmmakers, seems to rise or sink to the level of his material and under the burden of his budget; those looking for a taste of Memento‘s radical perspective amid the stunts and CGIs will feel bereft.