Favorite Films: Batman Begins

“Why do we fall sir? So we might learn to pick ourselves up.”

By the end of the 20th century, the Batman film franchise had fallen quite far indeed. The 1989 film Batman, directed by Tim Burton, had been a massive success, finally establishing a successful serious superhero film other than fellow DC Comics title Superman, which by that time had fallen out of favor itself in the theatres. But Burton’s 1992 follow-up, Batman Returns, had a more mixed reception. Some loved the continuation of the darker themes of Batman; others hated it. Defenders and detractors both could be found among both audience members and critics… and in the upper echelons of Warner Brothers. It was felt that Burton’s vision for Batman was not marketable enough, especially to children. They brought in Joel Schumacher to direct the third film, 1995’s Batman Forever, and enforced a lighter tone on the picture. It was commercially successful, although not a critical darling, and the relative success of the merchandising led Warner Brothers to push things even further into lighthearted camp with the 1997’s Batman & Robin. But the fourth film did not appeal as strongly to the public, who reacted strongly against its campy tone; while it wasn’t the first time Batman had been campy, by any stretch, this time it was poorly-done camp. The critical thrashing and comparatively poor box office reception (it turned a profit, but not domestically) caused Warner Brothers to end the franchise, canceling plans for a fifth film, which would have been titled Batman Triumphant. A series that had started out with promise was now considered toxic.

“This city is rotting. People talk about the depression as if its history. It’s not. Things are worse than ever down here.”

Warner Brothers started looking at reviving the franchise in 2002. They did not have to look far to find a director; one came to them. Christopher Nolan had just finished directing Insomnia for Warner and heard they were considering a new Batman feature. He stepped in and requested to direct the project, pitching the idea of going back to Batman’s origins and taking a more realistic approach to the character. Warner Brothers liked the idea and put him in charge of it. Knowing he needed somebody with a solid comic book knowledge to assist with the script, he tapped David S. Goyer, screenwriter and comic book writer, to help him with the script. Goyer initially made some suggestions over the phone, but eventually Nolan dragged him in completely and the duo wrote the script together, also bringing in production designer Nathan Crowley for ideas.

“The world is too small for someone like Bruce Wayne to disappear.”

Nolan has stated that he wanted a lead actor who could play both Bruce Wayne and Batman, so that the audience wouldn’t simply be waiting for Bruce to don the cape and cowl every time he was on screen. This was of particular importance, as Bruce Wayne doesn’t wear the costume until over an hour of the film’s 140 minutes has passed. The film tells Batman’s origin in full, for the first time in the movies, showing his parents murder when he was a child, to his disillusionment with the justice system as a young adult, to his training for crime-fighting, all before he finally dons the cowl. The man that Nolan cast in the role was Christian Bale, and Bale brought his own interpretation of Bruce Wayne’s personality into the role. Bruce Wayne, as played by Bale, is a man who is constantly on edge. There is a sense that he is somewhat feral until he learns to control and channel his rage into a useful direction, and this sense never completely goes away. Batman Begins is a film that remembers that Bruce Wayne’s public persona, that of the carefree billionaire playboy, is every bit as much a costume as Batman is.

“This is your mask. Your real face is the one that criminals now fear.”

Playing opposite Bale is Katie Holmes, as Rachel Dawes, a character invented for the film. Given the general inability of superhero films in general and Batman films in particular to refrain from throwing in a love interest whether one is needed or not, it would be natural to expect Rachel to fill that role. But in this film, at least, it’s a more platonic love; Rachel is one of Bruce’s childhood friends, and she merely wants the return of her old friend. She also serves as one of Batman’s allies, as the assistant district attorney who is trying in vain to put members of Gotham’s organized crime syndicate behind bars. Although there is a scene where Batman has to rescue her, the film doesn’t portray her as a damsel in distress; rather, she pursues her own attempts at fighting crime through the legal system and this brings her into conflict with the villains of the piece in a natural and logical manner.

“Mister Wayne, if you don’t want to tell me exactly what you’re doing, when I’m asked, I don’t have to lie. But don’t think of me as an idiot.”

When it came to casting the other roles of the film, a decision was made to fill the major roles with major actors, to try and bring the side characters to life as much as Batman himself. Even the relatively minor role of Mr. Earle, the man pulling a corporate takeover at Wayne Enterprises, is played by veteran actor Rutger Hauer. Morgan Freeman plays Lucius Fox, the R&D head who knows just a little bit more than he’s willing to let on about Bruce Wayne’s activities. The two actors play off each other well, and Freeman also gets his opportunity to shine when sharing scenes with Bale.

“You still haven’t given up on me?” “Never.”

But the most important casting was with the role of Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s longtime butler. Alfred had been the butler for Thomas and Martha Wayne, and when they were murdered, it was he who raised Bruce Wayne from the age of 8 until adulthood. It is not a coincidence that Alfred echoes Thomas Wayne’s quote about falling and rising to Bruce. In many ways, Bruce Wayne is as much the son of Alfred Pennyworth as he is of Thomas Wayne, and the film needed an actor who could show that paternal affection even to a character that all other characters on screen are intimidated by. They cast Michael Caine, and he played the part perfectly. Caine is an actor who often comes across as a great actor who frequently takes roles in mediocre movies, and it’s a delight to see him when he’s given the opportunity to be a great actor in a great role in a great film.

