Batman is back. Or, rather, he's reintroducing himself. Batman Begins is Warner Bros.'s way of starting over again, after the original four-part franchise that began with Tim Burton's Batman of 1989 and ended, with a gasping whimper, with Joel Schumacher's Batman and Robin of 1997. As a comic book-based series, those films were a bit alone in the '90s -- there was no other standard for this brand of entertainment, so the Batman movies were rather liberally interpretive of their subject. And because of how quirky they were and how dramatically they collapsed, they probably added to the general discouragement of movie studios when deciding whether or not to adapt other superheroes to the big screen.
This decade is a different time, though. The sudden influx of successful comic book movies based on Marvel Comics characters has created a definite new standard, one that's based on the credo: "Give the fans what they want." And what the fans want are more loyal adaptations of tone. Thus, X-Men needed to be angsty, Spider-Man needed to be energetic and eye-popping. What's the new Batman's tone? Quite simply: dark, brooding, and maybe a little insane.
Batman Begins follows the tracks established by others, adopting the code of fan expectation fulfillment, and, thus, surprises little. It's the ol' double-edged sword again -- yes, it's very faithful in tone and character, but, no, not much of it stands out artistically. This may not normally be irksome, but it has the bothersome problem of having a predecessor for comparison. Burton's Batman, the first and the best of the original franchise, was by no means a perfect movie -- the biggest beef I have with it is that it's more about The Joker than Batman. But the movie contained a lot of memorable moments and characteristics, from Jack "Wait'll they get a load of me" Nicholson to Danny Elfman's score, still, for me, unrivaled as the greatest comic book-movie theme of all time. And Burton gave the movie style to spare.
This Batman has style, too, but its style feels expected. Director Christopher Nolan is right to make the movie feel Blade Runner-esque, but with much more urban decay, and that's just the thing. He gets it right. And I see it, and I'm happy about it, but it doesn't spark me. I just feel content. So that's my trouble -- I recognize that this is good work, but I can't get terribly excited about it, because it just meets my expectations. Does that make any sense?
Nevertheless, there's a lot to admire here. The supporting cast is wonderful, a panoply of A-list actors playing small parts charmingly and effectively, including Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, and especially the scene-stealing Michael Caine. As for the man himself, Christian Bale makes a pleasantly good Bruce Wayne. He can channel an intensity which seems to come from deep within while projecting subtle evidence that he's likely quite disturbed (part of this may come from memory residue of his performance in American Psycho, thus strangely and appropriately enhancing his performance here). The characters are well fleshed-out, and, what a relief, this time the movie's actually about Batman -- all the theatrics belong to him and not, say, a vamping Tommy Lee Jones or Jim Carrey.
Batman Begins also features a good thematic focus, honing in on fear as a powerful enemy and ally, effectively manipulable, dangerously debilitating, and potent in its emotional grip. In fact, the movie would have been very satisfactory as a deeper exploration of these ideas, as opposed to making rather ordinary concessions to the action movie template of car chases, indiscernibly edited fight scenes, general destruction of public property, and a save-the-city ending. Again, these kinds of things aren't necessarily bad, they're just generally expected. And I expect Batman Begins to make most fans of the Caped Crusader very happy. Memorable? I'm not sure yet. Let's put it this way: you won't see anything as bizarre as Jack Nicholson pulling out the longest-barreled pistol in the world from his pants. You may react postively or negatively to this. Me? I react both ways.
(Released by Warner Bros. and rated "PG-13" for intense action violence, disturbing images and some thematic elements.)
Review also posted on www.windowtothemovies.com.