What “Batman Begins” is most successful at is following, to the letter, is the kind of basic three-act screenplay structure taught by the likes of Syd Field and Robert McKee and Dov SS Simons, which stresses the need for “turning points,” where the hero’s situation drastically changes at each act change, and a “flex point” the halfway point where his situation intensifies. And sure enough, Nolan and co-scenarist David S. Goyer follow the formula beat for beat.
Act One: Meet Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale). Locked up in a Chinese prison for an unknown crime, he is visited by a mysterious man, Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson, resigned to the fact he’ll just keep playing variations of his “Star Wars” character Qui-Gon for the next portion of his career), who offers Wayne a way out of this Siberian hell, by joining him in learning how to master the mental and physical restraints he will need to fight the evils of injustice back home in Gotham. In a monastery high in the mountains, Decard slowly trains Wayne to face his fears, of bats and of being a possible unwilling accomplice to his parents’ murder, hoping to indoctrinate the young man into the League of Shadows, a dissident group of ninja-like assassins lead by the quiet and even more mysterious Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe, wasted in a nothing cameo). When Wayne learns of the League’s plans for himself and the city of Gotham (this is turning point #1, folks), he refuses to join and vows to do things his own way. Insert major explosion sequence #1 here, and get Wayne back to Gotham. End Act One.
Act Two: Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham to find the once-glittering jewel of modern living mired deep into crime and corruption, and learning about the plans of Richard Earle (Rutger Hauer, delightfully slimy), the current CEO of Wayne Enterprises, to turn its back even further on the community by taking the company public. Meanwhile, Wayne’s boyhood friend Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes, still perky as ever) is having her own troubles as a Gotham Assistant District Attorney, unable to make much of a difference herself due to all the fallacies of a bureaucratic process run by crooked cops, crooked judges and ineffective bosses. Introduce Gotham detective Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman, in the most… normal performance of his career), who will be the one person on the Force who can be trusted. Get Wayne, wanting to get back into the company that bears his name, finds himself assigned by Earle to the Applied Sciences Division, where he finds a contingency of one, former board member Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman, showing there can be dignity even in taking the big paycheck), keeping check on all the Wayne Enterprise endeavors which never made it out of prototype… such as flexible body armor, a cape that can become a stiff glider when shocked with some electricity and an urban assault vehicle. You know, the kinds of prototypes no one except Fox would ever notice even being gone should someone with, say, a modicum of power within the company decided to borrow indefinitely. Introduce two more evil men, local gangster Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkerson, playing Tony Soprano if he were from Brooklyn by way of London) and Arkham Asylum psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy, who has the face for and probably would have made a very good Joker in some future Batman escapade), both part of a nefarious plot, but neither quite sure what their own parts are. Get Wayne into the Bat Gear, set up the Bat Cave, give him a quick jaunts out in the city learning how to be Batman, get one of the few people he cares about into mortal danger (this is the flex point, people, right around the halfway point) and have Batman discover what the recent spree of weirdness around town (turning point #2). Introduce, or more succinctly, re-introduce the Big Bad and have him monologue his dastardly plans directly to Wayne/Batman. End Act Two.
Act Three: Batman, with the help of Gordon and Rachel and the ever-faithful Wayne family butler Alfred (Michael Caine, also showing grace while making a mad dash for the cash), doing whatever he can to stop the bad guys from executing their evil plan, including more explosions. Lots of them. The kinds of explosions which would make SCTV’s Celebrity Farm Report guys Big Jim McBob and Billy Sol Hurok sing triumphantly about how they blowed them up real good. Climax. Resolution. Set up sequel. Roll credits.
The main quandary with superhero movies, especially one with a title that includes the word “Begins,” is that you know no matter what pitfalls are thrown in his face, the hero will come out somewhat scratched up but otherwise victorious. No producer or studio is going to allow a potential franchise cash-cow to meet his demise by the end credits, so the filmmakers must create memorable villains, ones that can be credible adversaries to our man in black. Except not one of the villains here come close to being truly terrifying, and their plans for Gotham, either for specific individuals or for the city as a whole, involve a complex scheme which, when broken down, really makes no sense. (I’ll get into this more at the end of the review.)
The $135M question: does Bale made a credible Batmanr Yes, and no. He’s got the height to be Batman and he’s around the right age, but he doesn’t just yet have the intimidation factor the character needs to be spectacularly effective. What terrorization Batman might cause in his foes comes not from a physical threat but from tweaks in the soundtrack which make him sound threatening and from those great Bat-toys. But lucky for Bale, the studio paid for one of the strongest supporting casts one will ever see in a comic book movie (and Katie Holmes), so he does not need to completely carry the film on his shoulders alone. As should be expected, Oldman is the stand-out in the cast, giving his Jim Gordon a true sense of right and wrong that other Gordons were never allowed to have. This Gordon isn’t some kindly old man who turns a blind eye to this vigilante’s unique brand of justice, but a man who rightfully isn’t quite sure if he should trust this guy yet, even if the winged man keeps helping to bring the right bad guys to justice. Which is the other major problem with this, and to an extent the other, Batman movies. For all his good intentions, Bruce Wayne/Batman is a vigilante, one who takes or advocates the taking of law enforcement into one’s own hands, but in this film more than the others, the notion of his vigilantism is not only downplayed but openly argued against, which sets a bad precedent which will hopefully never come into play in future films.
But what “Batman Begins” does do right is the look of the film. This is a much richer Gotham, not stuck in a trashy Gothic rut but one that features a combination of flavors from America, Europe, the Far East and a dash of Luc Besson’s future New York from “The Fifth Element,” a Gotham with real texture that can immediately change from sheer vastness to absolutely claustrophobic without warning. But while the work of cinematographer Wally Pfister and production designer Nathan Crowley should be commended, a beautiful looking film is not enough to sustain a film that has as much emotional depth as the average Hallmark card. Maybe that’s too much to ask of a comic book movie, but I don’t think it is.Rating: C-