June 15th marked the 10th anniversary of Batman Begins, a film that not only breathed life back into a dead franchise for Warner Bros. but that is also hailed as one of the most influential comic-book movies since Richard Donner’s Superman in 1978.
When Batman Begins debuted, it had been almost a decade since the Caped Crusader was last seen on the big screen in what many fans consider one of the worst superhero movies ever made: 1997’s Batman & Robin. There were numerous false starts in the years after Shumacher’s fumble, yet nothing panned out. But this time around, WB was taking a different approach with The Bat, and Christopher Nolan was the guy they trusted to do it.
In retrospect, Batman Begins set a precedent for the genre that has been often borrowed from, yet never fully emulated since. Nolan's first in his trilogy is often underrated by many, myself included. But as time passes, Begins remains both a lesson and a reminder that a comic book can be adapted into great cinema, and that, for a shining moment, DC was capable of creating the kind of superhero movie that could capture the imagination and set a bar that Marvel would have to alter its entire strategy to leap.
A look back at 2005.
Batman’s return to the big screen wasn’t without its box-office competition. There was the King Kong reboot, the fourth Harry Potter movie, two Marvel movies and a little franchise known as Star Wars was releasing the third installment of its prequel trilogy. Nolan was only signed on to do one movie, and given his resume at the time, no one quite knew what to expect.
Nolan, however, knew the movie he wanted to make. Inspired by Donner’s Superman, he set out to tell the story of how Bruce Wayne became Batman. His goal was to take the realism of Donner’s classic and add some of the gothic tones of Burton’s Batman to create an origin story about one of the most iconic characters in the world. But he also wanted a movie that was a stark contrast from the last Batman movies. Instead of the dramatic and fanciful sets from Burton and Schumacher’s iterations, Nolan’s vision was to adapt the comic-book character into a real-world setting; to ground the character, his enemies and even his wonderful toys in a way that made them seem plausible. He pulled it off in spades, and made Batman Begins a testament to the idea that superhero movies could make good cinema, too. How did he pull it off?
The story stands the test of time.
Begins feels like so much more than just a superhero origin story; it’s a great movie that happens to be about someone who becomes a superhero. We don’t even see Batman for the first hour of the movie. That time is spent learning about Bruce, revisiting the events of his childhood that we’ve all heard countless times, and seeing just how broken and lost a man he has become. Audiences get invested in that man and his story before he ever dons the infamous cowl.
Superhero origin stories are always getting tweaked in the comic books, but the main elements of that story typically stay the same. Begins strips down to the main elements inherent in every version of Bruce Wayne/Batman. There’s no reinvention of the wheel, but just a better, stronger version of it. The story fills in whatever blanks from both the comics and previous movies, explaining the type of man Bruce became because of his past. It’s a deeper dive into Bruce’s psyche that’s interesting regardless of your level of fandom for Batman.
Keeping it real worked.
Nolan has never been shy about his feelings on CGI. And while he has used some, his minimalist approach is the key to this film aging well. Too much CGI can, and usually does, take away from the actual story of the movie -- if you compare Begins to Fantastic Four, another superhero title out the same year, the two films seem a decade apart based on the special effects alone. Even Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith (also out the same year) feels dated due to some of its less-than-stellar CGI components. In Batman Begins, the CGI is used sparingly to enhance certain aspects, like the swarm of bats surrounding Bruce when he first discovers the cave under Wayne Manor, or the hallucination scenes. When there’s less of it, it’s not as distracting as time goes on even if it is a little dated.
It’s not just the minimal CGI that helps the movie age well; nothing else about the set or costume design is trendy, which is another huge difference between Begins and its predecessors. The overall aesthetic and costume design in Begins has more classic and timeless looks, the score is absent of any pop music (listen to "Batdance" today and you’ll hear what I mean) (How dare you insult "Batdance" - Ed.), and the real-world-esque urban setting helps give this movie a timelessness many other blockbusters lack.
The score was an instant classic.
The moment the percussion starts in Batman Begins, I instantly get goosebumps. Hans Zimmer’s score, relatively simple as it is, elicits that kind of emotional response all through the film. Zimmer did for Nolan’s Batman films what John Williams did for Superman and Star Wars: He created music that perfectly enhanced Bruce’s dramatic journey toward becoming Batman.
Throughout the movie, there are key moments when what eventually becomes Batman’s theme song are teased. Whenever something pivotal or heroic happens, the crescendoing notes that make up the beginning of Batman’s theme song can be heard. But it isn’t until the very end of the movie that we finally get to hear the song in its entirety, when Bruce has officially transformed into Gotham’s protector. Batman’s theme song is equally ominous and heroic, and strikes only at the perfect time ... just like Batman.
Bale's best performance as both Batman and Bruce Wayne.
When Bale landed the part as Batman, it was for two reasons: He had the physicality to play Batman/Bruce, and he brought the emotionally charged performance needed to the very conflicted pseudo-hero. And that's important, because Begins, more than any Batman movie that came before or after it, is about Bruce. The main conflict was more about a man's internal struggle than one he faced against the criminals within Gotham. He still squared off against villians, but neither Scarecrow or R'as al Ghul were the kind of larger-than-life, scene-stealing supervillians that were widely known to both die-hard fans and moviegoers who'd seen previous Bat-films.
It's Bale's performance in Begins is the quintessential Bruce/Batman (sorry, Adam West). Never before has one actor fulfilled both roles as impeccably as Bale does in this film. He embodies the various layers to Bruce's persona, the hurt and anger that he struggles with that are always lying right under the surface, even when he is smiling and partying with Gotham's elite and evoking his Patrick Bateman smarm from American Psycho. As the Batman, Bale is at all times physically imposing on the screen, and nails the intimidation that makes the Dark Knight such a formidable foe for the common criminal (not to mention getting the growling Bat-voice just on the right side of too much -- a line he would plunge over in later films). In The Making of Batman Begins, Bale stated he had to be a beast as soon as he put the Batsuit on. It didn't hurt that the method actor trained vigorously in the Keysi Fighting Method used in the movie. Bruce/Batman's fight scenes definitely raised the bar for future superhero movies; now we more often see the hero unmasked and the actor actually doing the fight choreography (case in point, Captain America: Winter Soldier).
We finally get to see how important Alfred is to Bruce.
The relationship between Alfred Pennyworth and Bruce Wayne is one of the most interesting dynamics in superhero-dom. In previous films and the '60s TV series, Alfred was little more than the man that had worked for the Wayne family for years and, perhaps because of this loyalty and tenure, became Bruce's de facto guardian. But it's in Begins that the true importance of Alfred is finally portrayed. Alfred is the only person Bruce can rely on when he is hurt. Nothing encapsulates their relationship better than the scene in which Bruce is suffering the effects of Scarecrow's psychotropic drugs in the back seat of the car as a teary-eyed Alfred races to get him home.
If Bale was the best Batman, Caine was absolutely the best Alfred. He was compassionate, smart and funny (who else could deliver the line about all those pushups while Bruce is lying with a wooden beam on his chest as Wayne Manor is buring down?). The chemistry between him and Bale surpassed that of any other relationship Bruce has in all three of the movies.
I have to be honest: Initially, I was lukewarm about Batman Begins. Over the years, however, I have grown to appreciate it more and more with each viewing. Even though we are inundated with a growing number of superhero films every year, 10 years later Batman Begins still feels fresher and like a better film than some of the impressive blockbusters that have come out since. This movie is inspiring to me as both a writer and a fan, and that's not something that can easily be said for a lot of comic-book films.