Batman Begins

written and directed by Christopher Nolan

starring Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Cillian Murphy and others


review by Stephen Notley

Batman Begins doesn't feel like a Batman movie, which is why it's so good. It's called Batman Begins, but a better title would have been Before Batman. In every other Batman movie, the first and central element is Batman; we start with Batman, and then go back from there to fill in his past. Here we begin with a man in a world with no such thing as Batman and go forward to discover Batman at the end.

One of the most interesting things about this movie is its structure. It takes its time, working the drama of the moment rather than rushing forward to the action. Superhero movies almost can't help but fall into to the numbing, metronomic rhythms of the three-act-structure. Introduce your guy (or rarely, your girl), set stuff up, then bam, first act plot point, he becomes a superhero. But Batman's not like most other superheroes. He wasn't bitten by a radioactive spider or irradiated by a gamma bomb and became in an instant something different. Bruce Wayne spent his whole life turning himself into Batman and this film builds his journey to the legend with surprisingly sturdy psychological struts.

We spend a lot of time jumping around to different parts of Bruce's past and present in the first half of the film, finding him in a snowswept Chinese prison, returning to the murder of his parents, jumping forward to the young princeton student, agile flashbacks and forwards from the creator of Memento. Bruce Wayne is an unusual guy who's had some unusual things happen to him, been given unusual opportunites and responded to them in unusual ways, and yet the movie presents all of it in a very real, grounded way.

Eventually, of course, we come to the moment where Batman makes his first appearance and it's at that point, when we make the transition from world-of-no-Batman to world-with-Batman, that the movie gets slightly shakey. Actually seeing him, after everything being built up so seriously, it suddenly becomes obvious how ridiculous a man dressed up as a bat really is. Admittedly, part of my reaction may simply come from my not exactly liking the way Bale looked in the mask.

At any rate, after the shaky transition period, things get cool again, now with the introduction of Gary Oldman as Lieutenant Gordon and an oily Cillian Murphy as Dr. Crane, soon to become Scarecrow. The music, which has been good along, gets better. It's also at this point we being to appreciate the coolness of how they realized Gotham. Not an expressionistic fantasy as in the first Batman, not the New York Plus of the Spider-Man films, but a kind of barely-above real quality, crowded with all the sorts of slighty odd buildings you see in cities across America, an everycity (with one fantastical exception, the monorail, which pays off in the final battle).

I'd feared from the trailers that so prominently featured the Batmobile that this would be a largely empty exercise in gagetry, but I should have known to trust Nolan. The things about this movie that are good are precisely the kinds of things that are difficult to convey in a trailer, or in a review, for that matter. It's an actual movie, not just a superhero movie. You should check it out.