For the role of James Gordon — here only a sergeant as opposed to his later role as commissioner — Nolan cast Gary Oldman. As David S. Goyer notes in commentary, Oldman even looks rather like the portrayal of Gordon in Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, a graphic novel that the film takes some elements from. While Gordon’s role would be of more importance in the sequel, he is established here as one of the few non-corrupt cops in Gotham, and a man that Batman can trust — and who learns to trust Batman in return.

“You’re just one man?” “Now we’re two.”

Of course, any superhero film is only as good as its villains. Nolan and Goyer took some interesting risks in their choices of opponents for Batman in this film. They chose to have three different villains, even though an overload of villains was part of what had caused some of the earlier Batman films to have uneven plots. Perhaps even riskier, the villains chosen were not the ones the public at large would first think of when thinking about Batman. The Joker is far and away the most iconic Batman villain… but Nolan and Goyer chose not to use him in this film. Instead, the villains consist of mob boss Carmine Falcone, the Scarecrow, and Ra’s Al Ghul. Falcone is an example of a type of character that the audience knew Batman no doubt had to fight often, but had never really thought about before. People think of supervillains when they think of superheroes, not mob bosses, but a city as corrupt as Gotham is bound to have organized crime. The Scarecrow may have been known to some audience members beforehand, but only through the cartoons, and perhaps more from Challenge of the Superfriends where he was a regular character than from Batman: the Animated Series. And Ra’s Al Ghul, though always given a certain gravitas in his appearances, was even more obscure; not many comics had featured him, and his non-comics appearances were relegated to a handful of appearances in Batman: the Animated Series; it would be possible to have seen several episodes of the cartoon without ever seeing Ra’s Al Ghul.

“Is Ra’s al Ghul immortal? Are his methods supernatural?”
“Or cheap parlor tricks to conceal your true identity… Ra’s?”

Nolan and Goyer’s script makes a virtue of the risks in using three obscure villains for the film. Because the public at large knew little of the characters, that gave them room to work with the characters. They scripted a plot arc that tied all the characters together in a way that flows naturally from one to the next. Bruce Wayne, struggling with his quest for vengeance, is recruited by Henri Ducard to join the League of Shadows under Ra’s Al Ghul. When he rejects Ra’s extreme ways and leaves, he begins his crusade against Carmine Falcone, only to find that Falcone is being used by the Scarecrow… who in turn is employed by Ra’s Al Ghul. The role of Henri Ducard, as played by Liam Neeson, is the most pivotal to the plot. Early on, he fills some of the same father-figure role that Alfred occupies, training Bruce Wayne and attempting to guide his path. Later when he resurfaces in Gotham, as the true face of Ra’s Al Ghul, he is as vicious as any villain can be. And though the movie is unlikely to fool anybody into thinking that the role of the League of Shadows was over when Bruce Wayne left them, the deceptive nature of Ra’s Al Ghul mirrors that of the plot. Ra’s is depicted as a taciturn and strict leader, played by Ken Watanabe, and seems to perish when the first act of the plot ends. When Ra’s Al Ghul is revealed to be the mastermind behind the plot against Gotham, he is simultaneously revealed to have been the man identifying himself as Henri Ducard.

“Theatricality and deception are powerful agents.”

That plot takes the form of an attempt to purge Gotham City of crime… by purging it off the face of the Earth. A weaponized hallucinogen, which drives people into a frenzied panic, is set to be used against the entire city. Ra’s Al Ghul provides the plan and the rare flowers necessary for the hallucinogen, and Jonathan Crane, the Scarecrow, manufactures the drug. Carmine Falcone handles the import of the drug and its distribution. Tom Wilkinson plays Falcone, and he comes across the way many mafia bosses do in the movies; menacing, but almost casual in his evil. The sort of man who will order a man’s death over dinner… and who would get eaten alive by the likes of Ra’s Al Ghul. Falcone never realizes he’s a patsy until it’s too late; he never knows enough of the plot to realize that he’s precisely the element that Ra’s most wants to eliminate.

“Well, I already know what he’ll say: that we should kill you.”

The Scarecrow, while ultimately a subordinate villain, is still a very interesting character to watch on screen. This is primarily due to the acting of Cillian Murphy. Before Batman Begins was announced, fans on the internet often discussed who they would like to play different roles if the franchise were revived. Cillian Murphy’s name was one of the more common choices for the role of the Joker. As Jonathan Crane, the Scarecrow, Murphy proves that he can play a madman, but does so in a role that is considerably more controlled than the Joker’s madness. The Scarecrow is intimidating and frightening… but so, for that matter, is Jonathan Crane. In every moment that Murphy is on screen, there’s a subtle wrongness about Crane’s expressions and speech. There’s a constant feeling that, if someone were to be brutally murdered in front of him, Crane would find it an amusing curiosity. Murphy takes a character who was always a C-lister at best, and when he’s done, nobody would think of the Scarecrow as a harmless joke.

“Would you like to see my mask?”

