By Adam Nayman
Dir. Christopher Nolan, U.S., Warner Bros.
Christopher Nolanâ€™s Batman Begins is a fine example of the blockbuster as amuse bouche: the pleasure lies in knowing that the main courseâ€”in this case, the inevitable sequel, which weâ€™ll probably get sometime in 2008â€”might just be superb. Batman Begins is merely pretty goodâ€”better, probably, than either of Sam Raimiâ€™s uneven and curiously smug Spider-Man films, and at least as good as Bryan Singerâ€™s X2: X-Men United, with which it shares both concrete virtues (seriousness of intent, pared-down design, a talented ensemble cast) and nagging flaws (structural wonkiness and an inflated running time). Ultimately, Nolanâ€™s film is a triumph of casting: fan-types have been clamoring for Christian Bale since American Psycho. Because really, what is Patrick Bateman if not the slightly crazier, NC-17 version of Batman: a fantastically endowed sociopath-playboy in thrall to his deep-seated obsessions? Well, maybe that wasnâ€™t Adam Westâ€™s Batman, but it certainly is Baleâ€™s. Heâ€™s got the â€śpop jawlineâ€ť Pauline Kael attributed to Christopher Reeve in Superman, but, luckily, none of Reeveâ€™s incidental wholesomeness. Baleâ€™s Batman/Bruce Wayne is a raspy, even nasty customer, visibly uncomfortable in his bourgeois secret identity guise (watch him squirm at a near-climactic cocktail party) and really only ever comfortable in jet-black Kevlar.
Batman Begins takes plenty of time getting him into the suit: the first 45 minutes, which have very little to do with Bob Kaneâ€™s original back story (and even less to do with Frank Millerâ€™s Dark Knight graphic novel series) finds a testy, disillusioned, and long-since orphaned Bruce Wayne slumming it somewhere in the Himalayas, until heâ€™s recruited by the super-secret terrorist cabal the League of Shadows. The guy doing the recruiting is Ducard (Liam Neeson), and itâ€™s not going to spoil the movie for anyone to reveal that heâ€™s also (to use some comic-book/videogame parlance) the â€śmainâ€ť bad guy, a revelation that will be apparent to anyone who is not very young or very distracted. (The early scene in which heâ€™s â€śkilled offâ€ť might as well have a red flag superimposed over the bottom of the screen.)
Ducardâ€™s late-act resurrection, and the way it dovetails with the rest of the narrative, is pretty poor, but itâ€™s the mid-section that makes Batman Begins work. Once Bruce gets back to Gotham, he goes about becoming a superhero, in the process amassing some useful friends and associates, including company man Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), straight-arrow cop James Gordon (Gary Oldman), and, of course, faithful butler Alfred (Michael Caine). All three actors offer lovely, generous performances, each playing expertly off Baleâ€™s terseness (Freemanâ€™s scenes are master-classes in laconic comic timing) and accomplishing what the Spider-Man films, for all their kinetic grandeur, never quite managedâ€”a stable of supporting players who weâ€™ll want to see return time and again. Katie Holmesâ€™s pallid love interest, do-gooder Gotham D.A. Rachel Dawes, wonâ€™t be back, and thank goodness: rather than being turned on by her buff, roof-scaling boyfriend, she tends to lecture him about duplicity and the need to really know oneself before knowing others. (Dawson Creekâ€™s Joey Potter isnâ€™t dead: she just works for the city.)
Rachelâ€™s po-faced sanctimoniousness aside, Batman Begins manages the difficult feat of being serious (that is, not campy) without being pretentious (that is, like Spider-Man 2, with its interminable Rosemary Harris monologue about ourâ€”read: Americaâ€™sâ€” need for heroes.) Thereâ€™s lots of discussion about fear, both as the impulse that drives Bruceâ€™s nightly dress-up routine, and as the weapon wielded both by Ducardâ€™s epigram-spouting warlord and his henchman Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) a bent psychiatrist who has a funny mask of his own. The Scarecrow/Batman doubling is clever, and all the better because the film doesnâ€™t spell it out for the audience. When the Scarecrow unleashes clouds of fear gas on Gothamâ€”not the best-adjusted city to begin withâ€”itâ€™s actually kind of unsettling, especially when the chemically unbalanced victims start perceiving Batman as a flying fire-demon: Itâ€™s the first time in the screen history of the franchise that heâ€™s been, well, scary.
Which brings us back to the amuse bouche metaphor: The final moments of Batman Begins are deliciousâ€”the villains have been summarily vanquished, Rachelâ€™s lectures feel finished, and half of Gotham is still overrun by fear gas. Batman and (newly minted) Lieutenant Gordon share a brief rooftop idyll, during which the prospect of â€śescalationâ€ť is discussedâ€”the criminals are going to get meaner, and thereâ€™s one â€śtheatricalâ€ť fellow in particular who seems particularly worrisome. The coda promises enough that weâ€™re willing to forgive Batman Begins its failings (the muddled action scenes being the most egregious missteps.) Nolanâ€™s film has served its purposeâ€”the exposition is out of the way once and for all, and, even better, it has set up a credible and compelling hero, a menagerie of vivid secondary characters, and a Gotham that actually feels like a real city with variegated architecture and a plausible criminal infrastructure, rather than an ornate, spire-and-gargoyle-strewn soundstage. Given that most comparatively budgeted films leave us bludgeoned and begging for mercy, itâ€™s a high compliment indeed to say that Batman Begins leaves us ready for more.