First of all, the plot serves the characters well. I’m always wary of origin-story movies because they tend to spend the first act getting the hero into costume while at the same time setting up an unrelated plot which will blossom into the villain’s origin. Begins meshes Bruce’s personal journey with the aims of Ra’s al Ghul, such that the two men aren’t just fighting for the future of Gotham City, they’re pitting competing viewpoints against each other. It’s a much better situation than the “you made me, I made you” dynamic of Tim Burton’s Batman, because it makes Begins feel more … mature, for lack of a better term; and not so much an excuse for the last act to be a big Batman fight.
(That doesn’t stop the last act from centering around a big Batman fight, of course, but it feels more natural here.)
The characters themselves are played very well. Christian Bale carries the movie, as you’d expect, but that’s even more of a compliment considering that previous Bat-films relied more heavily on the villains. Bale and Gary Oldman are the standouts here, with Oldman being an effective audience-identification character. Liam Neeson is also good, but as my wife said, “If I have to see Liam Neeson waving some kind of sword around one more time–!” In the same vein, I don’t care if he’s playing Jesus Christ, Rutger Hauer just screams “bad guy!” whenever he shows up.
Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine put in fine performances (although Caine + young Bruce = Cider House Rules) and both provide a fair amount of humor. Cillian Murphy and Ken Watanabe are just kind of there to be creepy, but they do that well. As Carmine Falcone, Tom Wilkinson perhaps overacts the most, and still not a lot. Finally, I don’t know if Tom Cruise hurt my enjoyment of Katie Holmes’ performance, but she’s a little less believable as an assistant DA than Angie Harmon was.
The film’s atmosphere is spot-on. Batman is more of a presence than an action figure in this movie, crawling around tenements and looking genuinely scary as he interrogates bad guys. However, there are a number of very cool Bat-moments — pinups on screen, as it were, with bats a-swirling and cape unfurled — which gave me chills. Not since Darth Vader has a man looked so good in a black caped costume. (I also liked the “origin” of the Bat-Signal.) To its credit, Batman Begins also shows a good bit of Bruce Wayne in his “James Bond” roles, nicely juxtaposing the white-collar crime with the street-level stuff.
Now to the nitpicks. These aren’t so much criticisms as “that’s not how it was but it makes sense” items.
First, Bruce is pretty wink-wink with Lucius Fox about his secrets. However, it works about as well as the comics’ explanation that Bruce and Alfred just stole all the prototypes from a Wayne warehouse. Besides, Lucius’ don’t-ask, don’t-tell attitude gives both him and Bruce plausible deniability.
Along the same lines, Katie Holmes is the movie’s Jiminy Cricket, reminding Bruce of his responsibilities to social justice — so naturally she gets to learn the secret too. This wouldn’t have been so bad had she not been preceded by Vicki Vale, Selina Kyle, and Chase Meridian. She also gets a weird scene late in the film where she has to protect the Kid Who Believes In Batman. While not a bad scene on its own, it was kind of strange that those two characters would find each other.
Finally, there is no real “I shall become a bat” scene in the movie, not even an ironic one. Instead, the movie devotes so much time to Bruce’s childhood fear of bats and his conquest of said fear, you’d think he wouldn’t have needed the bat-in-the-window moment to confirm his choice of motif. Still, because the movie shows us the bat in the mansion, I was waiting for that punchline. I would also have loved some mention of criminals being a superstitious and cowardly lot, but again, the movie doesn’t miss it much.
Overall, this was an excellent film. I was surprised at how much my wife liked it, since she has no reason to like Batman on principle. She said it reminded her of the dark tone Burton took, and she may even have liked it better than Spider-Man — high praise indeed.
I had feared Batman Begins would delve too much into the minutiae of the character, but it doesn’t. Instead, it shows Bruce’s evolution in a way none of the others have, and the plot develops around his choices. While I have a few reservations, they are the preferences of a guy who’s been imagining this movie for a long time. I hope a sequel is forthcoming, because I’m curious to see what this team does with the foundation they’ve laid.