My opinions of the last four Batman movies — Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, and Batman & Robin — were, respectively, “so-so,” “wretched,” “good, but only in comparison to the others,” and “it’s stuff like this that makes me wish the Neanderthals had clubbed homo sapient into extinction back on the savannah.” And after each and every one, even the ones I kinda liked, I walked out of the theater thinking the same question. Why, when scores of excellent Batman comic books have been written, does Hollywood feel the need to hire some screenwriter with zero comic book experience to come in and make up the entire mythos from scratch? And I’m not just talking about the big stuff, like “The Joker killed Bruce Wayne’s parents?” and “Catwoman gains superpowers after being licked by cats??!” but even the minutia, like making Batgirl Alfred’s niece. You could argue that things like Batgirl’s identity don’t really matter, but that’s my point: if they don’t matter, what’s the point of changing them?
What I really wanted was for someone who wrote Batman comic books (or read a few, at least) to take a crack at the script. Who woulda guessed that Christopher Nolan– the genius behind one of my all-time favorite movies, Memento — was that guy? And the co-writer, David S. Goyer, is not only an honest-to-goodness comic book writer (he pens Justice League of America), but has worked on such films as The Crow, Blade, and the forthcoming film The Flash — not to mention the sublime Dark City. Put ’em together and you get a Batman movie that (mostly) feels right.
Batman Begins at the beginning, even before the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents (which is not at the hands of The Joker, thank God — signaling that this new series is completely divorced from the earlier claptrap). In fact, we don’t even get to see the familiar cape and cowl until the midpoint of the film, as the story focuses on the events and training that shaped Bruce Wayne into the legendary crimefighter.
Right from the gate it’s apparent that Nolan’s approach to the material is radically different from Tim Burton’s, as he strives to make the narrative as realistic as possible. Burton created a fantastic, comic book universe for his Batman movies; Nolan grounds the hero in our own. In fact, my one gripe with Batman Begins stems from this fact. Nolan does such a good job of making the back-story believable that that Bruce Wayne’s transition from “angry guy who’s really good at martial arts” to “angry guy running around in a cape” is a bit jarring, taxing the audience’s suspension of disbelief to the limit.
But, in my opinion, two things make up for all of this movie’s other deficiencies: Alfred Pennyworth and Commissioner (sory, “Captain”) Gordon. As the mythos of Batman has evolved in the comic books it has become clear that these two men are more than just supporting characters, they are every bit as integral to the success of The Batman as Bruce Wayne himself. Batman Begins treats them as such. As far as I’m concerned, this alone shows that Nolan (and Goyer) understand the story of Batman better than any of the previous screenwriters did.
Batman Begins is not perfect, and there’s a few scenes and lines that ring false. But it’s a quantum leap better than the older ones, and, as superhero movies go, on par with the X-Man series and Spiderman II.
A waited a month and a half after Batman Begins’ release to see it, and then only because it was getting rave reviews. I assumed that no good Batman movie would ever be made. But when the sequel debuts — and assuming Nolan is still behind the helm — I may well be there on opening night.