There’s something about Christopher Nolan’s first Batman flick Batman Begins — most likely it’s the mood and the never-before-seen gritty realism — that allowed it to stand out from the pack of superhero films that came before it.
Rewind to 2005: Christopher Nolan, 5 years after writing and directing the lauded low-budget thriller Memento, was just about to unveil his new vision of Batman to the world. Keep in mind, his Batman was Christian Bale, who just one year earlier was playing a 110-pound crazed insomniac in The Machinist. Bale, who had been on a diet of one can of tuna and one apple per day while filming The Machinist, quickly put on the bulk he needed to bring Nolan’s Caped Crusader to life.
Who could have guessed that a low-budget filmmaker and a near-anorexic man could team up together to successfully bring one of the world’s most famous superheroes to the big screen.
That’s not to say that Batman Begins was a smashing success. On the contrary, it was relatively slow out of the gates, earning $49 million in its opening weekend, $205 million total in the United States, and $373 million worldwide on a budget of $150 million.
My, how the times have changed.
Fast forward to 2012: The Dark Knight Rises, the finale in Nolan’s Batman trilogy, is without a doubt the most anticipated film of the year, poised to pull in over $1 billion worldwide and have one of the largest domestic opening weekends of all-time, and could even find itself in the Oscar race, if it’s as good as they say.
But there is something about Batman Begins that really set the bar for what this trilogy could become.
Never before has anyone tackled Gotham City and its vigilante hero — or any superhero, for that matter — in such a gritty manner, set in today’s world but with just enough comic book-ishness to avoid being overly serious. With Batman Begins, Nolan created a being that could believably be playboy by day and superhero by night, one we have no qualms accepting. That is, perhaps, Christopher Nolan’s greatest achievement.
In Batman Begins, we see a damaged Bruce Wayne, one who has lost his parents at a young age and so seeks revenge — not justice, but revenge — on the man who left him parentless and alone. And when murderer Joe Chill gets parole for outing mob boss Carmine Falcone, Bruce hopes to finally have his revenge. But someone else beats him to the punch.
This prompts Bruce to exile himself to Bhutan to learn the ways of the criminal underworld so that he can one day fight it. Here, he meets Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), who teaches him the ways of the ninjas of the League of Shadows, headed by one Ra’s al Ghul. But when Wayne finishes his training and learns of the League’s plans — to wipe Gotham off the map — Bruce burns the League’s temple, kills Ra’s, saves Ducard, and flees for home.
Upon arrival in Gotham, Bruce begins to take an interest in the company that was left to him by his father, specifically in the applied sciences division, under the supervision of Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). Here Bruce begins to create his new crime-fighting persona, one that stems from his childhood fear of bats.
While Bruce fights the criminal underworld of Gotham as a masked vigilante, Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy) has been secretly using Carmine Falcone’s men to import a highly potent, weaponized hallucinogenic drug. Only later do we begin to understand the depth of this story, realizing that Crane’s actions are all part of a larger plan within the League of Shadows.
Batman must save not only Gotham, but also his childhood friend Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) and his reputation as a helpful crime-fighter. To do so, he’ll need help from Lucius, loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine), and the police, including Officer Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman).
Unlike Nolan’s followup Batman flick The Dark Knight, Batman Begins has a rather vivid comic book feel to it. It has all of those things we so loved about superheroes previously — the gadgets, the clever quips, and a small dose of “that could never happen” — but also adds in a great deal of raw humanity and reality. Batman can be injured. He can ache over the loss of his parents. He can get hot-tempered and irrational.
His gadgets, while almost unbelievable, have a this sense of reality to them, too. The Tumbler looks different then the Batmobile we are used to, but it could conceivably have been a military vehicle. Batman’s suit is all black so as to disguise him in the night. And it is also sleek and knife-proof and bulletproof. And his cape is made of memory fibers, which allow it to open up and act as wings.
Rather than these things simply working, Nolan creates a way for them to work. All of these things — as little as they may be — have been thought of by Nolan and company so that we are not forced to explain them away with a, “Hey, it’s a movie, cut it some slack.” With Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan has done his legwork and it should be greatly applauded.
Another thing about the film that may not be recognized at first glance is the color palette. Oranges, browns, and blacks fill the screen and enhance the darkness that Nolan intended for us to feel. They emphasize the dirtiness and the dire nature of the Narrows, the poor side of town in Gotham.
Batman Begins carries with it a certain mood and swagger, and that is created partly by Hans Zimmer’s fantastic score. It is a dark, brooding, and at times chilling collection of instruments, sounds, and tones, and it sets the stage for what is to come in future installments.
The theme of Batman Begins is fear. We all fear something. In seeking a means to fight injustice, Bruce Wayne turns his fear against those who pray on the fearful. He has devoted himself to an ideal, and become something else entirely. Director Christopher Nolan has undergone a similar transformation. He has devoted himself to the ideal of crafting excellent films, and not just films that are good for the genre in which they live, but films that are good in general. It took balls to reboot the Batman mythos the way he did, and you can be sure that Mr. Nolan has those.
Batman Begins is a thoughtful, entertaining, and portentous film, one that set the tone for 2008’s The Dark Knight and 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises. It is on par with its successor in most every way, and it’ll be fun to see how Christopher Nolan wraps up his Dark Knight trilogy when The Dark Knight Rises hits theaters on July 20.