Batman Begins is the film in which Batman begins, and you know what? It takes him a while.
Christopher Nolan’s 2005 Batman Begins helped rocket comic book movies to new levels of respectability. Watching it now, it’s hard not to find it a little po-faced–though Michael Caine’s Alfred provides some nice bits of dry humor as relief–but at the time, it really did feel fresh for a superhero film to be this dark and grimy. Granted, the movie still features an ancient army of ninjas sworn to topple cities that have become too corrupt, but it really was more realistic than most superhero fare. And that realism mattered a lot in 2005.
What makes it remarkable now is how Nolan handles that realism. He imbues Batman with the modern trappings of sophisticated storytelling, and then he essentially jettisons them. He writes a careful, thoughtful origin story where Bruce Wayne’s individual origins have to be destroyed: Wayne Manor, retribution, the League of Shadows, all of it–it has to burn so Batman can really take shape. And when he’s at last done with all his beginning, he’s less complex. He’s purer. You could draw him in four colors.
Basically, Bruce’s biggest emotional journey in Batman Begins–going from emotionally-driven vigilante to actually engaged superhero–is mostly about his need to get a cause other than his dead parents. When he leaves criminals tied to spotlights, he’s just belatedly avenging his parents’ deaths. When he decides that Gotham is worth fighting for, he finally transcends himself. He still has a psychological makeup, but he’s no longer driven by it; morality and community win out over individualism and interiority. Katie Holmes’s Rachel Dawes is an unfortunate mixture of poorly written and lukewarmly portrayed, but she still gets one of the film’s key lines: “It’s not who we are on the inside; it’s what we do that defines us.” In other words, never mind the explanations for Batman. Give us Batman.
By the end of the movie, we have a better, more distilled Bruce Wayne and a better, more distilled Batman. Bruce has worked out how to use his public persona not just as a cover up but as a tool in its own right–it’s like he’s realized Bruce Wayne’s power for the first time and embraced it. And he uses it ruthlessly and without apology, all across the board: he’s willing to destroy his image in order to save lives, and he doesn’t hesitate to use his money to keep the Wayne Corporation as his own personal property under his control. What he’s doing is what’s defining him, and we see who he is; his new actions reveal him in a way the playboy cover didn’t. There’s a lot more inner peace to him once he realizes he’s become what he set out to be: a symbol, a force, and not a person.
The movie is overlong, and its Gotham is, despite the lack of comic book touches, almost cartoonish in its near-total corruption and deadened despair. It’s awkward with regard to race and inept at handling its female character. And you can blame it, if you like, for its excessively grim imitators, like Man of Steel, which took all the wrong lessons from it. But while it has its faults, it also has an intensity and an emotional commitment that make it compelling long after serious superhero stories have become fairly standard. Nolan hits on something bold and deep here. Whether or not you agree with his general philosophies and themes, you can feel his conviction, and the force of it is impressive.