It sickened me in the past to see the Batman movie franchise slowly digging it's way to an early grave. After the quality Tim Burton films, the series pretty much went down the toilet, beginning a horrifically campy age of 'Bat credit-cards' and an armored Arnold Schwarzenegger tossing cringe-worthy puns at a Batman who seemed to be trying not to be embarrassed by the fact that his costume had nipples. So what could Warner Brothers producers hope to do to resurrect the franchise? Pretend it never happened, and start the whole series over again with a talented director, compelling story and capable cast.
Enter Christopher Nolan, the mastermind behind 2000's 'Momento', widely praised as one of the most innovative films of the decade. As director/co- screenwriter, Nolan creates a richly dark, atmospheric world for Batman to inhabit, similar to that of the Burton films, but less cartoony. The film's screenplay, written by Nolan and David S. Goyer is quality stuff, it's true that some of the dialog exchanges can seem kind of contrived, particularly between Wayne and Liam Neeson's character, Ducard, but it sounds so classy you tend not to care.
Nolan also puts a lot of trust in his audiences to stay put while the first hour of the film comprehensively explores Bruce Wayne's backstory, with no cape donning and few fight sequences. Nevertheless, the pace never slows, and the story is so unexpected and fascinating (who would have expected a Batman film to begin in a prison in Tibet? only Nolan could pull it off!) there's little chance of us losing interest. And this way, we really get a sense of who Bruce Wayne is, a trait none of the past movies were able to capture, including the Burton films. We see what drives him, what leads him to become this iconic crime fighter, and the reasoning behind the mask.
Of course, to help the audience get under Bruce Wayne's skin, it doesn't hurt to have such a talented lead as Christian Bale. Bale has been emerging as one of the most talented actors of his generation, and he brings that talent to a peak here, playing the darkest of all superheroes. If you were to break down the role of Batman/Bruce Wayne, you would find that it is essentially three characters: Wayne as Batman, behind the mask; Wayne's public facade as the billionaire playboy; and the real, brooding Bruce Wayne. Bale plays all three of the characters to absolute perfection, and molds them together well enough to make it clear to show they are still the same person. He has been given tons of accolades for his performance already, and needless to say, he deserves every one.
And the sheer quality of the supporting cast is mind-boggling, if for the number of big names only. It's very hard to find a weak spot in the incredibly strong array of performances here, but if one had to be found, it would have to be Katie Holmes. It's not that she gives a bad performance, on the contrary, but just she seems too young to be convincing as a district attorney. For me, Michael Gough will always be the definitive Alfred, but Michael Caine does an excellent job of taking over the role, giving a very strong (and often funny) performance. Liam Neeson is sheer class as Ducard, Wayne's mysterious mentor, as is Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, Wayne's arms manufacturer and provider of the Batman gear. It's wonderful to see the incredibly talented and much underrated Gary Oldman as Sgt. Gordon, the only decent cop in Gotham, and he truly makes the role his own. Even cult favorite Rutger Hauer makes an appearance as Richard Earle, the ambitious head of Wayne Enterprises. And (surprise surprise!) the villains are also actually menacing for once, as opposed to cartoony and corny. Cillian Murphy just about walks away with the show as the truly chilling Scarecrow (the sequences involving his 'fear gas' are surprisingly frightening) Ken Watanabe is mysterious and creepy as guild leader Ra's Al Ghul and Tom Wilkinson is very convincing as Carmine Falcone, head of the Gotham city mob.
Nolan's knack for realism also comes as a breath of fresh air in this age of CGI bloated blockbusters - there are next to no computer generated shots in the movie, even a sequence with Batman standing on top of a high building staring down at the city was filmed with a stuntman. And it really works, the Batmobile actually interacts with it's environment, and looks so much better real than computer generated. But don't think that the film will come across as too serious and stuffy because of Nolan's realism - true, Gotham seems too dark and dirty to come across as a fantasy world, but Batman Begins retains that unmistakable sense of fun that seems to only be present in comic book movies. We jeer and fear the villains, and cheer the hero as he lays his life on the line to vanquish evil and save the city. And that is how it should be. There's even a surprising twist near the end, which is doubly surprising because it actually comes as a shock. What's not to love here?
(and, further cudos to director Nolan for finally managing to make a swarm of bats actually frightening for once)
Overall, I'd have to label Batman Begins 'The must see movie of the summer' - it's a well written, authoritatively directed, impeccably acted (especially by Bale's powerhouse lead performance and Cillian Murphy's sickly menacing Scarecrow) and very high quality production. Indeed, most other summer blockbusters could learn a thing or two from Batman Begins. If the Batman franchise died under it's own gaudiness years ago, let us rejoice this glorious rebirth - Batman truly does begin here.