This is part of my “Batman on Film” blog series. To read other entries in this and other Batman-related blog series, head over to my Batman page.
That film’s director, Joel Schumacher, had another film planned, but upon the movie’s release, it became evident rather quickly that he would no longer be a part of the Batman film franchise.
Warner Bros. was unsure of how to continue the franchise, and for the next six years, they looked at hundreds of ideas by nearly as many filmmakers just to come up with an idea of what to do with Batman.
In 2003, the studio settled on a take by young untested auteur Christopher Nolan, whose previous work at the time was comprised of two movies: the frighteningly cerebral indie film Memento, and the mid-budget thriller Insomnia. Screenwriter David S. Goyer joined Nolan to tackle the then-unnamed Batman movie.
The idea Nolan put forward included Batman’s origin story, which is something that had never been depicted on the big screen before. He also wanted the film to be a “grounded” one, written in such a way that audiences would be able to relate to the characters and the universe they exist in. That became the launching pad for one of the most successful film series to date.
Filming began in March of 2004 at a glacier in Iceland (mimicking icy mountains in Bhutan) and moved to Shipperton Studios in England, as the film was a British-American production. Other filming locations were used for key scenes involving Wayne Manor including Mentmore Towers in Buckinghamshire. Several Gotham City scenes were shot in Chicago, such as the Tumbler chase sequence.
The film released in June of 2005, and it opened to rave reviews from critics, cinemagoers, and comic-book fans. To many, it represented a return to form for the previously ailing Batman franchise and injected new life into a nearly dead film franchise.
Batman Begins is presented in a nonlinear fashion for much of the first two acts of the film. The storyline is purposely fragmented and disjointed, which serves to create a sense of urgency for all the story’s elements. For the purposes of this synopsis, however, I’ll recount the story linearly.
The film opens on the child Bruce Wayne and his friend Rachel Dawes playing on the Wayne Manor grounds. Bruce falls through a weak spot in the cover of a well, breaking his leg and frightening a nest of bats that come out of the shadows to attack him.
Shortly thereafter (an undefined length of time, though presumably a few months since Bruce appears around the same age he did in the opening scene yet his leg is fully recovered), the Wayne family attends a production of Boito’s Mefistofele. During “Rampiamo, rampiamo, che il tempo ci gabba,” Bruce finds the performers dressed as demonic creatures reminiscent of the bats he encountered in the cave, frightening him to the point of asking his dad if they could leave the opera house.
In the alley behind the opera house, a man named Joe Chill holds the family at gunpoint, demanding Thomas’ wallet and Martha’s pearl necklace. Thomas complies with Chill’s demands, but when Chill points the gun at his wife, Thomas steps in, causing Chill to shoot him and his wife. Young Bruce is left kneeling over his parents’ corpses.
Fourteen years later, Bruce drops out of Princeton and returns to Gotham with the goal of avenging his parents’ death at Joe Chill’s parole hearing. The opportunity doesn’t come as the crime boss Carmine Falcone has sent an assassin to murder Chill for providing the DA’s office with valuable information about Falcone’s crime empire.
Rachel Dawes, who is interning at the DA’s office, shows Bruce the dark underside of Gotham City, where the city’s corruption has perpetuated the problem of crime and poverty. There, Bruce meets Carmine Falcone and attempts to prove to him that he can put an end to the Falcone crime ring. Falcone laughs him off and demonstrates to Bruce just how much power he has in Gotham.
Bruce disappears to Tibet, where he explores the criminal underworld in an attempt to find a way to come to terms with his inability to avenge his parents and put a stop to the crime in Gotham City. While in prison in Tibet, he meets Henri Ducard, who invites him to train with the League of Shadows, which will prepare him to return to Gotham and fight crime and corruption with a new purpose.
Christopher Nolan mentioned that he based much of his design for the film on the look of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. While the film remains heavily grounded in a recognizable reality, there are elements of the design that betray some sympathies for science fiction and fantasy. Many of the scenes from the Narrows district of the city hearken back to Blade Runner‘s look and feel.
Visually, the film has several setpiece moments: the mountains of Tibet, the wide views of Gotham City. However, the movie overall has a more intimate feel, creating an atmosphere of intensity and driving home the idea that this is a deeply personal movie with an emphasis on characters more than landscapes and action.
Batman Begins has a fairly large cast of characters, so I’ll attempt to touch on as many of them as possible.
Bruce Wayne/Batman: Christian Bale.
