'Batman Begins': Good News For Batfans At Last, By Kurt Loder

Christopher Nolan gives the Caped Crusader a new lease on life, and maybe a whole new franchise.

A New Beginning

One of the several cool things about this super-charged superhero comeback movie is its unquestioning embrace of cockeyed comic-book exotica. Early on, we encounter the maverick young millionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) kicking a bunch of butt in a wet, scuzzy prison camp someplace in Asia. (Where? Why? Who cares.) Then he runs into a mysterious Frenchman named Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), who is a member of a lethal ninja sect called the League of Darkness, which is scenically based in a monastic lodge high in the Himalayas. Ducard elects himself Bruce's martial-arts mentor, and starts pelting him with spitballs of fortune-cookie wisdom. "To conquer fear," Ducard says, "you must become fear." Bruce is wowed. He decides he's not going back to Princeton in the fall.

"Batman Begins" resuscitates yet again one of the most durable of the classic comic-book superheroes, a character now 66 years old and already the subject of various movie serials, animated features, and of course a famously campy '60s TV series. In 1986, Batman was rescued from the swamps of silliness by writer and illustrator Frank Miller, in his groundbreaking DC comic, "The Dark Knight Returns." Miller's brooding new Batman imagery was in turn a powerful influence on director Tim Burton's 1989 "Batman" — an enormous, worldwide hit — and on its even darker sequel, the 1992 "Batman Returns." Burton's second film didn't do anywhere near the numbers of the first one, though, so Warner Bros. elbowed him aside and brought in the shameless Joel Schumacher, who, in the course of just two further Batman sequels — two very, very bad ones — flushed the entire franchise right down the toilet.

"Batman Begins" really is a new beginning in a number of interesting ways. The director is Christopher Nolan, an Englishman probably best-known here for his mind-knotting 2000 revenge thriller, "Memento." Nolan brought along his usual cinematographer, the admirable Wally Pfister, and also populated the cast with such excellent actors as Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman and Cillian Murphy. Nolan also co-wrote the script (with fantasy specialist David S. Goyer, of the "Blade" movies), and it rings some clever new changes on the familiar Batman saga.

Bruce Wayne is still a man traumatized by the long-ago death of his parents at the hands of a mugger, and this is still the event that's launched him on a career of crime-fighting. But now we see him actually constructing the Batcave beneath the Wayne mansion; and, best of all, we see where some of Batman's exotic equipment comes from.

When Bruce returns from his adventures in the East, he finds that his hometown of Gotham (actually Chicago, with computer enhancements) is crawling with criminals, and that the family business has been taken over by a corporate sleaze named Earle (Rutger Hauer). But tucked away in the company's scientific-research department he comes upon gadget-master Lucius Fox (Freeman), who shows him some interesting inventions that Earle has never bothered to bring to market. There's impenetrable black Kevlar armor — perfect for a Batsuit; and a kind of black "memory cloth" that can become rigid when required — the Batcape. Then Lucius wheels out a formidable-looking rocket-powered car. "Whattaya think?" he asks. Bruce says, "Does it come in black?"

Bruce is aided in his battle against Gotham's mobsters and madmen by Sergeant Jim Gordon (Oldman) one of the town's rare good cops, and by his childhood girlfriend, Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), now an assistant district attorney. His chief opponent is Dr. Jonathan Crane (Murphy), a twisted psychiatrist and — in his spare time — a colorful, maggot-spewing psychopath called the Scarecrow. Director Nolan sets them all loose in a cityscape filled with rich black shadows and thick with menace, and his shots of Batman drifting down through the air with his cape spread wide like giant wings are resonant additions to the Batman iconography.

Nolan also cooks up action scenes that are more than just routine CGI romps — he even brings off a car chase that ventures beyond the usual clatter-and-screech. One of the movie's most extraordinary sequences takes place in the Himalayas (actually Iceland), where Bruce and Ducard engage in a furious battle on a slippery cliff of ice, and one of them stumbles and nearly slides away to his death. Stunt doubles were obviously involved, but they were very brave stunt doubles. It's an amazing scene.

I had one quibble with "Batman Begins": Christian Bale, who's been wonderful in such movies as "American Psycho," seemed to me oddly inexpressive in the title role here, even allowing for the facial constraints of the cumbersome Batmask. Apart from that, though, I imagine that this is the movie that loyal and long-suffering Batfans have been waiting for — there's none of the condescending jokiness that ruined the earlier Schumacher films. It's artful and fun, and judging by a scene near the end, when Bruce Wayne is handed a strange calling card, I'd say that this really is just the beginning.

— Kurt Loder

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