Batman has been on the screen more than any other comic-book superhero, each iteration unique in its characterisation, tone and theme. The 1960s Batman TV series starring Adam West was campy but in a good way. Tim Burton made the Dark Knight (played by Michael Keaton) in a suitably dark and compelling way. And then every fan of the character (a large majority of comic-book readers) was left ashamed after Joel Schumacher’s abominations that almost ruined the careers of both Val Kilmer and George Clooney. It was natural that the next adaptation had to be groundbreaking to get people to theatres. Enter Batman Begins.
Personally, I prefer Batman Begins to other two films in the trilogy. The Dark Knight was clearly more entertaining (Heath Ledger’s Joker made all the difference), and The Dark Knight Rises provided better big-screen spectacle. But it was Batman Begins that fired on all cylinders for me. It is not just the best Batman film for me yet, it is also the best superhero origin film.
Right from the outset, a typical Batman fan knows while watching Batman Begins that this is an incredibly dark and grounded film. The story is taken from the shadiest recesses of Batman comics. Unlike Christopher Nolan’s last films, Batman Begins was backed by a big studio like Warner Bros, and yet Nolan went the gritty, realistic way instead of special effects. Let’s face it – Batman is a just a rich man with a special suit, fancy technology and a penchant for justice. Batman Begins further made him a fallible, three-dimensional character with relatable motivations instead of the larger-than-life figure he is in most comic-book story-lines.
After his parents are gunned down in a shady alley, Bruce Wayne struggles to reconcile his intense desire for revenge with fulfilling his father’s wishes like uplifting the oppressed people of Gotham and ridding the city of crime. The journey young Bruce Wayne embarks upon and that finally ends in him becoming Batman is rich with details and we are the passengers for a big part of it.
Bruce Wayne trains under Ra’s al Ghul, a man who is a humbler version of Thanos with similar method of solving problems: genocide. Initially hiding his identity, Ra’s seeks to make Bruce his top henchman, him being Ra’s greatest student. After receiving his training as a ninja able to take on multiple enemies all at once, Bruce is asked to kill a man who, Ghul says, is a criminal. Bruce refuses and burns down the place. Not knowing Ra’s’ true identity, Bruce saves “Ducard” (Ra’s’ secret identity) from death and this comes to bite him later on.
After returning to Gotham, Bruce begins to build a suit and a new identity to fight crime in his city. Gotham is a city of criminals, with several mob families like the Falcones and the Maronis ruling over the wreck. Law enforcement official are either bought off or frightened to do anything. The stage is set for the Caped Crusader to make his grand entry, which he does by intercepting a drug shipment and sending a wave of terror across Gotham City mobsters in the process.
The supporting cast, like in any other Nolan movie, was excellent in Batman Begins. Michael Caine is a fabulous Alfred, a wry father-figure and mentor to a wayward, young Bruce Wayne and later, a friend. Gary Oldman plays an embattled young cop quite convincingly, one of the only few honest police officers remaining in the city. Liam Neeson and Cilian Murphy make for amazing villains.
Batman Begins is centred around the theme of fear. It is a story of a man who decides to assume an identity based on the things he fears most: bats. He not just overcomes his fear, he makes it his strength. He uses his ninja skills to scare the living daylights of criminals in the city.
Batman Begins is also a story of prevailing over adverse circumstances. Bruce is haunted by his father’s lines that encourage him whenever he falters: “Bruce, why do we fall? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.” Later, Alfred reminds Bruce of these lines when Bruce thinks he has lost everything. It is a lovely scene (above) and epitomises briefly what the film wants to say. Batman Begins, as dark it is, is ultimately an optimistic story of besting one’s inner demons.