Batman Begins (2005): Christopher Nolan Effective Origin Story, Starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Katie Holmes

Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” may be the most Freudian comic strip movie in Hollywood history.
After hiatus of eight years, the popular “Batman” series returns with an overly psychologistic epic and an extremely elaborate plot that favors dialogue over action, tangled relationships over rousing set pieces, characterization over splashy visuals.

“Batman Begins” explores the origins of the Batman legend and the Dark Knight’s emergence as a force for good. A character-driven adventure, it represents the first full telling of how Bruce Wayne becomes Batman, detailing how and why he acquires the manners, skills, and tools to create his intimidating alter ego.

This “Batman” feels like the beginning of a new franchise rather than continuation of a popular film series that started in 1989 and has seen four pictures. For those viewers who complain that tent pole summer movies are too simplistic and special-effects driven, lacking plot and characterization, “Batman Begins” should prove to be the answer as a comic strip that relates and analyzes dozens of relationships among never less than complex characters.

That theses characters are played by the most accomplished actors working in cinema today, including Liam Neeson, Michael Caine, Tom Wilkinson, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, and Ken Watanabe, does elevate the film to another plateau. But these wonderful actors also expose the acting limitations and lack of charismatic presence of its lead hero, Christian Bale.

For the record, Bale now becomes the fourth Batman, following Michael Keaton in “Batman” (1989) and “Batman Returns” (1992), Val Kilmer in “Batman Forever” (1995), and George Clooney in Batman & Robin” (1997), the worst chapter to date.

It’s hard to think of another comic strip film that has more secondary characters than “Batman Begins,” or one that’s more concerned with grounding each subplot and element of the story (including toys and costumes) in “realism.” Clearly, Nolan and co-writer David Goyer have gone out of their way to dissociate themselves from the previous movies.

Compared with the first two Batmans, directed with bravura and pizzazz by Tim Burton, “Batman Begins” lacks fun and excitement. And compared with the last two disappointing Batmans, both directed by Joel Schumacher, this “Batman” focuses more on its hero and less so on the villains.

Moreover, in no other summer movie, past or present, the motif of father-son, or rather fathers-son (since Bruce Wayne has so many surrogate fathers who watch over him) has been so prevalent, dominating the whole production. Too verbose for young (and adult) viewers, this “Batman” lacks a strong romantic interest or erotic female presence.

Katie Holmes is the only woman in the film, but there is not much interaction between her and Bale. Holmes, probably miscast, gives such a pale and disappointing performance that her semi-romantic encounters with Bale are among the film’s weakest scenes.

In this telling, Bruce Wayne is haunted by the specter of his parents, gunned down before his eyes in the streets of Gotham on a night that changed his life forever. Tormented by guilt and anger, battling the demons that feed his desire for revenge and his need to honor his parents’ altruistic legacy, the disillusioned industrial heir vanishes from Gotham and secretly travels the world, seeking the means to fight injustice and turn fear against those who prey on the fearful.

Nolan’s taut and provocative psychological thrillers (“Memento,” “Insomnia”) have established him as a new talent with a keen sense of character and a remarkably assured directing style. Not surprisingly, given that Nolan’s films are imbued with noir sensibility and visuals, “Batman Begins” is dark, violent, and decidedly less campy and humorous than the previous Batmans. “Batman Begins” is film noir par excellence, with all the motifs that define this genre: guilt, pain, loss, impact of the past on the presence, and so on.

It would be unfair to claim that Nolan has drained out completely the fun of the beloved series, but he has certainly changed its nature and meaning. This Batman is the most serious of the five films, and it begs the audience to take it seriously, too.

To portray the full arc of Bruce’s story in a realistic manner, Nolan explores the complex psychology of the man behind the myth. He’s trying to get inside Bruce’s head and go on that journey with him, experiencing the process of how he becomes Batman through his own eyes.

Since there isn’t one definitive account of Batman’s origins, the filmmakers take considerable liberty with characters and motivations. The existence of gaps in the mythology allows them to interpret freely key events and bring in their own ideas of how Bruce and Batman have evolved.

In recounting Bruce’s odyssey from his traumatic childhood to his emergence as Batman, Nolan presents a more realistic take on his story than any seen in previous incarnations. However, his goal to make a popcorn film with gravity and epic scope, firmly grounded in reality, is only half-met.

Conceptually, Nolan thinks of “Batman Begins” as an epic-adventure in the vein of “Lawrence of Arabia,” “The Man Who Would Be King, “Blade Runner,” and “James Bond, rather than “Spider-Man” or “The Hulk.” Nolan’s psychologistic-realistic philosophy is applied to every aspect of the story. For better or worse) I think for worse), “Batman Begins” offers a logical explanation for everything that Bruce does and for every device he acquires, including the Batmobile. Whenever a new gadget or tool is introduced, viewers are treated to lengthy exposition of its history, use and abuse, status of production, etc.

The plot is extremely complicated for such a fare. In his quest for education in the criminal ways, Bruce is mentored by a mysterious man named Ducard (Neeson). Ducard imparts the mastery of the physical and mental disciplines that empower Bruce to fight evil. Bruce soon finds himself the target of recruiting efforts by the League of Shadows, a subversive vigilante group, headed by enigmatic leader Ra’s al Ghul (Watanebe)

Bruce returns to Gotham to find the city devoured by rampant crime and corruption. Wayne Enterprises, his family’s former bastion of philanthropic business ideals, now rests in the hands of CEO Richard Earle (Rutger Hauer), who’s more concerned with taking the company public than serving the public good.

