Christopher Nolan revisited: Batman Begins (2005)

Batman Begins
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Our look back through the work of Christoper Nolan arrives at a comic book movie that’s had a very last effect: Batman Begins.

Spoilers for Batman Begins lie ahead…

Would it be hyperbolic to suggest Batman Begins changed the comic book movie forever? The process had already begun in no small part thanks to the success of the first two Sam Raimi Spider-Man films, but Christopher Nolan’s reinvention of the Dark Knight paved the way for an enormous amount to come.


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Batman had, let’s face it, been reduced on screen by the advent of the 2000s. Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns evoked the Gothic noir of Gotham City on screen often beautifully, but Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever and Batman & Robin introduced 1960s camp, rubber nipples and overblown storytelling that turned the Caped Crusader into a retro joke. There is a place for those films, to be fair. Forever especially is very enjoyable when viewed in the correct context. Neither, however, truly did justice to Bruce Wayne or the Bat mythos that lurked within thousands of comic pages going back decades.

Nolan not only excavates much of that mythos but places Batman in numerous fresh paradigms. The title is no coincidence – Batman Begins.

Origin stories were becoming de riguer in Hollywood storytelling as blockbuster cinema moved away from the tentpole action star to the iconic hero character. Audiences enjoyed Raimi’s exploration of Peter Parker’s origin. They unexpected rallied around James Bond’s early career in Casino Royale (another movie that revived a flagging franchise). The only picture around the mid-2000s that bucked the trend was Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, which instead went the opposite way – serving as a homage to the Richard Donner original and bathing audiences in the kind of nostalgia that the next decade would heavily mine.

Batman Begins chooses instead to decrypt Bruce Wayne, as portrayed by Christian Bale, in a manner never before seen on screen. Michael Keaton’s Bruce was slick and well formed in Burton’s version, while Schumacher simply followed suit with Val Kilmer and George Clooney. The Bruce we find here is initially broken, emotionally, and Nolan’s focus is on his construction into the Bat figure we understand. We might have glimpsed the tragic death of his parents, Thomas & Martha, in Burton’s film, but here it is fully explored and contextually woven into the primary narrative of the film.

One aspect that really stood out on this rewatch was how saintly Thomas (Linus Roache) is considered in Gotham, despite being rich and elitist enough to build a Trump-style tower with his name at the very heart of a transportation system designed to level up the city’s poor. There is a potent contradiction here that fascinates Nolan, and appeals to the undercurrent rippling through his entire Dark Knight trilogy – the idea of revolution. Gotham as a microcosm of America itself. A metropolis gone to seed, eroded by crime and avarice, poisoned by agents such as amoral gangster Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson); an ecosystem ruined enough for Joe Chill to brutally murder Bruce’s parents and feel emboldened to do so.

In previous Batman pictures, this deep psychology of Bruce always played second fiddle to the camp and pomp of the villainy on show, but Nolan is far more interested in this fallen child who raises himself tall in becoming a symbol. As his mentor Henri Ducard aka possibly immortal supervillain Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) tells him: “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.” Ra’s describes this as a ‘legend’, which is now Nolan approaches Batman. A force of nature, a myth, working to expose the rotten heart of Gotham’s criminal elite and how close order can descend into anarchy. Hence why The Dark Knight Rises is more sequel to Batman Begins than The Dark Knight, but we’ll get to that…

Batman Begins

Nolan wants us therefore to understand Bruce before we can really embrace Batman, and that’s how Batman Begins really differentiates from its predecessors. He’s unafraid to stage a length prologue in the Far East, unafraid to make us wait to see the Bat, instead grounding Bruce’s transformation in a literalised expiration of fear.

Whether it’s falling into the well as a child (falling being the primary metaphor in the entire trilogy), facing down legions of bats, or suffering at the hands of Dr. Jonathan ‘Scarecrow’ Crane’s (Cillian Murphy) fear toxin, everything about Batman Begins is designed to explore the power and centrality of fear to the entire symbol of Batman, and Bruce’s double life.

What I love about Nolan’s work, and especially his Batman trilogy, is how he marries together the personal, psychological and philosophical. In a more dynamic manner than Insomnia, where he adeptly walked us into a waking half-nightmare, Batman Begins sees Nolan propel Bruce’s origin story and the central narrative while having conversations about numerous bigger conceptual ideas.

