We all know the story of Batman - that shadowy defender of the citizens of Gotham City - and his alter ego, billionaire industrialist Bruce Wayne. But how and why did the Dark Knight embark on his quest to bring justice to Gotham? In Batman Begins we delve into the Bat's earliest origins and watch as Wayne changes from an angry, guilt ridden, revenge obsessed young man into an awe inspiring hero who strikes fear into the hearts of evil men.
It's ironic that a movie about Batman's youth turns out to be the most grown-up of the entire series. Where the previous four films either mythologized or infantilised the main character - turning him into a caricature or an overdressed carnival freak - this film actually takes him seriously. The result is refreshing, fascinating and extremely entertaining.
One of the most impressive and daring aspects of the film is the intelligence of its script. Where the previous two films literally bashed you over the head with dumb jokes and glib banter, Batman Begins assumes you have a brain in your head and don't need to be winked at and nudged every time it makes a joke or mentions a significant fact. The dialogue is suddenly a believable, even compelling part of the proceedings, instead of just badly written mouth noise to fill the gaps between expensive action sequences.
Not that there isn't plenty of action - it's just that the thrills and spills actually mean something for once. Director Christopher Nolan, who helped write the screenplay, seems to realise that action for action's sake is not nearly as fun as action with a purpose. In his Batman you are encouraged to care more about the deeper significance of a scene, and less about whether you'll get to see another car getting blown up.
Nolan, who made the dazzlingly intelligent Memento back in 2000, also spends a lot of time making sure his Batman is realistic. While this may sound silly, Batman is a comic book hero after all, it's really exceptionally effective. What all the previous films have failed to capitalise on is that the original Batman myth thrives on seriousness and realism. The Dark Knight is by far the most morally ambiguous and psychologically conflicted of all the original super-heroes. This realism is what gives the comics, and this new film, the grit and texture that makes the story of Batman so compelling.
Of course Nolan is careful not to overplay the realism. The costumes are still fantastic, the stunts are still spectacular and the gadgets are as cool as ever. The monstrous new Batmobile, in particular, is an awe-inspiring variation on the previous films. More like a military vehicle than a hot-rod, this beast of a car was purpose built for the film and can manage 0 to 100km/h in less than six seconds.
But while the script, the direction and the gadgets are all superb it is the actors that really steal the show. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are at their effortless best as Bruce's butler and technical advisor, while Liam Neeson brings his trademark intensity to the role of villain. What's more these veterans do a superb job of keeping the focus of the film on Christian Bale where it belongs, instead of trying to hog the limelight. Bale himself is a revelation as Batman. He and Nolan seem to share a deep understanding of how they want to present their Batman and the resulting synergy is the beating heart of the film.
An unexpected treat in the cast is Cillian Murphy as the evil Dr Jonathan Crane. Murphy has that easy grace and that ability to get under your skin that makes for a hypnotic screen presence. Like fellow Irishman Colin Farrel the camera positively eats him up. In fact he nearly won the part of Batman and you can easily see why. He makes the most of his smallish role and should do great things in future.
The verdict? Absolutely superb. Not only is this the best Batman film ever, it's arguably the best comic book adaptation ever made. Even if you hated the last four movies or have never watched a "super-hero" movie, you shouldn't miss this. Christopher Nolan and his cast have managed something special - a film that transcends its roots instead of sinking below them.
- Alistair Fairweather