#10: Batman Begins (2005)
I nearly put this film ahead of The Dark Knight, which I imagine would’ve raised a few eyebrows. This film is, frankly, one of the two perfect superhero origin films I’ve seen. What I mean by this is it did everything an origin film needs to do perfectly, not that it was a perfect film.
Certainly there are things about Batman Begins I like much better than The Dark Knight. Out of Nolan’s three Batman films, this one was by far the most lighthearted. Although I think Nolan’s sense of humor in the series as a whole is largely underappreciated, it is a much bigger part of Batman Begins to be sure. I also appreciated that this film was, unlike the other two, without overt political references.
In contrast to previous Batman adaptations, this film spends a bit more time on Thomas (Linus Roache) and Martha Wayne (Sara Stewart) as real people, rather than merely horrified-looking faces in the process of being gunned down in an alley. Well, Thomas anyway. Martha was notably silent, which while hardly unusual for mother figures in superhero films is nevertheless a legitimate source of frustration. Still, the scene on the train where Thomas is talking to a young Bruce (Gus Lewis) about Gotham works quite well thematically throughout the film and series as a whole. It gives the older Bruce (Christian Bale) a reason to be emotionally invested in the city and makes the “knight” in “the Dark Knight” much more explicit. This gives much greater weight to Bruce’s quest to defend Gotham, especially in his later philosophical struggle with Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson.)
Gotham is almost a living, breathing character in this film, and is much more explicitly given a history than in many other incarnations. We see Thomas and Martha using their wealth and influence to try to make Gotham a better place. We learn that after their deaths, Gotham slid into a depression that their acts of charity had been merely delaying. Still, not every citizen has given up on the city.
This leads rather nicely into my biggest complaint by far about the film, and the series as a whole: the character of Rachel Dawes (here portrayed by Katie Holmes, Maggie Gyllenhaal in the sequel.) It is unconscionable to me that Nolan felt the need to create a Mary Sue character to lecture Bruce on several occasions before ultimately becoming his romantic interest. This character, who has never existed in any other incarnation of Batman, is suddenly the most important person in Bruce Wayne’s life.
The really frustrating thing is existing Batman characters easily could’ve fit into Rachel’s shoes. Nolan has admitted that Harvey Dent almost made it into the film to fill a large portion of Dawes’ role, but Nolan felt he couldn’t “do justice” to Dent in the limited screen time he would’ve had. Well, that’s the beautiful part: you don’t have to. Just include him in the first film, and then give him a bigger role in the second film when he’s already become a familiar face.
Of course, not all of Rachel’s roles in the film could’ve been filled by Dent. Her biggest part in the film isn’t her role as a District Attorney, but rather as Bruce’s love interest. Well, your main villain is Ra’s al Ghul, right? How about Talia al Ghul, a strong female character who actually could’ve matched Bruce punch for punch in battle, and brought some strong internal conflict to the film due to her divided loyalties between her father and love interest?
As a longtime Batman fan, these both seem like pretty clear choices to me given the rest of the narrative of the film, but my larger point here is that previously nonexistent characters probably shouldn’t define Bruce and serve as his primary emotional motivations through two-and-a-half films.
That being said, there were a lot of characters this film (and series) got right. Of course a lot of it came down to good writing, but I think the bigger factor was brilliant casting. I never would’ve imagined Gary Oldman as James Gordon, but then Oldman really does seem to “disappear” into his roles, which is one of the best compliments you can give an actor. Michael Caine was a fantastic choice as Bruce’s butler and confidant, Alfred Pennyworth. And in an absolute coup, Morgan Freeman plays Lucius Fox, Bruce’s ally in Wayne Enterprises who eventually becomes its chairman.
Liam Neeson as Ra’s al Ghul was a true strength for this film, giving it an extremely strong villain. His relationship with Bruce was one of the film’s biggest strengths, as he actually starts out as a mentor figure who trains Bruce to be a member of the League of Shadows. If you’ll pardon the uncritical reaction, I really don’t think you can go wrong by having significant portions of your film’s first act feature training montages set to monologues by Liam Neeson.
What I really loved about this film was that it was about Bruce Wayne. Batman films almost always fall into the trap of making the antagonists much more interesting than Batman himself, and having Batman basically spend the entire film reacting to what everyone else is doing. Here, we actually see Bruce training to become Batman, acquring a lot of the skills that make him who he is, and developing his moral code. Having a Batman film be about Batman really doesn’t sound like rocket science, but you’d really think so based on a lot of other takes on the character.