In the summer of 1997, Batman was dead on the big screen. Not that the famed Caped Crusader had actually died physically, but the lower than expected box office performance of the fourth instalment of the Batman movie series, which had begun in 1989, as well as mediocre reviews and a reputation that was less than stellar, it seemed as if it would be a long time before we’d see Bruce Wayne back on our screens fighting crime.
Whilst it would be eight years before Gotham City would need to call in its most famed citizen to save the day, amazingly Warner Bros. hadn’t quite given up on trying to make another Batman movie. The road to Christopher Nolan bringing his own interpretation to the screen with a creative flourish and creating one of the greatest superhero movies of all time, would also take in failed attempts to make a fifth Batman movie (Batman:Triumphant), a version of Batman:Year One directed by Darren Aaranofsky, Batman vs Superman written by Andrew Kevin Walker and directed by Wolfgang Petersen, as well a potential live action version of Batman Beyond.
When the Dark Knight returned to our screens, it would be the creative vision of the director of Memento, the writer of Blade and the visceral acting talent from American Psycho who would ensure an iconic run of films that would give the 2000’s and early 2010’s one of its most acclaimed and iconic series of comic book films.
Like Tim Burton, Richard Donner and Sam Raimi, there was a feeling that Nolan seemed a strange choice to handle such a project, but if movie history has taught us anything, it’s that somewhat left-field directing choices in superhero projects can lead to superb movies; The Omen led us to Superman:The Movie; Evil Dead led to Spider-Man; Elf led to Iron Man.
Nolan had crafted a low-budget thriller in the shape of Following, which in turn led to the acclaimed and superbly structured Memento, which in turn led to the brilliantly intense Insomnia. With a command of narrative and character, but with a love of James Bond movies as well (The Dark Knight Trilogy is full of subtle references to the famed spy movie series), Nolan would prove to be perfect to handle a Batman movie, with his notion of exploring the character’s origins, but in a way that was his own rather than a straight forward adaptation of Batman:Year One being the fuel to bring the project to the screen.
A self-confessed fan of Donner’s Superman:The Movie, Nolan would bring a similar widescreen epic feel to the Batman story, shooting the movie in anamorphic lenses, and bringing a grounded, almost plausible quality, to the events on-screen.
Similarly to Donner’s acclaimed 1978 take on Superman, Nolan wanted to cast well known and respected actors in his film and in the end would populate his Gotham City with Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Rutger Hauer, Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson and Ken Watanabe.
Even more brilliantly, Nolan would not go straight to the most famed elements of Batman’s rouge gallery, save for one brilliant tease in the film’s final scene. Instead, by opting to explore Bruce Wayne’s origins and the story of how Gotham’s most famous son would become its most famed vigilante, he would let audiences sees for the first time how Bruce Wayne would become the protegé of Henri Ducard, himself an associate of Ra’s Al Ghul, and be trained by the League of Shadows, thus using the skills he would learn under their tutelage as a way to fight crime in his native Gotham City before encountering Dr Jonathan Crane, aka The Scarecrow, a brilliant and subtly unhinged performance from Cillian Murphy,
Nolan would collaborate with screenwriter David S Goyer to craft a story to bring to the screen, but would also take respectable liberties to make the story work as well as it does. Whilst Nolan’s philosophy was to take every good idea and use it in one movie, not only would there be a beautifully crafted tease for The Joker, which would eventually lead to The Dark Knight, but there would also be further explorations of the backstory of the League of Shadows and Ra’s Al Ghul in The Dark Knight Rises.
Being a director in an almost old-fashioned way with his filmmaking methods, Batman Begins would utilise very little in the way of CGI, and feature much use of in-camera effects, model work as well as some fantastic stunt work throughout. Nolan would bring together a crew of some of the best in the business, including composer Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard who would collaborate on the score, Chris Corbould in special effects, Nathan Crowley as production designer, Lindy Hemming as costume designer, Lee Smith as editor and Wally Pfister, Nolan’s frequent DP, as director of photography.
Together they would create, arguably, the best comic book movie of the decade, a film that would mix both grounded realism, large-scale set pieces, witty humour, most of which would be delivered by Michael Caine as Alfred, as well as some brilliantly staged action, most notably in the car chase sequence when Bruce finally takes the Batmobile, here referred to as The Tumbler, for its first night of action.
One could easily see the influences of Donner’s Superman movie throughout, but Nolan unmistakably makes the film feel truly Batman; from Zimmer and Howard’s atmospheric score (although the lack of a theme in the manner of Danny Elfman’s is a little disheartening), to Pfister’s superb photography with some gorgeous golden-yellow throughout, to the fluid combination of stunt and model work in the climax, the film scarcely puts a foot wrong.