Bruce’s childhood friend Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), now an Assistant District Attorney, can’t convict the city’s notorious criminals, because the justice system is deeply polluted by crime bosses like Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson). It doesn’t help that prominent Gotham psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy) bolsters insanity defenses for Falcone’s thugs in exchange for nefarious favors that serve his own devious agenda.

With the help of his trusted butler Alfred (Michael Caine), detective Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), one of the few good cops on the Gotham police, and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), his ally at the Wayne Enterprises’ Applied Sciences division, Bruce unleashes his alter-ego: Batman, a masked crusader who uses strength, intellect and high-tech weaponry to fight the sinister forces that destroy the city.

Created for DC Comics by artist Bob Kane, Batman made his debut in Detective Comics #27 (May, 1939 issue). The superhero’s 66-year history represents an unprecedented cultural phenomenon that has spanned radio serials, live action, and animated TV series, feature films, interactive games, and legions of comic books.

Mysterious and menacing, “The Bat-Man” surfaced as Gotham’s self-appointed guardian, a winged gargoyle living in the shadows between hero and vigilante. In the six decades since, he has come to be known as the Dark Knight, a complex man who transformed himself through sheer force of will into a symbol of hope and justice for a city rotting with corruption and decay.

Batman is one of the most psychologically interesting characters in American culture. Unlike such iconic characters as Spider-Man, Superman, Wonder Woman and the Sandman, Batman isn’t a guy who finds himself endowed with superpowers and is determined to do good. No, Bruce is a man who after watching his parents die experienced a deep moral and personal crisis. Tortured by guilt and anger and motivated by vengeance, he sets out to transform himself and change the world.

Batman is a hero driven by negative impulses, a flawed hero, who has taken his self-destructive emotions and made something positive from them. Batman’s ambitious quest to forge his mind and body into a living weapon against injustice inspires both fear and admiration. What distinguishes Batman from his counterparts is that he becomes a hero by mastering his own will power, through hard work and even harder training.

Father Thomas Wayne instills in his young son a sense of philanthropy and love for the city that has benefited from the altruism of its wealthiest family, laying a foundation for Bruce’s ideals of justice. Bruce’s belief system is shattered when his parents are gunned down before him; they’re victims of the fear and desperation spawned by Gotham’s rampant crime and collapsing economy. Blaming himself for their murders, and consumed by guilt and pain, Bruce begins a lifelong struggle to reconcile his rage and thirst for vengeance with his need to honor his parents’ legacy.

Since everything is ripped away from him in a second, Bruce has to deal with intense guilt, anger, loneliness and confusion. Pained by what had happened, he leaves Gotham in search of answers on a never-ending journey. Battling with himself internally, he must continually assess his actions and control his demons, overcoming the pull toward self-destruction.

A complex character that exists on the razor’s edge between good and bad, Batman embodies the danger and ambiguity that can be channeled into something positive and powerful. He has a kind of intensity, a fire burning inside. The film’s point is that Bruce is an ordinary man who has made himself extraordinary through determination and self-discipline.

Nolan and Goyer are too concerned with grounding Bruce’s story in a recognizable reality, mixing milestones in the mythology with their own interpretation of events is through the theme of fear. Indeed, the power of fear, in both its negative and positive manifestations, becomes the film’s dominant motif, one that may strike relevance for contemporary audiences.

One of the film’s key incidents is early on, when young Bruce accidentally discovers bat-filled caverns beneath Wayne Manor, which results in a harrowing encounter with the terrifying creatures, leaving him permanently haunted by the memory. Nolan fuses this seminal experience with Bruce’s subsequent guilt over his parents’ deaths, making his decision to remold himself in the image of a creature that wracks him with fear and anxiety all the more remarkable and resonant.

This is also one of the film’s most intriguing ideas: A hero who must confront his innermost fear, and then attempts to become it. The bat is a personal symbol, one that induced fear in Bruce as a child, and as an adult is a constant reminder of the night his parents were murdered and of his own guilt. When he returns to Gotham after honing his mental and physical skills, the bat persona becomes the answer to his need for a disguise. Bruce uses it as a means to intimidate and manipulate other people’s fears, as well as master his own fear.

While superheroes typically face the challenge of living as both a public and a private personalities, this Bruce possesses not one but two different public personas, while carefully guarding his private identity. Indeed, “Batman Begins” doesn’t only present a a duality between Batman and Bruce Wayne, but three distinct facets of his character: Batman, the iconic masked warrior who is the channel of Bruce’s inner rage; the private Bruce, a damaged man who dedicates his life to ridding Gotham of the evil that took his parents’ lives; and the third individual, the public face of Bruce as a spoiled womanizer playboy, the last person anyone in Gotham would suspect of caring about the city’s decline, let alone of being Batman.

In this context, no wonder the plot is dense, complicated, character-driven, and verbose. A lot of storytelling is needed to depict Bruce’s id, two alter-egos, and superego.