In addition to the human characters, the city of Gotham itself acts as a character. When we see Bruce travel with his parents to the center of the city in a flashback, the train and the buildings are bright, and shiny. There may be a depression going on, but the city still has hope. Years later, when Bruce Wayne returns, the city has fallen further into corruption and decay. The sky seems permanently overcast, and if the buildings shine, it’s the sheen of an oil slick, light reflecting off of filth. Crime is rampant in the streets, and public offices and the police department are filled with corruption. Even at the end, it’s not an entirely happy ending; the slums virtually destroy themselves through the effects of Scarecrow’s fear toxins, and it’s acknowledged in film that it would take weeks to synthesize an antidote. Wayne Manor itself is destroyed. But the film does have a spot of hope in its ending, with an intent to rebuild Wayne Manor and Gotham… just as the film itself rebuilt the Batman film franchise. And then to carry that rebuilding forward, they throw in a hint of the villain everybody in the audience knew had to come eventually.

“Take this guy: armed robbery, double homicide. Got a taste for the theatrical, like you. Leaves a calling card.”

Batman Begins is a modern classic of action movies, and arguably the best example of how a solo superhero movie should be approached next to Superman: The Motion Picture. Where that film made us believe a man could fly, Batman Begins made us believe a man in a flying rodent costume could be taken seriously — arguably a more difficult feat, thanks to a series of films immediately preceding it that had done considerable damage to that credibility. It rebuilt the character, his world, and his villains and delivered a foundation that could truly be built on further for future movies. It made Batman viable again. It’s also masterfully crafted; the cinematography was nominated for an Oscar, and the film was nominated for and took home several Saturn Awards, as well as receiving nominations for dozens of other awards. It’s not just a great superhero movie, it’s a great movie period, and it’s one of my favorite films.

“If you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can’t stop you, then you become something else entirely: a legend.”

About Morgan R. Lewis

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15 Responses to Favorite Films: Batman Begins

  1. pgcooper1939 says:

    Great review man. I’m in agreement with almost everything you said, though I also have some criticisms on the film. I don’t want to go into detail now though with the review on the way.

    • That’s fair. There are certainly some valid criticisms to be made (I for one have never been a fan of Bale’s hoarse-whisper voice for Batman). If I gave out half-stars, it’d be a 4.5 and not a 5.

  2. CMrok93 says:

    Good review Morgan. I enjoyed this flick a lot and thought that Nolan’s vision was great but there were way too many times where the action scenes just got a little too hectic and frenetic for me. Still, great way to reboot a popular series that people honestly thought was dead in the ground forever.

    • I can see that… I had some problems with some of the fight scenes the first time I viewed it, particularly against the mobsters. Re-watching it, though, it doesn’t seem to be as hectic when he’s fighting Ra’s Al Ghul, which to me suggests that it’s a deliberate effect against the gangsters to show the psychological effect that Batman has on them with his abrupt appearances and disappearances.

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  4. Jaina says:

    Great review Morgan. I think in the light of The Dark Knight people actually forget how much ground was broken with Batman Begins. It set the tone and made Batman a comic book character to be taken seriously on the big screen again.

    Hoping to get my rewatches in this weekend πŸ˜€ Back to back with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.

    • Thanks, Jaina. I think you’re absolutely right about people “forgetting” Batman Begins after The Dark Knight. Everybody wants to talk about the latter, but the whole reason they were excited about TDK in the first place was because of how good BB was.

      Re-watching both movies sounds like a good plan to me… of course, it would, since I was planning much the same. πŸ˜€

  5. I plan on watching this and the Dark Knight again soon in preparation for Dark Knight Rises and reading this certainly has me more hyped for it.

  6. πŸ˜€ I just watched a bunch of those special features myself for a podcast trilogy I’m doing on TPMP, Dear Film, and the Matinee about the trilogy.

    I was THINKING about MTESSing this this week, but once again, you have beaten me to it, sir! LOL

    It’s a great write up… I think… for me, I have to find a way to work around the villains when I do my piece. Because I have to disagree there with you some, I think they’re a weak link. So much of this movie is rock solid, all the acting, the Bruce Wayne arc, the Tumbler… but the villains (as you note) are C listers at best, and the screen doesnt do that much for them. Neeson’s R’as spends half the film as an ally, and then when he “turns” he’s way too reserved. The Scarecrow felt tacked on, and totally ineffectual… I just… never got down with the bad guys here.

    Still a great flick. No doubt. Just has that major chink in the armor, to me.

    • We’ll have to disagree there, then… I thought the film did really well with the villains. Showed that you don’t always have to go with the A-listers 100% of the time, which is a good thing because otherwise those reboots have to come fast and furious or they’d be using up villains too quickly. I also wouldn’t say that Ra’s was an “ally”, exactly; during that part of the story I felt it was pretty clear that he was more of a tempter, a corrupter. Sure, the ultimately helped Bruce Wayne, but it was pretty clear from the beginning that Ra’s had his own motivations and that they weren’t benevolent.

    • In my opinion, this is the only live-action Batman movie to date that it really about Batman. I like the fact that they went with lower-profile villains here for that very reason.

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