Bale’s characterization of both Bruce Wayne and Batman is among my favorites of this character. He truly sells the idea of a conflicted and frustrated young man, unable to properly mourn the deaths of his parents. My main (very minor) complaint overall with Bale’s portrayal is that his character often gets swept up in the story. While he is certainly the driving force of the movie, I sometimes get the feeling that the events of the movie are happening to Bruce, rather than Bruce deciding the trajectory of his story. There were several moments where I felt like the characters around him were stronger than he was.
That’s not to say that I didn’t think of him as a strong character with a well developed arc. On the contrary, I found Bale’s Bruce/Batman to be a truly forceful character. He’s at once menacing and calculating, distant and relatable, providing the perfect lens through which to view this story.
Henri Ducard/Ra’s al Ghul: Liam Neeson.
To be honest, I was/am a bit frustrated about the whitewashing of this character. In the comics and other media, Ra’s is of some kind of Middle-Eastern descent, likely Arabian. It was a slight annoyance that his name’s pronunciation was altered, that his character was turned white, and that the League of Shadows (League of Assassins in the comics) was headquartered in Tibet rather than the Arabian Peninsula.
My annoyances aside, Neeson played the role well. To be fair, I’ve always enjoyed Liam Neeson’s acting, but I found this character to be particularly fitting for him. He’s smart, calculating, and collected; but he creates a persona that is frighteningly devoted to his cause.
Alfred Pennyworth: Michael Caine.
Prior to the film’s release, casting news was coming out about the characters for the movie, and I was a somewhat perturbed by the decision to cast Michael Caine as Alfred. I had always considered Alfred to be a more refined character than Caine could likely portray, but I was so thankful to have been proven wrong. While this depiction of Alfred is certainly not “refined” as fans had come to know him (particularly in reminiscing on Michael Gough’s fantastic performances), I thought it was a perfect fit for this film’s world. He’s witty and loyal, and provides some of the most timely moments of depth, wisdom, and even comic relief that only Michael Caine could provide.
James Gordon: Gary Oldman.
Batman Begins is loosely based on the graphic novel Batman: Year One by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli, in which Jim Gordon is the primary perspective character for the reader. His relationship with Batman is the focal point of the novel, and thus the film’s character needed to be just as strong.
In many ways, I felt like Gordon was an even stronger character than Bruce in this film, and Oldman’s performance is one of the finest I’ve seen. He’s relatable, fun, and disarming, and some of my favorite scenes from this movie include him.
Lucius Fox: Morgan Freeman.
The inclusion of Lucius Fox in this movie was an incredibly brilliant move for the filmmakers. One of the key characteristics of the Batman character in any medium is his gadgetry, but it’s difficult to believe that he and Alfred put all of that together themselves. Enter Lucius Fox, the former head of the Applied Sciences division of Wayne Enterprises.
Morgan Freeman was an impeccable choice for this character. He’s almost a perspective character, providing several winks and nods for the audience, and Freeman does that perfectly. As with Gordon, Fox is one of my favorite characters from this film.
Rachel Dawes: Katie Holmes.
The character of Rachel Dawes is far more than a mere love interest for Bruce Wayne. She provides a catalyst for the character and offers a fascinating voice for Thomas Wayne into Bruce’s life following the elder Wayne’s death. At the start of Bruce’s journey, Rachel tells him that his father would be ashamed at him for his attempt at vengeance. At the completion of his arc, knowing that Bruce has become Batman, she tells him that his father would be proud of him.
I liked this character a lot, and I felt like her inclusion in the story provided an interesting motivating element. She serves as a moral compass of sorts, reminding Bruce of the responsibility he has to his father’s legacy. Holmes did an excellent job in that regard, but something about her seemed slightly unfitting for the courtroom environment that her character needed to be in. She honestly wasn’t terrible, and I’ve got a feeling that some of my perspective might be tainted by the fact that I know the character is better portrayed in those environments in the next film.
Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow: Cillian Murphy.
My first exposure to Cillian Murphy was the film 28 Days Later, so when I heard that he would be playing Scarecrow, I couldn’t have been more excited. He was fantastic in the earlier film, and the casting decision worked perfectly. The demented genius that Murphy brought to the character was chilling, but keeping in line with most portrayals of the character, he’s also somewhat of a foil for Ducard, even though they never share any screen time.
