Batman Begins (2005)
UK Certificate: 12
US Certificate: PG-13
Intended Audience: Older children and adults
Faith without works is dead. That’s the spiritual message of Christopher Nolan’s extraordinary Batman reboot, which proved an immediate success with audiences and critics alike. “Best Batman Ever” would be my inner fanboy response. Of course, Nolan went on to direct two further Batman movies, the even more revered The Dark Knight (featuring Heath Ledger’s now legendary take on The Joker) and The Dark Knight Rises. The latter also contains a slew of interesting spiritual messages, particularly the metaphor of “The Pit” and how, as Alfred says, “Maybe it’s time we all stop trying to outsmart the truth, and let the truth have its day” (essentially as a corrective to decisions taken in the previous film).
Here however, we are concerned only with Batman Begins, my preferred film of the trilogy. What Nolan did was to stamp his own very unique visual signature on the Batman franchise, allowing for a grittier, more realist feel, complete with clever non-linear narrative. Gone are the studio bound dark fairy-tale visions of Tim Burton. Nolan’s Batman was shot in many real locations, with a real sense of just what it might be like if someone did transform themselves into a costumed vigilante.
“It’s not who I am inside, but what I do that defines me.”
Before we get to that however, Nolan spends over an hour setting up the character. Bruce Wayne witnesses the death of his rich industrialist parents in much the same way he does in the comics. The kindliness of only-straight-cop-in-a-bent-force Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) later proves pivotal, but when the story flashes forward to the adult Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), he is a bitter, vengeful youth. Frustrated in his desire to personally take revenge, and rebuked for his selfishness by childhood friend Rachel (Katie Holmes), Bruce disappears off the face of the Earth, into the Far East, where he ends up in prison.
Later he seeks out the mysterious League of Shadows, run by the enigmatic Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). Here he is trained by Ducard (Liam Neeson) and learns to conquer his childhood fears. However, when Bruce learns of the moral lines crossed by the League, he refuses to join, and instead returns to Gotham City. With the help of his butler, guardian and lifelong friend Alfred (Michael Caine) and Wayne Enterprises executive Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Bruce Wayne transforms himself into the caped crusader to strike back against corruption and evil in the form of gang boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) and the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy). But are they part of a larger, more sinister scheme?
Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins is, along with Richard Donner’s Superman, one of my top two superhero films of all time. Perhaps the key is to have a Christopher involved (Christopher Nolan and Christopher Reeve respectively). All silliness aside though, this is a rattling good, action-packed, thrilling megahit of a movie. Having taken the time to introduce the players, Batman’s first scene is utterly brilliant, in that he is rightly scary more than anything, taking the fear to the villains. Subsequent set pieces include a cracking Batmobile chase and an explosive finale that I won’t spoil here.
Despite the darkness, there is plenty of humour too. For example in one scene Bruce rudely dismisses party guests to get them out of harm’s way, and in another he arrogantly buys the restaurant he is eating in, so he and the girls he arrived with can swim in the fish tank. The latter is a key scene, because when Rachel then shows up, Bruce is embarrassed by his faux playboy persona, and tells her this isn’t who he really is. Rachel aptly responds that it isn’t who we are inside, but what we do that defines us. Or as the Bible puts it in the book of James, faith without works is dead. Later Batman becomes something of a Christ figure, standing between the people of Gotham and the villains, who think the population are “beyond saving”.
Tremendous performances from the ensemble cast, superb direction and a very satisfying plot all add up to a hugely enjoyable experience. But what raises Batman Begins above the level of a first-rate summer blockbuster is the spiritual message.