Even more brilliantly, the film wasn’t entirely shot on a backlot. Nolan seamlessly combines the city of Chicago with studio filming at Shepperton Studios in England to create a lived in, beautifully crafted Gotham City that truly feels like a living, breathing city itself. It also recalls the manner in which Donner combined New York with Pinewood Studios to create Metropolis in 1978. Even the location filming in Iceland, which doubled for Ra’s Al Ghul’s mountain home, brilliantly mixed actual location work and CGI in a way that was virtually unnoticeable.
If there is any failing to be had, it’s in the fight choreography. Although by all accounts a deliberate effect of trying to make the scenes appear to be indicative of the point of view of the criminals, sometimes the sequences are actually hard to watch due to the fact that it’s so difficult to make out what is going on. The fight sequences themselves are short and don’t take away too much from the film and it is in the end a minor failing for what is otherwise a classic of the genre.
Released in theatres on the 15th of June 2005, the film would go on to amass $373 million worldwide. Although not quite hitting the numbers that the two Sam Raimi-directed Spider-Man movies had taken, Batman Begins did go on to become a massive DVD success with audiences discovering it more upon its home entertainment release, whilst the critical acclaim and high score from polled movie audiences was enough for Warner Bros. to realise they had something special with the film to an extent to commission Nolan to make a sequel, which would go on to become one of the most acclaimed and financially successful superhero movies of all time.
Batman Begins is, twelve years after its release, one of the greatest comic book movies. The film is a splendid rebooting of a character and series that had fallen out of grace and would make Batman a viable superhero once again in the eyes of audiences and critics.
On top of that it would also pave the way for Christopher Nolan to work on an even grander scale with his follow-up movies; along with his Batman sequels, there would be The Prestige, Inception, Interstellar and Dunkirk. These films would be not only challenging in terms of narrative, structure and themes, but would also prove to be massively successful blockbusters, with Inception in particular winning critical acclaim and audience appreciation due to the fact that it wasn’t afraid to mix big action with even bigger, smarter storytelling.
His film making style would help push Batman away from the gaudy camp and audience apathy that the character had fallen into with the Schumacher films, and even away from the stylised gothic atmosphere of Tim Burton’s two films, into something else. He would create one of the most perfect films with a Batman movie that put the character front and centre in a way that he had never been before.
Amazingly, Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher had found themselves more interested in their villains than one of the most fascinating of comic book characters, and in the end The Joker, Penguin, Catwoman and The Riddler had taken the focus away. By concentrating on the origin tale itself and drawing from Batman:Year One, The Man Who Falls and The Long Halloween, Nolan and Goyer put the focus on Bruce Wayne himself, and his journey to becoming the Dark Knight of Gotham City.
The film follows the character in a narrative that is beautifully fractured, jumping across parts of Bruce’s life but doing so in a way that still feels complete and cohesive, not to mention easy to keep track of. It’s a narrative technique that Nolan has made his own, and was very much a part of Memento and would be again in his follow up, The Prestige, arguably his greatest movie.
Nolan is also helped by his choice of Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne.
Most famous beforehand for his acclaimed role in American Psycho, as well as being a child actor which led to a mesmerizing young performance in Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, Bale inhabits the role of Bruce Wayne in such a way that his performance in this film alone would feel as if he were the definitive on-screen version of the character…at least until Ben Affleck would come along.
Even more amazingly, Bale had to his get body into shape after having lost a tremendous amount of weight for his previous movie, The Machinist. In that movie he was incredibly frail and gaunt and in a short amount of time between filming that movie and Batman Begins, he had to get his body into a condition that was appropriate and buff to pass as the physically perfect Bruce Wayne.
As the series would continue, a running joke amongst critics and fans on the gravelly nature of Bale’s Batman voice would develop, but amazingly in Batman Begins his voice is much more subtle and less in the audience’s face. He owns the dual nature of the role fantastically, mixing gravitas, an emotional undercurrent, action hero chops and even a dollop of psychotic charm that recalls both Michael Keaton’s performance in 1989, as well as Bale’s own as Patrick Bateman..
The villains are not the focus here. It is truly a Batman film. Hell, as it turns out the true villain of the piece was kept a secret in the press, with much of the focus on Cillian Murphy rather than the actor who would turn out to be playing the true villain of the piece.
After twelve years, the film has still not aged a day. Its reliance on more grounded in-camera techniques means that of all the comic book movies from the 2000’s, it’s the one that has aged the best. It truly is a fantastic film and one that still stands up today and, like Richard Donner’s Superman movie, will probably stand the test of time. It’s a brilliantly concocted blend of superhero movie, psychological character drama and superb themes, which also happens to have one of the coolest cars put to screen and a train-set climax that grips like a vice.
It is truly one of the greatest superhero movies ever put to screen.