Other than his literary role, however, I couldn’t find a purpose for the character in the plot of the film. He wasn’t a member of the League of Shadows, but Ra’s al Ghul was using him for some reason. What was that reason? Was he the one who weaponized the blue poppy from Bhutan? If so, that was never explained, and it seemed that the League already had that capability with the final training exercise that Bruce goes through with the League. As great as the character is on his own, he appears to serve very little purpose to the story.
Batman Begins presents a number of intriguing themes, but the one I want to look into here (and the one that’s been touted as the most obvious) is the theme of fear as both the motivator and the object of both the protagonists’ and antagonists’ actions throughout the film.
Before I get into that theme though, I want to acknowledge the fact that despite the heightened realism and groundedness of this film (especially in contrast to Batman Forever and Batman & Robin), it’s still relatively friendly to some of the silliness of the comic-book tropes used in previous Batman films: a boisterous and colorful villain, an over-the-top plot that involves the destruction of an entire city, and spectacular action sequences that stretch the line between believability and the ridiculous. Even the film’s production design leans just a bit into the fantastical, stepping away slightly from the movie’s goal of groundedness.
None of this detracts from the experience, and despite the fantastical design and comic-book tropian silliness, the film’s straight-faced approach and honesty in its storytelling provide its “ridiculous” elements with meaning and purpose, pairing reality and fantasy in a unique and beautiful marriage.
The film follows a complex three- (maybe four-) act structure that incorporates a confounding use of flashback in its storytelling, likely a holdover from Nolan’s Memento (a beautiful technique that offers the flashback points with more urgency and poignancy than a traditional flashback methodology might provide).
All the acts present the concept of fear as its underlying theme. The theme is obvious to the point of nearly becoming heavy-handed, even preachy. But the thread exists beneath the face-value layers as well. Act I and the flashback scenes present fear as the true motivation behind Bruce’s actions, both as a child and as a Princeton-University dropout. Act II is where the theme becomes a sermon, with the introduction of Jonathan Crane presenting fear as his modus operandi. Act III (along with Act IV) turns fear into the antagonist when both Batman and Rachel are confronted by fear itself and when it is unleashed on the Narrows district of Gotham City.
There were a few observations I made while watching the movie this time (admittedly my sixth or seventh viewing of the film) that I didn’t notice before. The first is the numerous ways the movie points to Bruce’s relationship to his father and how it influences or foreshadows Bruce’s decisions throughout the movie. In the scene immediately following the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne, a young officer Gordon puts the late Dr. Wayne’s coat around Bruce’s shoulders. The coat quite emphatically symbolizes Batman’s cape as though Bruce’s taking on of the Batman persona is directly related to his connection with his father. Ducard’s desire to turn Bruce into a leader in the League of Shadows is thwarted by Bruce’s unwillingness to be an executioner, and that rebellion is motivated by his memory of how his father lived his life.
Another example of this is his father’s stethoscope, which serves as a symbol for Bruce’s ability to listen to three key “heartbeats” in the movie. The first is his own. He can’t discern his goals and desires until he effectively listens to his heartbeat through his father’s ears. He’s not seeking vengeance, but justice for those whom his father cared for. The second is closely tied to the first, and that’s his father’s heartbeat. When he better understands what his father wanted, he finds a better way to address the problem of corruption and crime in Gotham. And the third is Gotham City’s heartbeat. This is the first time in cinema that we begin to see Gotham City as a living, breathing character, which will be fleshed out even further in the subsequent two films.
Another observation I made was the overt way in which Thomas Wayne was written as a Christ figure. Perhaps it’s my own theology that’s imposing the image onto him, but it stood out to me in a few ways. First, Thomas Wayne loves Gotham City, particularly the impoverished and underprivileged. He’s devoted his wealth and his skills as a doctor to caring for the people of Gotham. But the current system of power in Gotham has created and perpetuated a type of crime that Dr. Wayne is powerless to eradicate on his own, and he instead falls victim to that system when he and his wife are tragically murdered in an alley behind the opera house.
Second, at his death, Dr. Wayne utters to his son the words, “Don’t be afraid,” a phrase used around 70 or 80 times in the Christian Bible and repeated often by the Christ himself. The concept serves as the impetus for a “resurrection” of sorts as Bruce gives new life to his father when he becomes Batman.
Reaction & Impact
If it wasn’t already quite obvious by the sheer size of this post, I absolutely loved this film. The movie provided a new cinematic take on one of my favorite characters while also hearkening back to his roots.
Batman Begins helped to redefine the superhero movie and its success spawned one of the greatest film franchises to date.