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This Week in Genre History: Batman Begins was a real movie before it was a superhero flick
Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world’s greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.
You know what you can’t say about most superhero movies, even the good ones? That they would work if people didn’t walk into the theater knowing they were, well, superhero movies. Whether it’s Iron Man or Superman or Venom, the whole superhero-ness dominates the enterprise from the jump. The superhero makes the movie: Without the superhero, the movie evaporates.
Among the many brilliant aspects of Batman Begins — a film, for all its power and influence still today, 16 years after it came out, that still feels somewhat underappreciated — one of the most lasting ones is how it absolutely works as a movie even if it’s not about Batman. Christopher Nolan often is criticized for making the whole superhero genre too “gritty” or “realistic,” but all that was born out of a very basic decision with Batman Begins: This is going to be a real movie, about real people, that works as a thriller and an action film and a character study. It just turns out that at the end of this particular movie, the main character turns into Batman. It’s an origin movie that doesn’t feel like an origin movie: It just feels like a movie. A great one.
Why was it a big deal at the time? Here’s a fun factoid: The time span between now and when The Dark Knight Rises came out is longer (nine years) than it was between Batman Begins and Joel Schumacher's infamous disaster Batman & Robin (eight years). The universes those movies inhabit are polar opposites; it feels impossible they could be contained in the same spectrum of human existence. This was of course partly by design; Nolan was chosen in many ways because he is the opposite of Schumacher — the former is all about cool cerebral execution, while the latter relishes in glorious camp. But the genius of Nolan was to strip away everything that involved superheroes, or any notion that any superhero (or supervillain) had ever existed. In Nolan's hands, Batman isn't meant to be a towering superheroic mythos; he's just something Bruce Wayne invents to help him cope with his parents’ deaths and his need for justice. Nolan scaled the whole thing down to human form.
This is thus a Batman movie without Batman. The Batman costume, such as it is, doesn’t show up until two-thirds into the movie. This wasn’t just a terrific idea, it was the perfect antidote not just to the Schumaker films, but really to most comic book movies from the time, including hits like Spider-Man 2. Those movies did the spectacle first and then brought it down to a human scale. This was whittled down to the rawest human instincts first. This made the eventual, inevitable expansion into the world of Batman mean that much more. We were invested from the beginning. For the first time, it felt like we knew Batman.
What was the impact? To be clear, Batman Begins was a hit. It is the fourth-highest-grossing Batman movie ever, and it led the box office for two consecutive weekends. It nevertheless looks, particularly in the context of the two Nolan Batman movies afterward and the Marvel machine as we now know it, almost small, with $371.8 million worldwide. If an Avengers film made that little, it would be a disaster of mammoth proportions. Shoot, Joss Whedon’s Justice League made more than that.
But Batman Begins laid the groundwork for everything that came after. It was a comic-book superhero movie that you took seriously because the filmmakers took it seriously. It wasn’t a work of art about a superhero; it was a work of art, period. That it was also terrifically entertaining — it received an “A” from CinemaScore — was a big factor too; Nolan is a filmmaker that always makes sure he gives you both art and spectacle. But there was nothing pandering about Batman Begins. It was a great movie first before it was anything else.
And the most amazing thing, of course, is that Nolan would soon top it.
Has it held up? Katie Holmes suffered at the time because of her high-profile relationship with Tom Cruise, and all the couch-jumping that came with that, but it is worth mentioning that she is miscast: Her relationship with Bruce Wayne is the one part of the movie that doesn’t ring true, the one part that feels like a sop to convention rather than something entirely new. Maggie Gyllenhaal was a much better fit in the sequel.
But boy, the rest of it holds up magnificently. Nolan’s decision to use almost exclusively practical effects does wonders for him, keeping the focus on the real-world human exploits, allowing the audience to feel on the same level as the characters: They’re people, like us, with flaws and excesses and demons all their own. The movie happens in our physical universe yet never feels scaled-down: It’s epic and human and, frankly, just as incredible 16 years later. Batman Begins was the beginning of Nolan’s Batman trilogy. In many ways, it was sort of the beginning of everything that was coming, for better and for worse. But, at least we all got a real movie out of it. A real movie that just happened to be about a superhero.