A new perspective on a caped crusaderWe’re in prison, somewhere in northern Asia. In the dinner line, a mangy, bearded white man accepts his daily portion of slop. Another inmate ― a huge, bulked-up thug ― picks a fight, and in seconds they’re into it. The guards break it up and drag the bearded man to his cell. There, waiting in the shadows, is a stranger in a clean, crisp suit, who tells him that the world is too small for a man like Bruce Wayne to hide in it.
For those not versed in American pop culture, Bruce Wayne is Batman, and this is the counterintuitive opening of “Batman Begins.” No Gotham City, no “bat signal” in the sky; no Joker, Penguin, Catwoman or Batmobile ― just the wintry, rocky ground of some harsh land, and a sullen wanderer who, for some reason, has the same name as the guy described in the old TV show as a “millionaire playboy.”
“Batman Begins” eventually brings us around to that familiar mythos, but only after director and co-writer Christopher Nolan (“Memento”) performs the slow miracle of making it believable, relatively speaking. For the first hour or so, if we didn’t know who Bruce Wayne was, we’d have scarcely a reason to suspect we were watching a movie about a superhero. There’s an element of fantasy in the first act, but it involves a martial arts cult, which is less of a stretch.
The stranger who appears in Wayne’s cell, played by Liam Neeson, turns out to be the representative of an enigmatic guru named Ra’s Al Ghul. Wayne (Christian Bale), we learn in flashbacks, is the orphaned son of a Gotham City philanthropist, whose parents were murdered in front of him when he was a boy. He’s wandering the world, evidently trying to outrun his rage, and Al Ghul wants to recruit him to his organization ― which, Neeson says, seeks to bring balance and justice to the world.
What follows is an ingenious laying of logical groundwork for the proposition that fighting criminals in a bat suit might not be a completely unreasonable idea. Al Ghul’s ninja cult teaches Wayne not just how to fight, but the value of misdirection, and of using scary, primal images (say, a bat) to disarm and distract. (In Batman’s action scenes in the second half, once he’s begun his career, he’s all blurs and flashes of black.)
This still wouldn’t make for a convincing movie if it weren’t for the commitment of the key actors, and particularly of the director. There’s been a strange little cinematic trend happening lately: superhero movies are being made by gifted independent-film types who think superheroes can be taken seriously. (Maybe it’s generational.) Neither Nolan nor anyone in the cast ― Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Tom Wilkinson ― is winking at us; the performances are straight, smart and underplayed. The hero’s pain and guilt are handled with some complexity, and the theme of moral courage is developed in a more understated fashion than you might expect. The look is gritty and dark, and the special-effects sequences, for the most part, are fresh and surprising (one or two are downright scary). All in all, it’s so effective that you almost accept the basic premise. It’s a near-masterpiece of misdirection.
Action / English
by David Moll