The dark night cometh: ‘Batman Begins’ better than it ends in Nolan’s new film

“Batman Begins”

Warner Bros. Pictures

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Written by David Goyer and Christopher Nolan

Starring: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Katie Holmes and Gary Oldman

Rated PG-13/ 134 minutes

Opens June 15, 2005

Three out of four stars

Fortunately for “Batman Begins” director Christopher Nolan (“Memento,” “Insomnia”), audiences assess franchise films using paradoxical criteria. Regardless of blandness, if one such movie outshines its brethren, it is lauded as a tour-de-force. Even a mediocre addition remains somewhat impervious to conventional scrutiny.

Think of this phenomenon as the “Star Wars” Effect-despite atrocious acting and incompetent screenwriting, “Revenge of the Sith” garnered enormous, arguably undeserved, acclaim. Why? Well, compared with its two prequels, number three might as well call itself “Casablanca.”

This same effect applies to “Batman Begins,” which on its own merit flickers like a bulb with a wire short, but provides the Batman movie legacy with a much-needed panacea.

Nolan’s film dangles mere millimeters from the Batarang precedent set by Tim Burton’s seminal “Batman,” offering a more human Dark Knight than audiences have ever known and a grittier, more compelling Gotham than anyone has seen before.

Within its nebulous Chicago-inspired substructure teeming with depravity and desperation beneath layers of denial and modern-noir architecture, Gotham itself becomes a symbol for the film as a whole. It’s a living, breathing, vacillating dichotomy between the forces of good and evil on a mythological scale. Much like Batman himself, and the franchise at large, Gotham is a city perpetually on the brink of self-destruction, though never beyond the hope of salvation.

Gotham is no longer simply a comic book metropolis, but rather a larger, more allegorical human environment-the city offers viewers an undeniably attractive structure for the film, and its essential opacity allows for a deeper reading in terms of metaphor. While its execution (and possibly intention) in terms of deeper meaning is arguable, Gotham’s buildings and alleys might be the only place aficionados find rapture-and maybe the Bat’s new hope.

“Begins” tackles Bruce Wayne’s lesser-known callow years. Having witnessed his parents’ murders years earlier, a seething Bruce Wayne (played by Christian Bale) abandons college to inhabit myriad global slums. In so doing, he hopes to discern the criminal mind by, uh, becoming a thug himself.

In an Asian prison, he meets Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), the infamous Ra’s al-Ghul’s (played by Ken Watanabe) fu-Manchu-sporting messenger. He persuades Wayne to seek training with his enigmatic boss in his perilous mountaintop dojo, the headquarters for the clandestine League of Shadows. Wayne makes the trek to the mountain lair, where Ducard mentors him-in other words, kicks Wayne’s ass until his brooding rage mutates into perfect physical and mental discipline.

As thanks for this service, Wayne refuses to join Ra’s al-Ghul’s fascist global task force, burns down its headquarters and flees to Gotham.

After a seven-year hiatus, he reunites with his butler, Alfred (played impeccably by Michael Caine), and an old friend/perpetual liability, Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), Gotham City’s district attorney. Seeing his city in shambles, Wayne resolves to ameliorate Gotham’s rampant corruption by converting his deepest phobia into vengeance incarnate.

As default owner of Wayne Enterprises-which seems to have a hand in every enterprise imaginable-he obtains from engineer Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) his Batsuit and Batmobile, a craggy prototype tank nicknamed The Tumbler.

Meanwhile, Dawes cannot successfully incarcerate Gotham’s criminals. The city’s judges, seemingly entranced by criminal psychiatrist Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), invariably deem them insane and ship them off to his Arkham Asylum for further analysis.

Dawes asks questions, Crane (also known as phobia-manipulating supervillain The Scarecrow) tries to off her, and Batman becomes entangled with the first of his foes.

In pursuing The Scarecrow and tracing his connections, Batman discovers that Crane is merely a pawn in a vast apocalyptic effort led by…

Actually, that’s enough.

Though initially character-driven, Goyer’s screenplay rapidly deteriorates into standard good vs. bad blockbuster fare-wholly predictable by minute 44. This wouldn’t be so disappointing had Goyer not whet audiences’ appetites with “Begins'” soul-plumbing first 30 minutes.

On a positive note, Goyer’s script calls for a flawed Dark Knight, one that castigates guests at dinner parties and makes dangerous errors in his quest to obliterate Gotham’s crime. Though incongruous with the emblematic Batman persona, Bale’s raw Batman bleeds, respires and stews in fury. He’s tormented and fallible-the type of imperfect character to which audiences can more intimately relate.

Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon (here a sergeant and a lieutenant, but in later films the police commissioner) stands out among the supporting cast. A good cop swimming among bad cop sharks, Gordon luminesces as an almost beatific presence. Oldman’s Gordon, mustachioed and looking jaded, actually evolves throughout “Batman Begins’,” shedding his initial taciturnity and emerging as a capable leader. Nolan insists on maintaining a high level of grittiness in his film, which makes for killer pyrotechnics, but pretty much destroys the hand-to-hand combat scenes. Frenetic and close-quartered, the brawls look more realistic than most, but this is not necessarily a good thing. Who is hitting whom becomes a recurring question, and instead of looking primal and hardcore, the choreography just looks shoddy.

Perhaps the letdown some fans will experience with “Batman Begins'” boils down to a quagmire of expectations: We expect a “Memento”-quality story from Nolan, and when he delivers a visually satisfying, appropriately mythic, but ultimately insubstantial, popcorn flick, we feel like the wind’s been let out of our sails.

It’s not a bad film, but it’s by no means perfect either. Those purists still looking for the quintessential, nearly flawless incarnation of the Caped Crusader (and who don’t read comics) still need look no further than the streamlined, art-deco Gotham and beautiful anachronism of “Batman the Animated Series,” whose first three seasons are already on DVD.

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