The boom in superhero movies turned the phrase “Origin Story” into a slur. The most popular superheroes are defined by their origins, and none moreso than Superman, Spiderman, and Batman. So popular are they that it's not beyond reason to expect anyone to have grown up in the glow of Western culture to be at least able to rattle off a sentence or two to summarize. Yet whenever any these three characters are revived their origins are dutifully rehashed. Sometimes these frequent revisions cause audible groans as the audience is made once again to witness spider bites, exploding planets and murdered parents. Even the mere prospect of sitting through another “origin story” can seem like a thankless chore. All of which is to propose why Batman Begins is not embraced as enthusiastically as The Dark Knight despite being near its equal.
This is the smartest film in Nolan’s trilogy. While not without lapses in logic or plot holes, extra effort is put into fleshing out Batman’s larger world. There’s a careful mapping of how each faction interfaces with each other. How the mafia’s infiltrated the police and judiciary and how corruption in the city maintains itself.
The matters of the world are dealt with the utmost sincerity. Perhaps best illustrated in the conversations between Bruce Wayne and Lucius Fox. There’s a knowing, winking humor to their exchanges where Wayne amasses highly advanced military armor for spelunking and base jumping. The serious tone could be read as penance for Joel Schumacher's two Batman films, but Batman Begins takes genuine pleasure in taking its world at face value.
Of the trilogy of Batman films, this is Christian Bale’s strongest showing. Partly this is due to Liam Neeson acting as the primary antagonist. As an actor, Neeson rarely tries to upstage his co-stars and is quite content to respect even the extras. His Ra’s Al Ghul wouldn’t produce any transcendent moments nor dominate the trailers for the film.
Bale though seemed determined to embody the ideal Batman. Long known for undergoing dramatic physical transformations for his roles, Bale bulked up quite impressively. This was perhaps the first time that Batman synced up a bit with the popular image of the peak-human brawler. Bale channeled the mannerisms of an effete child of privilege, someone who probably had a couple Princeton sweaters in his closet.
Perhaps it's a cruel irony then. When presented with a slavish embodiment of the Batman the fans had demanded for decades, Batman Begins instead cemented Michael Keaton’s portrayal as the definitive portrayal. Although simple dumb nostalgia was also a big factor in that.
Christopher Nolan was never much of a visual stylist. His Gotham City is logical and registers as somewhat realistic but it doesn’t even try to challenge the visual flair of Tim Burton or Joel Schumacher (not a typo, say what you will about Schumacher’s abilities, his Gotham was incredibly distinctive). Nolan’s great gift has always been the ability to express his complex ambitions through standard movie tropes. While Nolan’s Gotham City is hardly stylized, for the first time it feels like a real city. In the aerial shots your eye can clearly distinguish the slums from the business districts.
The strongest visual element introduced here is an elevated monorail connecting all the neighborhoods in the city. A massive public works project that glides hundreds of feet above the ground. Sadly it would be completely abandoned by subsequent installments.
The lack of a strong visual sense remains the biggest flaw of the Batman Begins all these years later. I can’t help wonder what Tim Burton would have done with the Scarecrow and the potential for hallucinations of fear. In Nolan’s hands its fairly pedestrian: shaky cam effects and classic movie monster makeup.
Part and parcel of grabbing the reins for a sullied franchise is operating with a short leash. Like Burton and Schumaker before him, Nolan’s first entry doesn’t reveal much of his true ambitions for the character. As such most filmgoers wound up describing the Batman created here as “gritty” and “realistic” incapable of knowing just how subversive the character would become in the next sequels.
Nolan’s clearest ambition at this point was just to helm more Batman films. For a globe trotting adventure that mixes in four key Batman villains (besides Scarecrow and Ra’s Al Ghul, mafia boss Carmine Falcone and even psychopath Zazz) doesn’t overreach. Indeed, only Al Ghul is dealt with by the end of the film, the other characters are left roaming the streets of Gotham, dangling threads left to tie in subsequent sequels.