Batman Begins

This was the one I’ve been waiting for. Not since the original Tim Burton/Michael Keaton outing has there been a good Batman film; the franchise style has been slowly whittled away by Joel Schumacher’s love of dry ice, naked male torsos and high camp. Batman Begins was to be the one that redressed the balance. Did it?

Well, I don’t want to spoil the ending for you, so before I address that question, let’s go on a tangent.

Year One.

This latest Batman film has been in development for years, with dozens of different actors and directors attached to the project in varying combinations. At one point it sounded pretty promising; Pi director Darren Aronofsky was set to direct an adaptation of the Frank Miller comic Batman: Year One, a pairing which had definite potential until it was shelved, most likely because of Aronofsky’s straying from the source material — for instance, Alfred was allegedly replaced by an African-American car mechanic known as ‘Big Al’, and Bruce Wayne was homeless — so it went nowhere. Probably for the best, actually — ‘Big Al’, for crying out loud.

Joel Schumacher was still involved at one stage despite his woeful Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, and at another point Se7en director David Fincher was asked to direct. Wolfgang Petersen was involved at one stage to produce a Batman Vs. Superman film but left to work on Troy, and there were also rumours of a Clint Eastwood-directed Dark Knight Returns adaptation (another one by Frank Miller), with Eastwood also starring as a 50- or 60-year-old Batman. I liked the sound of that one, being quite fond of Miller’s style, but again, nothing came of it.

Even when director Christopher Nolan (Insomnia, Memento) was firmly in charge of the film, that still left the actors to deal with. I can’t say how much is rumour and how much is fact but it seemed that, basically, every actor in the world was offered each role in this film at some stage — Anthony Hopkins, Laurence Fishburne, Viggo Mortensen, Daniel Day-Lewis and Christopher Ecclestone were all offered roles, and even David Duchovny and David Boreanaz were considered for the role of Batman himself.

I usually try and avoid listing these trivial details, but I wanted to be clear about what we’re dealing with here; nobody involved in this film is there because they were a first choice — in most cases, they weren’t even the third or fourth choices. Batman Begins is a film that nobody wanted, nobody was interested in, and nobody wanted to make. This doesn’t bode well.

Some days, you just can’t get rid of a bomb.

Thankfully though, it’s turned out alright. Despite the wide range of actors that turned down roles, everyone here feels perfect; Christian Bale as Batman is simply the best since Keaton, believably going from young, angry and frustrated Princeton drop-out to the confident, purposeful adult Bruce Wayne. Michael Caine plays himself Alfred as well as you might expect, and I can’t fault Liam Neeson as Henri Ducard, the man who teaches Bruce how to become the Batman (mind you, Liam Neeson was even good in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace — a man you can say that of is a man who isn’t ever going to have any acting problems).

Cillian Murphy — he’s very pretty, isn’t he? — does a fine job as the (surprisingly) underused Dr. Jonathan Crane, and it was good to see a young James Gordon, though Gary Oldman’s performance veers a little too close to twitchy for my liking — I thought that the future Commissioner Gordon should have been stronger. British actor Tom Wilkinson was excellent as Carmine Falcone, the last of Gotham’s old-style gangsters, and I would have liked to have seen him be the film’s main antagonist. As it was, there isn’t really a single strong opponent for Batman; despite his talked-up power and influence, Falcone turns out to be an easily-deposed middle-man for someone else and Crane as the Scarecrow barely features in the end, with his fear-inducing abilities swiftly neutralised — his character was possibly being set up for a sequel, but then another, more famous super-villain was also mentioned during the film’s closing moments, so we’ll see. The lack of a single clear enemy did leave the film able to focus on Batman, though, which was a good thing.

Production was generally excellent; Gotham City was a suitably grim metropolis, slightly more fantastical than Burton’s original Gotham but far more plausible than the ridiculous neon world that Schumacher forced upon us. Visual effects aren’t used gratuitously and don’t distract from the story, and the score fits the film perfectly (though I missed Danny Elfman’s Batman theme).

Does it come in black?

If I had to find a flaw with Batman Begins, it would be the ease in which Bruce Wayne acquires all his kit; returning to Wayne Enterprises to discover a neglected technology department with only one member of staff who makes prototypes of expensive body-armour, weapons, drugs and vehicles that work flawlessly. It’s just contrived, like Q from the James Bond films or Whistler from Blade; a character producing exactly what the story demands, on demand, and it felt lazy. I would have liked to have seen a real beginning for Batman, where he doesn’t have bullet-proof armour, a shape-changing cape and a Batmobile kitted out with missiles and SatNav, but is dressed simply and relies on his strength, skills and wit alone to get the job done — particularly given the lessons that Ducard taught Wayne earlier in the story.

But that would be my only criticism; in every other respect, this is a fine film that’s well-directed and scripted, and hopefully signals the beginning of a new series that maintains the darkness and violence that are integral to the character and story.

Update: It’s been pointed out to me that I should probably warn people about spoilers; so, be warned — this review contains spoilers.