Every major independent film franchise goes through its dark ages. The James Bond filmic trajectory passes through a turmoil of continuity every time the current Bond surpasses his dramatic reach after starring in three-to-four subsequent installments. If the current trend at Marvel Studios lasts long enough, the Marvel Cinematic Universe will go through its own period of imaginative stagnancy. But few film series see the deepest valley of cinematic lows to which the Batman feature film franchise has been subjected to over the years.
After the neon-drenched, nipple-chaffing hell of Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin, there was no way to go but up for the caped crusader. For years, there were discussions regarding future cinematic iterations of Gotham’s brooding bat, with concepts ranging from Darren Aronofsky directing a twisted adaptation of Frank Miller’s Year One story to a possible Batman Beyond feature franchise, which should still totally happen at some point, as the source material would lend itself to a Blade Runner themed setting. While these ideas were undoubtedly creative and surreally bizarre, they also represented too drastic a shift in terms of overall thematic direction for a franchise in dire need of a reboot.
When Batman Begins first came to my attention in 2005, I had zero interest in seeing it, so when a couple of my friends and I went to a drive-in theater on the film’s opening weekend to watch the newest Adam Sandler movie, The Longest Yard, instead, I paid no attention to the people driving towards the lot behind us, preparing for a screening of the first Batman film in eight years. Then something happened. The projection of The Longest Yard was delayed by a few minutes, so I turned to the sound of bats flapping their wings, transforming into the iconic bat-symbol. I turned myself around entirely in the back seat of my father’s car as everyone else got ready for a late showing of the then most recent feature to be produced by Happy Madison Productions. It was my first exercise in morbid curiosity. Through some miracle, I got the Batman film I needed, and the one we all deserved.
As a lifelong Batman fan, I have never found any of the prior live-action films to be any good as movies. They fall flat for me, although I do appreciate Tim Burton’s art direction, and I’ll never forget the sheer fun of watching the Adam West Batman series from the 1960’s. In short, Christopher Nolan took a character who had been perpetually dunked in a bucket of cheese for decades and brought him into a world where theme took precedence over all else.
Batman Begins is the first movie to grasp the entire spectrum of the franchise and its supported mythology: The fears that the character holds onto the most deeply, the hope he can bring to the crumbling city of Gotham, and the toll of the Batman on Bruce Wayne. These character mechanics take Batman Begins beyond being just a movie where people in capes and masks beat each other up in the name of justice. Batman Begins ponders the difference between justice and vengeance, and at least until Iron Man 3 came around eight years later, it’s the only superhero movie to use fear as a primary motivator. What sets it apart even further is how palpable that fear is. It drives its characters, for better or worse.
That psychological approach is also the reason why The Dark Knight thrives as a great crime epic, and why Batman Begins is comparatively the best Batman-centric story translated to film. Early on in Nolan’s film, the young prince of Gotham is asked, “Why do we fall?” As the film hops between the past and the present, we first see how Bruce falls. And he falls hard. In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne is forced to cope with the loss of his parents, is conflicted over an attempt to murder his parents killer, before finally trotting around the globe, and subsequently joining of the League of Shadows. By the time Bruce Wayne finally puts on the pointy-eared cowl, there’s no questioning his pursuit of justice.
Batman is a character who is as synonymously tied to his home city as the President of the United States is tied to The White House. In what is another first time occurrence for the character in live-action filmmaking, director Christopher Nolan actually puts Batman’s relationship to the city in the forefront of the story. The selfless acts taken by Bruce in the service of his city aren’t meant to be taken as mere lip-service. There’s an actual relationship. Things can get rough, but true love endures, and Bruce will always love Gotham and its citizens, which is why the final scene of Batman flying against the Gotham skyline is my favorite Batman moment on film.
The conceptual designs for Gotham throughout the film are distinct, without being rendered entirely reductive of what we’ve seen before. The subsequent Nolan films’ depictions of Gotham are more overtly inspired by Chicago and New York, but the same city featured in Batman Begins take its influences from Blade Runner and Dark City. It harkens back to the 1990’s animated series, where the year is indecipherable to the audience, while imbuing the world with a feeling all its own.
What’s more, Christian Bale embodies the dichotomy between Bruce Wayne and Batman better than any other actor before him. Maybe it’s the script that explicitly provides Bale with the very best emotional components with which to navigate the story, or maybe it’s just the way in which the film’s many characterizations permeate throughout. Yeah, it’s probably the script, which is equally supported by the inestimable likes of Liam-fucking-Neeson, as Ra’s al Ghul, and even Katie Holmes, who doesn’t deserve any of the bad rap she gets outside of her performance in the film itself.
Unfortunately, like the best Batman stories from the brilliant minds of Alan Moore and Frank Miller, some might say this movie may have done more harm than good. Everyone wants their next franchise reboot to be “dark, gritty,” and “so real and stuff…man.” They want the Batman Begins magic, despite not understanding how to incorporate its thematic weight, or, you know, perfect the writing. But you know what? Screw that. Whatever misery and fatigue has been laid upon us by the sheer number of subsequent “dark ‘n’ gritty” reboots, I would never hold them against this standout release from Nolan’s filmography. Nolan’s incredible contribution to the Batman character in Batman Begins was in and of itself a symbol of its titular character.
So the question remains: “Why did this franchise fall?” The answer: “So it could learn to pick itself up.”