With tidy alliteration, the title announces the movie’s intentions: Batman begins his revenge against evildoers who killed his parents and who bedevil the rest of Gotham City, itself a secret identity for Manhattan. He begins the restoration of his reputation after previous Bat-director Joel Schumacher put nipples on his costume and drivel in his mouth.
It all sounded so good on paper: Intelligent director (Memento’s Christopher Nolan) and adventurous actor (Christian Bale, beefcaked up, post-Machinist) unite to retell the origin of one of the few superheroes without superpowers—Batman relies on guile and strength. Screenwriter David Goyer even picked a nicely semi-obscure villain from the comic books, the Scarecrow (28 Days Later’s Cillian Murphy).
But Begins, at two-hours-plus, is a nonstarter. It takes too long to get past little-boy Bruce Wayne (Gus Lewis) and have him become a wealthy playboy pining for a childhood sweetheart who grows up to be Katie Holmes (she walks through the film with skeptical reserve). The Scarecrow onscreen is just a strenuous jerk who puts a burlap bag with eyeholes cut into it over his head, and who fogs people’s minds with nightmares. If Nolan and Goyer stint on the villain’s showiness (in theory not a bad thing, when you remember Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ludicrously garish Mr. Freeze in Batman & Robin), they overdo random items, such as turning the Batmobile into a cumbersome tanklike vehicle. There are many long, noisy car chases and collisions. Why does Batman ride the ’mobile over police cars, crushing them? You say I’m carping; I quote Goyer in the press notes: “One of Chris’s mantras was . . . ‘It has to be real.’”
“Real” is not Batman making pancakes of cop cars. “Real” is not what we want from a superhero blowout; we want impossible thrills—heightened yet demotic lyricism. As the latest jaw-beneath-the-cowl, Bale makes his voice raspy for a menace that does not convince. Only Michael Caine, as trusty but crusty butler Alfred, turns in anything like a “real” performance. The best thing about Batman Begins is the generous spirit Bruce Wayne’s father imparts to him as a wee lad: “Why do we fall? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.” Exactly: not to flatten things, be they cars or our spirits.