"You must become more than just a man in the mind of your opponent," Liam Neeson's Ducard tells a young, restless Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) near the beginning of Wayne's training. In Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, the themes and obsessions that have animated Nolan's worlds, from Following to Memento and Insomnia to The Prestige are actually crystallized, enlarged upon and finally made whole.
If there is a single young auteur out there who can claim to be the artistic heir of Fritz Lang--in terms of themes and obsessions--it's indeed Nolan. Like the great German titan, Nolan's films are fixated on the vexatious dilemmas, secrets and moral perplexities of the search for justice in what is a frequently unjust world, the makings and deconstructions of identity, what that identity means and what it doesn't mean and the savage vengefulness that resides in the heart of fallen man.
It's weighty, dark and sober stuff. Nolan's films are indeed deterministic, perhaps even to a fault. Little surprise then that Batman Begins treats the origins tale of Batman, truly embodied by Bruce Wayne, as something akin to the probing of Immanuel Kant's compromise between rationalists and empiricists, taken on a deeply personal level: what is indeed is, yet the saga of Nolan's The Batman begins as it must, this resembling its Book of Genesis--which eventually plays out like Kafka's The Metamorphosis, whipped in a large bowl by an eggbeater with an uncommonly sensitive "character arc" (Bale's performance throughout is quite good; his character's incarnation as rich, now rootless and wholly lost young man is heartbreakingly sublime) and the vague trappings of a more thematically coherent "blockbuster" than most audiences are used to digesting.
Another theme of Nolan's is fear, but before Batman Begins it was something of an artist's lurker, hiding in the shadows of the plot machinations, always clever, sometimes perilously "cold." (Nolan's films are all noirs as well, including the comic book-inspired tales of the caped crusader and his magician vs. magician battle of wits set in the late nineteenth century.) Begins has moments that are legitimately thrilling, but it's more of an intellectual's delight than much else. Many today assail the film's final "third act," largely because in terms of one-two-three storytelling, it admittedly feels as though it belongs to another film. On the surface, the excogitatively reasoned, deliberately paced character drama becomes an action movie. The Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) plans to disseminate his fear toxin throughout Gotham by utilizing a secret weapon crafted by Wayne Enterprises and only Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and Wayne know about it. Wayne morphs back into Batman, his demonic, mind-, body- and soul-cleansing alter-ego and fights his own creator of sorts, Ra's al Ghul (Neeson's Ducard was actually Ra's al Ghul all along, you see) in a confrontation that at least somewhat resembles the battle between Frankenstein and his monster. While the third act has its problems, the concept of fear in Begins is a very significant one, and the battle to save Gotham from the Scarecrow's terrible toxin merits consideration as an essaying endeavor on the part of Nolan and his co-screenwriter David S. Goyer.
When I first saw on the Internet that Michael Caine had been cast as Alfred, my immediate reaction was, What a waste. Little did I know that Nolan would give the Alfred character such a towering position in his Batman's universe, and particularly in the heart of Wayne himself. Alfred, taking Wayne into his own care after the murder of the boy's parents, is doubtless the closest thing Wayne has in the way of a father figure, and Alfred often dispels important, earnest advice when he senses that Wayne is in need of it. More so than perhaps any actor I can think of off the top of my head, Caine makes every line of dialogue approximately twice as good as it would be otherwise. His performance in Batman Begins is a crucial one, involved in many of the scenes and encapsulating much of the emotions that make Wayne--and thus, Batman--a wholly human figure.
Wally Pfister's cinematography is sterling, undeniably attempting to capture much of the harsh urbanism, damp, dank and dark, that Nolan was reportedly so taken with from Blade Runner. Oscar-nominated, the cinematography feeds off the emotions of the film's story. The film has a gritty atmosphere. CGI, which creates a pivotal railway, is otherwise limited in its usage. Nolan tries to ground Batman in a certain reality. The score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard is moving but tinted with a strong, tenebrous current befitting the film's protagonist.
Nolan's comprehension of action leaves something to be desired in Begins, but the conceptual madness at least has a point early on, when Batman confronts a gang of thugs at the docks working for crime boss Carmine Falcone (an intelligently hammy and brutish Tom Wilkinson), which resembles a horror film in execution, pacing and mood. Like a merciless black specter of boiling rage, Batman systematically goes through Falcone's goons, and the scene culminates beautifully as Batman seizes Falcone himself, finally and formally pronounces his own name finally to his peccant adversary and prey, leaving Falcone tied to a spotlight that created the fuzzy, unfocused non-eidetic skyward hieroglyphic of a bat. The entire sequence richly details Batman's first "victory" in his borderline psychotic war on crime in Gotham and a cop by the name of Gordon (Gary Oldman) can only admire the vigilante's handiwork. The unfortunate part of it all is that Nolan's handling of action later on when there is no need to make such a bewildering spectacle of Batman's antics are over-edited and the film's sense of geography suffers.
Another problem with the film that is usually beaten to death is Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes, love interest to Wayne and fighter for justice in the District Attorney's office. She was my most significant complaint upon seeing the film theatrically. Revisiting Begins recently, however, I was surprised to see that she wasn't as awful as I had thought she was. For one thing, she's given almost all of the worst, most expository dialogue the screenplay has to offer. Considering that as well as the fact that some of her whiny, girlish behavior is rooted in the airiness of the character--a legitimate point, as it was to a lesser degree with regards to Hayden Christiansen's always-petulant take on Anakin Skywalker--she's not that bad after all. Yes, she still comes across like an intern in a high-powered position, but it will be truly interesting to see how Nolan improves upon the Dawes character, now taken on by the feisty, more interesting Maggie Gyllenhaal. It figures that Dawes would mature and grow more resiliently unflinching and perhaps a tad cynical so this casting change seems like a positive one.
Batman Begins manages to easily endure its flaws because unlike so many "blockbusters" that seem to be melded from the box office demands of the writers at Variety or marketing experts on Madison Avenue, it's a rigorously thought-provoking enterprise above all else, including crowd-pleaser. Intellectually rewarding, Nolan's Langian take on the Batman character resonates as a pervasive cinematic statement that affirmatively tackles some of the more prickly quandaries of Natural Law, the advantages and shortcomings of the aretaic turn--like any savior figure, how great a load of the sins of Gotham's citizenry can Batman withstand before withering?--and nature of identity; how, as the treacherous figure portrayed by a stone-faced, methodically tutoring Neeson states, one can become "a legend," Nolan's film is brimming with worthwhile ideas. Batman Begins is also aware of the Hobbesian understanding of the iniquity that characterizes the underworld of criminals ("Criminals thrive on the indulgences of society's understanding") while being adamantly tortured in its open-ended appraisal of vigilantism, the limits of it and the responses to it (a bittersweet pill that is partly swallowed in the film's final scene between Gordon and Batman, in which Gordon points out the threats of "escalation," something The Dark Knight appears to play heavily to). It's all there, and while Nolan does not completely forget this is a film aimed at mass appeal with an extended car chase and a climactic fight sequence, like the thematically rich and inventive directors who brought out the sagacity of cinematic populism, Nolan strives for more than what we've sadly become conditioned to consume. And who knows? Perhaps one day when Nolan's hair is gray and he's further battled the murky ideas he finds so much interest in, we just might refer to his series of Batman films in a way not altogether dissimilar from how people speak of Lang's Mabuse series. When there is this much ambition on display, it's comfortably easy to be optimistic, at least for a little while.