The night before Batman Begins was released, I was working the closing shift at the local theater. Excitement about the newest Batman franchise had been buzzing through the theater for months. That night, as I was cleaning out the popcorn machine, I heard that we could stay and watch the movie, making sure the reel had been assembled correctly. After a long evening’s work, I settled in the the other lowly popcorn-crusted employees and watched Batman Begins. I’ll admit, I was tired, may have fallen asleep somewhere in the middle and later went on about how Spiderman 2 had already done a climactic train scene. But watching it again, seven years later, with a well rested mind and on blu-ray, I’ve grown to appreciate Nolan’s opening to an amazing trilogy.
The name does not disappoint, we are shown the very beginnings of everything that formed Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) into Batman. We see his most important childhood moments, where he falls into a well full of bats, creating his deepest fear. There is also the death of his parents, gunned down in front of young Bruce in the senseless violence that they worked so hard to stop. We are shown Bruce as a young man, full of anger and wanting revenge. He realizes even as an orphan who knows pain, he is still too privileged to understand Gotham’s lower class citizens and those who seccumb to crime. So he travels, gets himself into a remote prison to study criminals. But his skills are noticed by Ducard (Liam Neeson), a member of the League of Shadows. He trains Bruce, unintentionally inspiring him to return to Gotham and use his training to become a vigilante larger than he could be simply as a man.
By the time Bruce and Alfred (Michael Caine) get the Batcave set up, Dr. Johnathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), i.e. Scarecrow, is well underway in a plan to make Gotham tear itself apart. With the help of a crime boss, Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), he plans to let the loose the prisoners in Arkham Asylum while a drug that induces terrifying hallucinations is realized into the air. Even worse, The League of Shadows seems to have a hand in all this, wanting to make sure that Gotham falls. On top of all that, Bruce needs to keep up appearances as Gotham’s prince and billionaire playboy, so that no one, especially not his friend Rachel (Katie Holmes), suspects him of being Batman.
I’ve mentioned that each film of The Dark Knight Trilogy has a broad theme tying everything together that Bruce must overcome. In Batman Begins, that theme is fear. Fear is instilled in Bruce and inadvertently causes the death of his parents. In his process of becoming Batman, he conquers and harnesses his fear, using it as a symbol. Crane’s drug produces fear through terrifying images and paranoia. He uses it to manipulate people, hoping that a mass mob of fear can destroy Gotham from the inside out.
Visually, Batman Begins is beautiful and portrays Gotham in a more classical light than the other two films. Among a few glittering glass skyscrapers are also older style buildings, including the original Wayne tower. One of my favorite images is the elevated railway when it’s brand new, it feels futuristic and yet very art deco all at once. In a huge contrast is the neighborhood around Arkham Asylum, full of old, rundown buildings. The whole area seems dark, damp and dirty compared to the sparkling skyline surrounding it. One image I never shook is how the neighborhood always seems wet and steamy, yet all the clothes are hanging out on lines between the dingy buildings, even in the rain.
When studying Christopher Nolan’s work or the progression of Batman in film, Batman Begins is a much see. At the Oscars, its only nomination was for cinematography, emphasizing how visually powerful the film is. Though it can drag a bit in the middle as we are eagerly awaiting our caped crusader to emerge, it is a great story and makes the wait worth it. Most important, Batman Begins is the perfect base to support a heavy trilogy.
“And why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”