“No, no, no. A vigilante is just a man lost in the scramble for his own gratification. He can be destroyed, or locked up. But if you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can’t stop you, then you become something else entirely,” says Henri Ducard to Bruce Wayne. Bruce asks, “Which is?” Ducard responds, “A legend, Mr. Wayne.”
1997 marked the end of the Batman film franchise that had started with 1989’s Batman. 1997’s release of Batman and Robin was everything Tim Burton had worked hard to avoid with the two Batman films he had directed. Joel Schumacher had taken over the director’s chair for 1995’s Batman Forever and, despite his style and influence on the film, it still turned out to be a good film mainly because Tim Burton had stayed on as a producer and had developed the film’s storyline. With no Tim Burton involvement for the follow-up, Schumacher had free reign and the resulting mess that was Batman and Robin would put the Caped Crusader’s cinematic adventures in a dormant state for eight years. In the years that followed, a new filmmaker named Christopher Nolan emerged with 1998’s Following and 2000’s Memento (the latter would earn him and his brother Jonathan an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay). With support from Steven Soderbergh, Warner Bros. hired Nolan to direct the English language remake of Insomnia. The success of that film in 2002 led to Warner Bros. hearing Nolan’s pitch for a new Batman movie. Having successfully sold his pitch on a new take of Batman, Nolan then went on the difficult path of bringing new life to the Caped Crusader.
Batman Begins re-introduces us to Bruce Wayne aka Batman, but tells his origin in a way that wasn’t done before. Using a largely nonlinear approach to the story, we learn through flashbacks how Bruce’s parents were murdered, what motivated him to leave Gotham City to travel the world (learning how criminals think and live), and how he was trained by the League of Shadows. Bruce returns to Gotham after seven years, but instead of helping the League of Shadows destroy it, he intends to save it (thus taking on the persona of Batman). We also learn how Batman got his cool gadgets and vehicles, as well as the costume (mostly customized versions of military gear prototypes that never went into production due to cost). Part of Nolan’s approach to Batman was grounding him in as much reality as possible, eschewing Tim Burton’s gothic style and Joel Schumacher’s way over-the-top art direction in favor of a real world setting (just to be clear, Nolan is on record having high praise for Burton’s two Batman films). Although he had a number of sets created (including the Batcave), he shot most of the film on location (including Chicago, the United Kingdom, and Iceland). As much as possible, he also used practical effects and miniatures (only using CGI where it was absolutely necessary).
David S. Goyer co-wrote the screenplay with Nolan, and they were successful in telling a thrilling tale while re-introducing Batman, drawing inspiration from Bob Kane’s characters as well as the Batman graphic novels The Man Who Falls and Batman: Year One. I liked the emphasis on the importance of becoming a symbol over being just a man; a man can be crushed without hesitation but a symbol can live on and become something that people can believe in (an idea that will be challenged in the sequel, 2008’s The Dark Knight). Nolan used Richard Donner’s approach when it came to casting and recruited a terrific ensemble (Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Gary Oldman, Katie Holmes, Ken Watanabe, Rutger Hauer, Tom Wilkinson, Cillian Murphy, Mark Boone Junior, Linus Roache, and, of course, Morgan Freeman). Wally Pfister’s Oscar-nominated cinematography was top-notch; his use of light and shadow captured the essence of the Dark Knight while also harkening back to the lighting of Tim Burton’s Batman films (I also liked his use of orange; very fire-like). Lee Smith’s editing keeps the film moving at a good pace, and he makes excellent use of cross-cutting in the third act to keep the action moving. Nathan Crowley’s excellent production design makes great use of real world locales, but it’s the sets built from scratch (the League of Shadows’ temple, the Batcave, etc.) that are most impressive. Lindy Hemming’s reality-grounded costume designs are first-rate (the re-designed Batsuit was especially terrific). The sound design was excellent, particularly the enhancement to Christian Bale’s voice when he speaks as Batman (I actually didn’t find out about this until after the sequel was released). The visuals are just incredible; the image of Batman being set on fire by the Scarecrow alone was worth the price of admission. Christopher Nolan’s direction is assured; he handles the action sequences steadily as he does with the dramatic scenes.
And then there’s the score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, which is a mixed bag of sorts. The score is serviceable but is nowhere near as good as Danny Elfman’s music for Tim Burton’s Batman films. It isn’t even close to the level of Elliot Goldenthal’s music for Joel Schumacher’s Batman films. Even when not comparing it to previous Batman scores, this film’s score is still just average. It would’ve been a lot more interesting if James Newton Howard had scored the film by himself, however, that isn’t the case, and the score suffers because of Hans Zimmer’s involvement. Although Howard and Zimmer co-wrote every piece of music, it’s very clear which composer came up with what musical idea. Howard came up with the emotional music and Zimmer came up with the action music. Despite his experimentation, Zimmer’s music design sounds like an extension of his music from 2003’s The Last Samurai. His action music also sounds like generic Zimmer action music that he took out of his own music library (it’s as if he tried to make Batman adapt to him rather than the other way around). For me, the film’s only weak element is the score (yes, I actually thought that Katie Holmes’ acting in this film was fine; deal with it). Otherwise, 2005’s Batman Begins is a successful reboot of the Batman film franchise.
[If you’re curious about whether or not Danny Elfman’s music could’ve been applicable to Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, check out this YouTube video.]