Bale attacks this well as an intense but witty Bruce, but Neeson is a revelation in this regard. As the fake Ducard, in the first third of the picture, he delivers what could have been arch dialogue in such eloquent, powerful terms, it just adds to the unique myth-making Nolan constructs here around the Batman as an idea.

Previously: Revisiting Christopher Nolan’s Memento
Previously: Revisiting Chistopher Nolan’s Insomnia

Granted, by the end, Neeson segues more into classic Bond villain once his true nature is exposed (you can find traces of Bond in everything Nolan does, almost, as we shall see), but few actors could have depicted the master assassin enigma needed for Ra’s, which distinguishes him strongly from the pantomime villainy previous Batman films provided. He speaks to the core idea inherent in Bruce’s construction of Batman – that Gotham, and perhaps more broadly America, are part of a lineage of avarice going back into human history. “Crime, despair… this is not how man was supposed to live. The League of Shadows has been a check against human corruption for thousands of years. We sacked Rome, loaded trade ships with plague rats, burned London to the ground. Every time a civilization reaches the pinnacle of its decadence, we return to restore the balance.”

In that sense, Ra’s differs from the Joker or Penguin or Mr Freeze etc…, in that he appears quite sane in his destructive rationale. His ancient organisation, his cult, are rooted in ideology. They truly do believe the world would be a better place without Gotham. What Nolan does a great job in depicting is Bruce’s journey from untrammelled grief and rage, where he’s ready to shoot dead Chill to avenge his parents, through to a control of such rage into non-lethal justice. We see him tempered by his butler/surrogate father Alfred (a wonderfully emotive Michael Caine). We see him initiate contact with Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman, full of street level gravitas) and build those links with justice. We see him retain humanity through the conscience of Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes).

Batman Begins does an exceptional job of retaining the iconic aspects of Batman – the suit, the fighting style, the Gothic architecture – while recasting them in a grounded, post-90s aesthetic. The Batcave isn’t a magical underworld, it’s a base crafted out of shaky foundations. The Batmobile isn’t a slick, futurepunk Bat-shaped device, simply a military tumbler re-purposed for his needs; indeed his very suit, thanks to the Q-like Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), comes from rejected military hardware for US soldiers. “Bean counters didn’t think a soldiers’ life was worth 300 grand” Fox reports, again speaking to Ra’s economic disgust at Western civilisation. In theory, anyone could have the Batman’s power, but it only becomes available to the billionaire who can afford to wield it.

Batman Begins

In a way, that stands out these days, in a world of indulged tech billionaires using the digital and physical world for sport. Nolan was certainly ahead of the curve in The Dark Knight Rises about the power of the mob, and the rise of populism, but in Batman Begins he depicts the face of Bruce Wayne – the playboy – as that kind of ultra-wealthy, indulged empire-builder, able only to wield the power of a ‘superhero’ (not that such a word has much purchase in Nolan’s vision of Batman) due to his resources.

Bruce Wayne has always been this way but it feels starker in Batman Begins, given how the technology and resources at his disposal are tethered more to the real world. Batman Begins certainly works to depict the grime and grit of the Gotham he seeks to save to a greater extent than any take on the character before.

This absolutely factored into what comes next for the comic book movie. Aside from the next two films in Nolan’s series, one in particular strongly argued by many as his best film to date, what Batman Begins does influences the Marvel Cinematic Universe in no small measure. While that all-dominant franchise ultimately indulged a broader sense of storytelling, from realms and multiverses to simply comedic sarcasm, the MCU equally in pictures such as Iron Man or Captain America: The Winter Soldier took a grounded aesthetic to characters who existed in a world of enormous magnitude. Man Of Steel, for the nascent DCEU, does the same a few years later. That ability to straddle the fantastical and the earthy comes from the choices Nolan makes in Batman Begins, how unafraid he is to reset our expectations of what a comic-book film can be.

In that sense, much as he does with the Ra’s reveal, Nolan tricks you with Batman Begins. He provides a sleight of hand. He makes us believe we are witnessing one kind of film and then presents another. As he will suggest in the film that follows it, before The Dark Knight, maybe we want to be fooled.

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