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Remembering Batman Begins and Its Top-Tier Cast
There’s not a bad acting move to be found in Christopher Nolan’s first Gotham flick.
Coming midway through Oppenheimer director Christopher Nolan’s iconic Caped Crusader trilogy, the late, great Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight (streaming here on Peacock) drew tons of well-earned critical acclaim. But in truth, Ledger’s controlled-chaos performance simply served as a punctuation mark for what was already an incredibly well-acted comic book franchise.
As Ledger’s performance continually reminds fans both old and new, casting always will remain one of the trilogy’s many strong points. But even as he all but stole the show in The Dark Knight, nowhere was the entire Batman-movie ensemble ever as uniformly terrific as in Batman Begins (also streaming on Peacock here), the first film in the series.
Backed by a mature and character-focused story from Nolan alongside Blade and Dark City scribe David S. Goyer, Christian Bale’s understated but relatable stoicism as a coming-of-age Bruce Wayne came across as the perfect framing for the faltering, fear-mastering version of Bruce that Goyer’s story called for. Better still, the actors who rounded out his supporting entourage delivered a combined Batman Begins masterclass in embodying rich and complex character traits through only a handful of screen appearances apiece.
For more on Christopher Nolan:
Oppenheimer Leads Oscar Nominations With 13 Total Nods, Including Best Picture & Best Director
Christian Bale Explains Why He Turned Down the Offer to Make a Fourth Dark Knight Film
The Ending of Christopher Nolan's Memento Explained
Beyond Bale: The Incredible Supporting Cast of Batman Begins
In hindsight, it’s easy to take for granted how apt The Dark Knight Trilogy’s recurring ensemble was for their roles: Michael Caine’s dignified loyalty as Bruce’s butler Alfred; Morgan Freeman’s brilliant blend of brains and cool intuition as Wayne R&D mastermind Lucius Fox; Gary Oldman’s cautious trust in Bruce’s (and in his own) better-angel nature as Gotham cop Jim Gordon. But in Batman Begins, that’s really only part of the bigger casting picture.
For one thing, the bad guys are all pitch-perfect. Even before Ledger escalated villain complexity to new heights in The Dark Knight, the evildoers of Batman Begins were already wading in complicated character waters. As local crime boss Carmine Falcone, the late Tom Wilkinson might’ve appeared glib and greedy on the surface, but he was no simple-minded comic book perp. “You think, because your mommy and your daddy got shot, you know about the ugly side of life,” he taunts Bruce, who just so happens to be obsessed with overcoming fear. “But you don’t. You’ve never tasted ‘desperate.’ … This is a world that you’ll never understand — and you always fear what you never understand.”
The rest of the bad-guy cast inhabits their characters to equally awesome effect, whether in the misplaced idealism of Liam Neeson’s Ra's al Ghul; the pharmaceutical-grade sociopathy of Oppenheimer star Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow; or even the detached and smirky condescension of the late Rutger Hauer’s backstabbing Wayne Enterprises CEO, William Earle. Each carves out a distinctive and memorable slate of traits that makes it easy to keep score amid Gotham’s oversized population of bad guys, from the top of the food chain all the way down through the low-level rank and file.
That’s no mean feat in a movie with a cast so large that even the A-listers don’t always command big swathes of screen time. Heck, even corrupt cop sidekick Arnold Flass (Mark Boone Junior) nails his small role in epitomizing Gotham’s hopeless-corruption vibe, lazily moonlighting as Falcone’s drug-deal henchman because — why else? — crime is really the only gig in town that effectively greases anyone’s wheels.
Smaller roles like Boone’s are everywhere you look in Batman Begins, and every single one of them feels like an irreplaceable match for Nolan’s atmospheric world. Rade Šerbedžija (Eyes Wide Shut) makes the most of mere moments in his role as a street bum who's in awe of Bruce’s jacket; so too does a young Jack Gleeson (known nowadays as Game of Thrones’ loathsome petty tyrant Joffrey Baratheon) as a tender-hearted kid inspired by his repeated run-ins with Bale’s Batman. And in one of the movie’s most significant supporting roles, Linus Roache embodies the heart of the Wayne family’s philanthropic ethos (not to mention their tenacity to be their best) in a way no actor’s been asked to do before or since: “Why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”
Back when Batman Begins was still fresh in 2005 theaters, a lot of fans panned Katie Holmes’ turn as incorruptible Gotham prosecutor Rachel Dawes, Bruce’s lifetime friend and almost-romantic partner. Then as now, we think that’s total nonsense, especially for anyone who’s tagged along through Nolan’s amazing career to observe the kind of understated performances he often gets from his supporting characters.
Watching Batman Begins today, Holmes’ reserved, close-to-the-vest portrayal fits perfectly with Rachel’s role in both the bigger story and in Bruce’s life. Wary of assassination from Gotham’s iron-grip mafia and saddened at Bruce’s apparent inability to rise above his rich-kid tendencies, there’s really no one in the movie she can fully trust — and Holmes walks a fine line between showing Rachel’s mix of fear and come-what-may resolve to do the right thing… even if she has to do it on her own. Plus, it’s not as if Holmes didn’t bring passion to the role; her fiery shaming of Bruce for even thinking about bringing a gun to court to carry out vigilante justice against Joe Chill (Richard Brake) makes his inner demons seem real — and it remains one of the movie’s most effective scenes.
Catch Batman Begins on Peacock here as part of the full Nolan-directed Batman movie trilogy that’s now streaming on the bird app (stream The Dark Knight featuring Ledger here, and The Dark Knight Rises with a villainous Tom Hardy here).