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Holy blockbuster, Batman, it’s Christian Bale!

The four-film Batman franchise started out promisingly enough in 1989: an effective Michael Keaton starred in Tim Burton’s dark interpretation of Bob Kane’s original DC Comics character. By the third film, Batman Forever, the franchise began its unhappy descent into director Joel Schumacher’s operatic and campily homoerotic universe, with the terminally weird Val Kilmer as Batman. By the time 1997’s Batman & Robin rolled around, George Clooney’s batsuit had nipples and the franchise seemed lost in Lala Land, miles beyond repair.

At first glance, Christopher Nolan would seem a strange choice to direct the latest installment. Nolan is the writer/director responsible for the quirky Memento, a work that played with structure in a wholly original way—the story was told backwards, from the hero’s point of view, as he battles memory loss. Nolan’s follow-up was the claustrophobic character study Insomnia, which pitted Al Pacino’s sleep-deprived East Coast detective in Alaska against Robin Williams’ psychopathic murderer. Both of these films were deep examinations of character and skillfully produced anxiety in the viewer, mirroring the existential crises of each film’s respective hero. The films were the antithesis of comics and comic book movies, which are traditionally plot-driven and light on character development.

If Nolan is an offbeat choice to direct this latest Batman film, it seems even odder to cast Christian Bale as the newest version of the Caped Crusader. Bale is a leading man who does character work—a serious actor who works with great subtlety and small gestures, not in the broad strokes of caricature. In addition, Bale’s most recent role, in last year’s The Machinist, forced the committed performer to lose 65 pounds for his role; he looked like a walking skeleton, hardly superhero material.

Precisely because of the quirky choices of director and leading man, Batman Begins is the most interesting film in the series since the first, and looks to have pumped new life into the franchise.

Nolan’s Batman Begins takes us, as the title suggests, to the origin of the Batman legend. We get a glimpse of young Bruce Wayne’s privileged childhood at stately Wayne Manor, his loving family and his close relationship with his kindly father, a legendarily philanthropic tycoon-turned-physician. Darkness intrudes when Wayne falls into a well on the property and has his first terrifying encounter with bats. Things go from bad to worse when Wayne’s bat phobia becomes the catalyst in a chain of events that results in his witnessing the back-alley shooting deaths of his parents. The orphaned boy is left in the care of the family butler, the loving and tart-tongued Alfred (Michael Caine).

As a confused and guilt-ridden young man, Wayne disappears to wander the Far East and winds up in a Mongolian prison fighting off a slew of murderous assailants. A stranger (Liam Neeson) appears and gives Wayne an opportunity to escape into the Himalayas, where he trains in the martial arts with a fraternity of monastic vigilantes calling themselves The League of Shadows. Neeson’s character forces Bruce to confront his opponents, and then use his fears to vanquish them.

Wayne breaks with the League and returns to new-old Gotham City to find a cosmetically cleaned-up but still-rotting city run by crooked politicians, mobsters and bad cops, and the Batman character evolves to fight both crime and corruption. With the help of faithful Alfred, and Morgan Freeman as a research and development man exiled to the basement of Wayne Enterprises, Wayne outfits Batman with all the bells and whistles that allow him to appear to possess supernaturally endowed powers. What Nolan does in Batman Begins is demystify the main character by grounding the story in the possible. For example, we find out that Batman is impervious to bullets because Freeman’s secret division of Wayne Enterprises once developed a prototype Kevlar suit that never went into production because the government “figured a soldier’s life wasn’t worth the three-hundred grand.”

The film, shot by cinematographer Wally Pfister, looks great—it’s appropriately dark and grubby. Computer generated imagery is kept to a minimum and physical locations are used—a glacier in Iceland stands in for the Himalayas—resulting in a production design with real heft.

Nolan and David Goyer wrote the script, and it has only minor problems. The film’s first section, in which Wayne allies with the League of Shadows, could have been much shorter. The storyline with Wayne’s love interest Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) never really develops; far more engrossing are the relationships between Wayne and his two assistants.

Bale’s Batman bruises and nearly breaks—he makes near-fatal mistakes and learns from them. Nolan and the actor humanize the hero, allowing the character to develop as we watch, making his growth the force that drives the movie. To give us a believably developed lead character makes the film so much more interesting than the traditional summer blockbuster route of creating a huge, unwieldy, unbelievable plot that drags a hapless, half-developed character along for the ride. Doing it Nolan’s way, the audience is not just entertained, but involved.


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