Christopher Nolan Retrospective Series: Part Four, ‘Batman Begins’

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Photo By Josh Shippen

Christian Bale played Bruce Wayne in Christopher Nolan’s 2005 film ‘Batman Begins.’ ‘Batman Begins’ was Nolan’s first superhero movie, although ‘Memento’ and ‘Following’ contained homages to the Bat Prince of Gotham. Graphic by Josh Shippen.

By Josh Shippen, Reporter

This piece is part four of a six-part series. Read the third installment here

I’d be nervous if my favorite director transitioned into superhero movies, but in the case of Christopher Nolan, his sheer versatility is showcased brilliantly with the story of Batman. Batman Begins was released to general audiences on June 15, 2005, and tells the origin story of the classic DC superhero, Batman. 

The film opens in Gotham City, with a young Bruce Wayne playing with his childhood friend Rachel Dawes. While playing, he falls into a well and is swarmed by bats. The subsequent fear he has for the winged mammals is a key theme that will evolve throughout his life. Later as a child, while Bruce and his family are attending a play production, he sees bats and is frightened, leading to a prompt exit from the theater. Upon leaving, they are mugged and both of Bruce’s parents are shot and killed. Bruce is left in the care of the family butler, Alfred Pennyworth. As Bruce grows up, he lives with the guilt of thinking he caused his parents’ death and the sorrow of having them taken away, filled with uncontrollable anger for the man who took their lives. This fear is a motif that will define his character arc throughout the film.

Years later, the adult Bruce (Christian Bale) discovers that his parents’ killer is being released from prison after giving incriminating evidence against Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), head of the Falcone crime family, to Gotham authorities. Bruce intends to kill the criminal after the trial, but a member of the Falcone family gets there first and fatally shoots him. After confessing to Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), now a district attorney, of his plan, Rachel chastises him for trying to take things into his own hands rather than leave the killer’s fate to the justice system. In a final harrowing statement, Rachel expresses that Bruce’s father would be ashamed of what he had become. 

Filled with a desire to make things change, Wayne abandons his billionaire lifestyle to immerse himself in the world of crime and soon enters the training of Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) in ninja training with the League of Shadows.

While nearing the end of his trials, Bruce is asked to do the first thing that he absolutely will not do. The League asks Bruce to kill a man convicted of murder in the name of fulfilling the needs of justice. Bruce refuses, saying that punishments should be determined by the justice system, stating that “I am no executioner.” The League also reveals that their intentions are to purge Gotham. The League has deemed it too evil of a place to exist. Bruce narrowly escapes the temple with his life, managing to burn it to the ground as he escapes, letting all of the League, including its leader Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), perish with the exception of an unconscious Ducard who he drops off in Asia.

Bruce soon returns to Gotham, intent on putting an end to the crime that has turned Gotham into a dark, mistrustful place. Working together with Alfred and Wayne Enterprises executive Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Bruce garners the technology needed to don the Batman suit, a representation of Bruce’s purging of his fears. Bruce, now working together with Sergeant James Gordon (Gary Oldman), quickly attracts the attention of both police and criminals alike. The police do not want a masked vigilante doing their job, and the criminals are upset that they are getting caught. 

Bruce soon discovers that Falcone has been in league with Psychiatrist Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy) in creating a drug that Crane has been testing at Arkham Asylum. After Falcone’s arrest, Crane betrays Falcone and sprays him with the new drug, a fear-inducing hallucinogen called fear toxin, which drives its victims insane to the point of death. With Falcone out of the way, Crane moves to neutralize Rachel Dawes since she has been suspicious of his operations and motives. Upon agreeing to meet with Rachel, he sprays her with a concentrated dose of the drug at Arkham and leaves her to die on an elevator. Fortunately, Batman comes to the rescue and is able to give her and himself an antidote, made by Lucius Fox, all while drugging Crane at the same time.

I love what Nolan chose to do with the fear toxin. What better way for Batman to begin fighting crime than to be fighting to destroy the very thing that he had to rid himself of. From a technical aspect, I love seeing what having fear toxin looks like from the character’s perspective. When Falcone gets the gas we see Dr. Crane from his perspective, and it does give a very disorienting, even scary feel.

As far as acting goes, I’ve already talked about Katie Holmes, but there is one actor that really kills his role. Cillian Murphy does outstanding playing Jonathan Crane as an evil psychiatrist. Every time Murphy’s character is on-screen I feel an intensity and a draw to the movie that I do not feel with every other character, not even Batman. Apart from Murphy, the other actors do just fine. Liam Neeson plays a convincing villain and Christian Bale is a good Batman with an extra stupid voice. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are also perfect in their respective ways of providing a little comedy relief to an otherwise dark movie.

Even with Crane stopped, Bruce’s problems are not over. Bruce encounters Ducard at his house and realizes that his true identity is Ra’s Al Ghul. Ra’s burns Wayne’s house to the ground, but Alfred is able to save Wayne as Ra’s plan begins to unfold. Ra’s has planned to release the fear toxin as a gas using a microwave emitter and watch as Gotham destroys itself from the inside.

Ra’s begins to set his plan into action. The gates have been raised and everyone in the city is trapped. However, in a dramatic chase scene on a subway, Bruce and Gordon are able to disable the microwave emitter and crash the subway. Bruce doesn’t kill Ra’s, but instead leaves him to die as the flaming subway explodes.

By this time, Batman has revealed his identity to Rachel, as well as to Alfred and Lucius. Rachel finally sees Wayne as the hero and as someone who is ready to serve Gotham, even growing to love him. However, Rachel tells Bruce that as long as Gotham needs Batman it will be impossible for the two of them to be together. The film ends with Gordon telling Batman about a mysterious villain leaving behind Joker playing cards as credits roll.

Up to this point, Nolan had never made a boring movie, and I think there’s an argument to make that he broke his streak. It’s not unbearably boring by any means, but my expectation for Nolan is that he pulls me in and keeps me engaged for the entirety of the movie’s runtime. With this movie, I’m curious about the narrative, but its slow runtime and tendency to follow similar origin story plotlines make it difficult to do so.

My other problem is Rachel, concerning both the actual character and the acting. Holmes’ portrayal of Rachel makes it easy to believe that she is a bit of a brat. When Bruce tries to take revenge and murder his parents’ killer, Rachel slaps him and frankly insults him, yet when Bruce finally decides to change for the better and let people’s fate be decided by the justice system Rachel still doesn’t want him. If that story and character were played out a little better, this would make me like Rachel more.

This movie isn’t all bad though, I think the themes it chooses to use are very good. The whole point of Batman is that he’s finally learned to control his fears, and I think that arc is presented very well in this movie. My main problem with Nolan’s last film was that the character arc was sloppy and very quickly resolved, so it’s good to see that Nolan has fixed that. 

I already talked a little about the cinematography with fear toxin, but the rest of this movie is very well shot as well. Batman Begins is Nolan’s third instance of working with Wally Pfister and Pfister again does a phenomenal job giving this film a dark aesthetic. The score complements this very well, as James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer’s intense score help bring some emotion and tension to a film that, as stated earlier, has some moments that can sometimes feel pretty lifeless. As the movie to start out the Batman trilogy, Batman Begins really did not do a bad job at all. I don’t want to spoil what’s coming next, but I will say even with what this film did, this is not the best Batman installment. I am going to recommend Batman Begins. This is not going to be the deepest Nolan movie you’ve ever seen, but it is a fun experience all the same.

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