(Note: As I giddily anticipate seeing “The Dark Knight Rises” at the Air and Space Museum tomorrow, I suddenly realized that (rather criminally) this corner of the interwebs had said nothing about the first two films of this series. As we lead to the third film, a look back)
Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins may not be the best modern superhero movie – but it might be the genre’s most important. With all the taste memories people have of the film’s phenomenally successful successor, combined with the poignancy of Heath Ledger’s final performance, it is easy to forget just what a thrill it was to see THIS film, after the atrocity that Joel Schumacher had made of the franchise. This film and Spiderman 2 both substantially raised the bar for the genre – from a disposable summer cliche to films with some weight and some basic curiosity about its hero. Obviously everything that goes on in Gotham is preposterous – but Nolan and his actors take this material seriously – and for a couple of hours it was spellbinding. The Dark Knight has captured history’s heart I suppose, but the first film still endures as my favorite – sheer filmmaking taking a genre picture and raising the stakes in a way that was unrecognizable until then.
It is not that dark, atmospheric superhero movies had NEVER been done. Hell, The Crow was a particularly notable entry – and Tim Burton’s attempts at Batman the first time around were ambitious even if the movies were ultimately fairly forgettable. But too often we had video games or movies that seemed like pure kitsch. So what a surprise when we see Christopher Nolan taking his time with building the story up, with the League of Shadows stuff. As is well known, this was new material, but plundering the depths of martial arts movie lore was genius. We get heft behind Bruce Wayne’s aloneness – his development of powers, and ultimately the forces that would drive Wayne to go home, and put on a mask and cape, plus a drop-in by Ken Watanabe to boot.
Now yes, the villains were not as good as the Joker – but the gangster scheme hatched by the Scarecrow is a pretty slick scheme as far as these things go, and Cillian Murphy delivered menace quite effectively. And as we know with his recent films highlighting his ability to fight furry woodland creatures, Liam Neeson is one serious opponent. The villains are effectively villainous here, and the battles – with the brilliant non CGI effects – have humanity in them, the feeling of people hitting each other and performing in a plausible world.
This plausibility extends to the mystery of Batman himself. Instead of Alfred merely being a butler, Michael Caine gives him weight – he becomes a man who takes the Wayne legacy seriously and cares about both that and Bruce with equal intensity. He is much more of a father figure here. Morgan Freeman as Lucious Fox, a sort of Q of this series – imbues his role with his usual dignity, and it allows a throwaway role to have more going for it. Even Katie Holmes – though replaced by the vastly superior Maggie Gylenhaal – is effective enough.
I guess the first Batman Begins at the end of the day lacks the big questions and serious commentary on heroes and vigilantes and society that The Dark Knight poses. But it is also a lot more fun, and a superior example of the genre. It does not lack gravitas and excitement, and really sets the table for the remainder of the trilogy. It is a great film in its own right, and the easiest one to turn to when you want to get a great thriller on your television.