Sure, it is safe to answer yes to now. But, ask yourself this question as if it was 1998 and see if you still give the same answer. After 1997’s sheer disaster known as Batman & Robin (although it was a financial success, believe it or not) did ANYONE, either comic book geeks or film nerds or even casual film goers, want to see another Batman film? Tim Burton had taken the first two films of the franchise and used them as stepping stones to the rest of his career. Joel Schumacher, on the other hand. Well…he is now making direct to DVD fare like last year’s truly horrendous Nicolas Cage starrer Trespass. Which, begs the question of what he would have done to the Batman franchise and DC brand in general had his proposal for Batman 5 gone through. Enter writer & well known comic book geek David Goyer and well respected while still relatively new director Christopher Nolan. Goyer had written and taken the character of Blade to Marvel’s first feature film franchise based on one of its characters. And Nolan had one highly enjoyable thriller called Memento under his belt, along with the lesser received but no less enjoyable in my eyes Al Pacino starrer Insomnia. Was this team the answer that Batman fans had been waiting for? Would they bring forth a successfully gritty Batman and make what is, to this point, the best Batman film ever?
Well, yes and no. Batman Begins is in fact a fantastic film. And, Nolan, being the great director that he is, does what he does best, which is make it all seem so realistic. In fact, that seems to be his MO. He can take anything and make it seem real. And, in the downright dirty city of Gotham (actually Chicago) he makes it so that you can almost smell the soot and rain on the streets. The film is downright beautiful to look at, and the team of James Newton Howard & Hans Zimmer help set the mood by churning out a score that does what it has to: make you feel uncomfortable and at the same time help you enjoy the dramatics set forth by Nolan and his team, which was a welcome contrast to the, shall we say, theatrical way Schumacher shot his. When scenes such as Batman’s first appearance and Falcone’s dealings are shot, Nolan makes sure that he gets at least part of the city within frame to continue on with the dire mood. However, while the technical things with Batman Begins are tremendous, what about everything else?
Goyer and Nolan took the correct approach in that in order to make Batman viable again, you have to go back to its origins. And, when within the first two minutes of screen time Bruce is seen falling down the well with multitudes of bats flying around him, it gets the darker toned film off to the perfect start. I enjoyed everything that we see watching Wayne grow up. His father is rightfully outlined as not only a smart mentor. But, also tremendous father. And, it was nice seeing more attention being put on the father here than in any of the earlier films. It makes it seem that much more sad when he is killed later on. Yes, all of this is told in montage, a way of filming I am normally not a fan of. But, Nolan once again makes the correct choice by taking this route, because he knows the audience is aching to see goodies and baddies fighting it out. And, how much more anticipation does he build by making the scenes with Bruce’s father told in flashback?
Nolan also has a knack for great casting decisions. A weird thing about Begins is that the demographic of actors is not that diverse. Between Oldman, Caine, Bale, and Wilkinson, none of these actors have ever been accused of bringing in younger audience members. Which probably helps explain the casting of Holmes as Rachel Dawes. Created specifically for the movies, Dawes, to not take away from Holmes too much, is a pretty bland character to begin with. And, one of the things that any Batman film has never been able to do is come up with a good love story. Each and every one of his women in these movies have been one note (with the exception of Selina Kyle/Catwoman from Batman Returns) and never do we, the audience feel that one is going to meld into a future film. Which is precisely where Dawes comes in. Nolan does what he can here, and the scene with her berating Bruce with a slap telling him his father would be ashamed of him is actually a pretty good scene. But, even Nolan couldn’t fix the way the rest of Holmes’ role and performance comes off here.
Another problem Nolan has during Batman Begins is his directing of action. Our intro to Batman during his first fits of action was, quite frankly, horribly choreographed and shot. And, while the car chase was a bit better, Nolan’s weakness of being able to build to the action but not pull it off is shown to a great extent here. However, that is not taking away from everything else. His way of creating the film’s main theme of fear is very well done. From Ducard’s (yes, I know who he really is) teachings to Bruce of how to control and confront his fear and Scarecrow’s (Murphy) way of using it made for an almost perfect arc and were nicely written by Goyer and Nolan. Even the scenes of the city’s citizens looking up to see Batman’s eyes & mouth glow an evil red glow were fantastic, and the final action scene involving the train and Gordon’s use of the Batmobile was fun that was desperately needed in this overall darkly framed and written film.
In the end, Batman Begins is the glowing expensive gem in the treasure that people who were so used to getting the Schumacher placed coal should be happy to have. It is by no means perfect, but what Nolan creates here lays the ground work for what could very well end up being one of the best directed set of comic book influenced films ever made. It is a beautifully written, directed, and shot tale of how a not so super super hero makes his living. It is about how business and some well placed rats can ruin a city. Only to have it be temporarily saved by a man in a bat suit. All this being said, couldn’t Nolan and Goyer have come up with a better way to send Scarecrow packing?