(Warner Bros.) “Idealist, huh? Well, there's an answer to that, too.” At this point, Christopher Nolan's trilogy of Batman films are pretty much universally acknowledged to be among the best superhero movies ever made. With The Dark Knight Rises now playing in theaters, it's up to you to decide if you think the final installment lives up to the brilliance of 2008's The Dark Knight. Instead of gushing over that pinnacle of brooding madness, let's go back and take a look at the film that set the tone for Nolan'ss vision: 2005's Batman Begins.
At the time, Begins was a rather polarizing event; a soft reboot of the Batman franchise, it was unclear whether the film was meant as a direct prequel to Tim Burton's Batman or an entirely new direction for the series. Begins' highly realistic approach to the origins of Batman left some people cold, complaining that the majesty of the story got lost in the details, and that the emotional center was clouded by overly symbolic themes. Nolan seems to anticipate this problem in the very first shot, where the Batman logo is obscured by rushing clouds of bats. This isn't going to be a clear and simplistic story, he seems to be saying. It's going to be a difficult, murky, and complicated one.
While it's true that Begins contains some clunky dialogue and a few unnecessary characters, it's overall a far better film than many gave it credit for, and a re-watching will confirm it as a worthy predecessor to the grand opera that followed. In some sense, you can't fully appreciate Begins until you see where Nolan and company were headed with these characters. This isn't a case of hindsight casting a rosy glow, but rather of themes being established early and then carried to their fullest implication.
If there's one certain thing to be said about Nolan's take on Batman, it's that he really gets what the character represents. Mythic symbols pervade the story from the start, leading us to see Bruce Wayne's (Christian Bale) journey from spoiled, fearful rich kid to masked terror of the criminal world as the journey of the human moral consciousness from blissful ignorance to reluctant awareness. When his parents are gunned down by a street thug, Wayne embarks on a quest for vengeance and an exploration of the forces that drive men to do evil. He comes to understand that fear and desperation are the prime movers of the criminal mind, and he learns to tame and channel his own fear in order to do good in a deathly-ill society.
This is a lesson we all have to learn in order to survive the modern world, and Bale deserves a lot of credit for his tight, subtle performance. Batman films – including Nolan's – are usually much more focused on the villains than on the Dark Knight himself, so it's great to see one that details Wayne's emotional life and gets it right. Bale has taken criticism for being a cold and vacant Bruce Wayne, but one look at his tormented face as he prepares to confront the man who murdered his parents tells an entirely different tale. He's not an emotionless man; he's a man who turns all of his emotions inward, torturing himself into a twisted kind of transcendence.
Nolan also deserves a lot of credit for showing us the socioeconomic context of the Wayne family's dynasty. Young Bruce learns compassion from his father, and it's that tiny thread of hope that keeps him going in the darkness of adult life. He moves from wanting only vengeance to wanting justice, and this change is driven by an understanding of the way in which economic and social oppression create monsters. His mentor Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) shows him how to keep fear from tearing him apart, but goes too far when he asks Bruce to kill in the name of justice. This is the key moment in Batman's evolution: the decision that truly moral judgment can never include execution.
In many ways, Nolan gives us a quintessential fable for a post-9/11 America. Gotham is described as the world's greatest city, and it therefore represents our entire culture. One group of villains are foreign men who have decided that our civilization is beyond redemption and must be destroyed for the good of humanity – heavy shades of terrorist ideology. However, it's arguable that the more evil set of villains are those in our own country who have given up on decency and exploit others for their own selfish advancement, using fear to manipulate the masses. The mob boss Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), the corrupt cop Flass (Mark Boone Jr.), and the unscrupulous businessman Earle (Rutger Hauer) exemplify this concept of apathetic evil.
Every idea that the trilogy would later examine is laid out relatively concisely in Batman Begins. Fear and lawlessness are the greatest enemies. The true hero can't be just a shining symbol of good, but must enter and comprehend the darkness in order to combat it. Batman isn't one man, but rather the collective hopes and choices of the people who want to see a world freed from madness.
Why We Like It: a grand and mythic introduction to Nolan's beautiful vision for Batman; a surprisingly complex treatise on fear and the proper response to fear; gorgeous photography; excellent performances from Bale, Caine, Wilkinson, Freeman, Murphy, Hauer, Oldman, and Neeson