Fear is Batman’s weapon of choice in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, an attempted rejuvenation of the moribund superhero franchise that jettisons Tim Burton’s dark surrealism and Joel Schumacher’s rubbery juvenility in favor of somber brooding. For the film’s mundane opening third, however, the primary thing to fear is nonstop use of the word “fear,” which is intoned with an obsessiveness seemingly born from the belief that we won’t grasp the film’s solitary theme without its endless repetition. Off in some unspecified Asian mountains training with Ducard (Liam Neeson), the right-hand man of legendary ninja master Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), orphaned billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale)—still tormented by the murder of his parents, and an unfortunate fall into a bat-filled well, years earlier—learns that to harness “the power of fear” and “to turn fear against those who prey on the fearful,” one must first learn that “to conquer fear, you must become fear” and that “men fear most what they cannot see.” As an origin story that traces Wayne’s initial transformation into the Dark Knight, Batman Begins’s faithfully taps into the way in which fear functions as both a driving and empowering force for the utility belt-enhanced vigilante. Yet the first section’s monotonous use of said term is also indicative of this blockbuster’s clumsy construction, which boasts the right approach to—but faulty execution of—its pulpy DC Comics source material.
Working with Blade screenwriter David S. Goyer, Nolan’s Batman Begins skews toward a nasty and menacing depiction of the Caped Crusader, and as a result is the first cinematic iteration to truly get underneath the cape and cowl. Their Batman is a cheerless do-gooder wracked by guilt and sorrow, and though Bale is more at ease embodying Wayne’s upper-crust suaveness than his alter ego’s righteous fury—exemplified by his Batman’s vocal gruffness, which is more affected than intimidating—the film accurately, and refreshingly, refuses to shy away from the slightly deranged madness of its titular hero. Such harshness is reflected in Wally Pfister’s night-swathed cinematography and Nathan Crowley’s production design, which casts Gotham as an open urban sore in which poverty, crime, and squalor co-exist in virulent symbiosis. Nolan’s film is cloaked in a shroud of entrancingly fantastical pessimism that, nicely married to a passing interest in real-world technology—this Batman obtains his pseudo-realistic costume, gadgets and dope, Hummer-like Batmobile via Wayne Enterprises’s weapons prototype division run by a sly Morgan Freeman—imbues the film with an atmospheric bleakness that’s in keeping with Frank Miller’s seminal graphic novel Batman: Year One.
Unfortunately, Batman Begins chooses to tell three separate stories instead of one, a crowded, segmented structure made more leaden by persistent missteps involving plotting and character. Goyer and Nolan’s script is almost evenly divided between Wayne’s martial arts training at the hands of sensei Ducard, his return to a crumbling Gotham and creation of the Batman infrastructure, and his battle with the burlap bag-clad Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy)—who uses airborne drugs to enhance his victims’ fears—and Ra’s Al Ghul, who believes that curing Gotham of its ills requires cleansing hellfire. Such narrative congestion results in imbalance, with too much time spent on Batman’s tedious physical training sessions and not nearly enough attention paid to his villains. A nefarious Wayne Enterprises CEO (Rutger Hauer) and a ridiculous mob boss (Tom Wilkinson) round out the film’s motley crew of lackluster evildoers, although they possess not one enticingly quirky character trait among them. And while Hauer (whose cheery smile masks an unsettling maliciousness) and Neeson (bringing some regal fanaticism to the fantastically mustachioed Ducard) seem to understand the outrageousness necessitated by their roles, the filmmakers mistakenly neglect to provide an adversary (such as Jack Nicholson’s Joker) with the colorful vibrancy required as an essential contrast and counterbalance to Batman’s dour, slow-burn fury.
As a director, Nolan has a sharp eye for framing, and a climactic scene in which Batman escapes a police-infested apartment building enveloped in a swirl of bats achieves the mythic grandeur his film otherwise generally fails to generate. But there’s no auteurist signature, no idiosyncratic imprint on Batman Begins that distinctly marks it as a work of Nolan’s, and thus the film feels vaguely impersonal and remote. Furthermore, though largely comfortable managing the film’s impressively scope and scale, the director finds himself thoroughly ill-equipped to handle hand-to-hand combat sequences, which are shot in near-total darkness and overly tight close-ups, an unpleasant combination that turns every instance of fisticuffs into an indecipherable, spatially disorienting mess of moving limbs and loud noises. Whereas Batman’s simultaneous confrontation of multiple foes would benefit from extended, single-take establishing shots that clearly elucidate his ass-kicking prowess (such as Oldboy’s stunning hallway skirmish), Nolan incessantly defuses his (already muted) set pieces by lazily adhering to MTV-style staging and editing techniques that culminate in an incoherent final fight aboard a strobe light-illuminated elevated subway train.
Despite Batman’s inherent appeal as a mysterious, emotionally remote loner, the film nonetheless saddles Wayne with a perfunctory childhood love interest (Katie Holmes’s do-gooder district attorney Rachel Dawes) whose relationship with the hero—sure to be MIA in the preordained sequel—is painfully modeled after Spider-Man’s central love story (down to the essentially photocopied final scene). And Goyer and Nolan go overboard turning Wayne’s deceased daddy—who not only used his wealth to help alleviate poverty, but whose ancestors operated the Underground Railroad from the site-now-known-as-the-Batcave!—into a preposterous beacon of benevolence. But whenever Batman Begins hits some turgid turbulence, its elder statesmen thankfully right its course. Though given next to nothing to work with, Gary Oldman underplays detective Jim Gordon’s jaded hopelessness, and his budding relationship with the Dark Knight—not dissimilar to Bale and Freeman’s playful banter—has the right tentative but trusting tone. And somewhat ironically, the film’s true star turns out to be the superb Michael Caine, who as dutifully loyal butler Alfred tinges his character’s love and devotion for the Wayne family with a tender resolve and mischievousness. Amid the all-encompassing doom and gloom, it’s his witty, clever servant that proves to be Batman Begins’s brightest light.