There is a small passage at the start of Frank Miller's comic book, "The Dark Knight Returns." It speaks of a bar, a small saloon which is usually filled with the long-forgotten villains of Gotham city. "They talk about a Man of Steel. An Amazon Princess."
"But they never talk about the mean one. The cruel one. The one who couldn't fly or bend steel in his hands. The one who scared the crap out of everybody and laughed at all of the rest of us for being the envious cowards we were... Not a man among them wants to hear about Batman."
And until Batman Begins, we never really had. In film anyway.
When a young Bruce Wayne experiences a tragedy, his life is taken down the path of vengeance and retribution upon the criminals of Gotham.
Batman has always been a favourite of filmmakers; iconic imagery, fantastic setting, great villains, heaps of source material to draw from. And yet, before Batman Begins, there had never been an origins story for the world's greatest masked detective. Tim Burton's Batman touched on the beginnings but we had never seen the transition from tortured adolescent to caped vigilante. Starting with this in mind, and keeping the movie firmly cemented in the real, plausible world, Nolan and his team created a Batman who was first and foremost Bruce Wayne and a film in which the man inside the suit is just as interesting as the one throwing himself from building to building. Nolan's attitude towards what was once simply a comic book character is what has given Batman Begins and its sequel such incredible status in the comic book movie genre. Nolan and Goyer's screenplay manages to recreate this superhero with all of his flaws and triumphs while making the human underneath just as complex and interesting. As much as the script is filled with huge action pieces, Nolan focuses on the smaller, heartfelt moments even more. Bruce Wayne meeting Rachel at a hotel and struggling desperately to make her think better of him. A young Bruce surrounded by the dead bodies of his parents, suddenly an orphan. While the script may be broadly funny and often plot-driven, it's moments like these when Nolan's understanding and love for this character beyond his suit and cape shines through. The suit and cape themselves have a clever and expanded history now, as well as the legendary Batmobile. Lifting the prototypes from his company's Research and Development department is a stroke of genius which only adds more to the illusion of plausibility. It's a long time before Batman puts on his suit, but the time spent figuring out Bruce Wayne is well spent. But then, when the suit is finally donned, the script soars even higher. Nolan doesn't shy away from or ignore the real world consequences of a masked vigilante beating up criminals, nor does he over-imbue his character with power. It's always obvious that our hero is just a man in a really thick suit; by no means invulnerable and hardly infallible. It's this factor which gives the action a nerve destroying edge, as it's never a guarantee that our hero will win; cape and all he may still fail. He's not faster than a speeding bullet and he doesn't have spidey sense. This reality makes every victory magnified exponentially, as you're just relieved Bruce actually survived, much less won.
And it's not just the script which makes these action scenes air-punch brilliant. Nolan's masterful work behind the camera gives the viewer a sense of scale which belies its studio limitations. Though limitations is actually a misnomer, as Gotham City was built inside an airplane hangar to the scale of an actual city. The city itself is a sprawling, expressionist wonderland, with the twisting, constantly raining narrows giving a sense of claustrophobia before any prisoners are let out of their cages or the monolithic skyscrapers of Gotham City looming large over a young Bruce Wayne. Nolan's mantra for Gotham's surrounding was 'eliminate whimsy,' and the result is a believable yet subtly effecting environment for his hero. This mantra carries over into the rest of the film as well, with a practiced and precise filming style throughout the film. Nolan's decision to "film Batman from the point-of-view of the criminals" is a brilliant one. Batman's first attack on organised crime at Falcone's shipments gives Batman an almost magical, supernatural ability to appear and disappear at will. And while you realise that it's all theatricality and deception, it never dulls the effect. When Batman appears in the middle of a group of henchmen, all the action takes place in the viewer's mind as all we truly witness is a flurry of feet and the occasional flap of a cape. But Nolan knows that the smoke and mirrors approach only works in moderation and during Batman's climactic battle, he shows Batman in all his glory, soaring through the narrows, perching crouched on railings and beating the hell out of his opponents. It's a clever journey from ducking and weaving through the action to exposing it in all of its balls-out glory and it makes for exhilarating viewing.
Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard's collaborative score only adds to this feeling. Not since Jaws have two notes been so successfully used to create an unmistakable theme. The film's score beautifully underscores and accentuates the action onscreen.
But all of this would be for naught without the man underneath the cowl. Christian Bale, just coming off his exemplary work on The Machinist looked anorexic and frail, not the ideal look for a billionaire who spends his nights beating up the criminal underworld with his bare hands. But his understanding and complete inhabiting of Bruce Wayne, coupled with his incredible ability to be whatever size he needs to be for a role, means that his version of the Batman will live on in history as the definitive performance in the minds of many. His performance isn't overly showy or screen hogging, but its purity and simplicity make it utterly believable and totally convincing both as the man in a cape and a man trying to seem perfectly normal to the outside world. Bale has said that his favourite part about the character is that his public persona of Bruce Wayne is the man's real performance, that the Batman is who he really is. Bale's understanding of this character makes this one of his best performances of one hell of a career. The supporting cast do great work as well. It's hardly strange considering that the support consists of Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson and Rutger Hauer, but the cast are uniformly convincing in the respective parts. If there's a weak point it's Katie Holmes' Rachel, but Bale's performance brings hers up by association. The standout of the supporting cast, however, is Cillian Murphy, a relatively small-time star before Batman, who turns in a clever, twisted and often terrifying performance as Scarecrow. He's menacing and cold in equal parts as well as being utterly despicable at all times.
Batman Begins is the first fitting origin for one of the world's favourite superheroes, as well as being a brilliant piece of cinema and a detailed study of a difficult character. That'd be Christopher Nolan's work then.
Batman's first assault on organised crime ending with a very special signal lighting up the sky. A hero is born again.
It's not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.