Who Was That Masked Man?

Christopher Nolans Batman begins with flesh and bone

I'm guessing—and it's strictly a hunch—that Christopher Nolan enjoyed a happier, better-adjusted childhood than Tim Burton's. He seems to have spent more time outdoors, gone to bed at a more decent hour and, when he did bury himself in books, preferred Edgar Rice Burroughs to Edgar Allan Poe. Whatever the cause, BatmanBegins,which Nolan co-wrote and directed, is a more rugged, robust, athletic picture than Burton's two contributions to the franchise, and ultimately a more compelling one. That's not to take anything essential away from Burton's visionary films and their gothic nightmare-scapes that seemed wrapped in a permanent solar eclipse. Nolan's Batman, however, is a Dark Knight of this world, walking among us in the here and now, a character steeped in the conceit that has always beat at the heart of Bob Kane's original comic creation—that underneath the crusader's cape lies real, mortal flesh and bone. It may be that in making BatmanBegins,Nolan has created history's first neo-realist superhero movie.

I'd also bet that Nolan was the sort of kid who spent more time taking his toys apart then he did playing with them. Illusion doesn't suit him—everything must happen for a reason, and every reason must be something you can see with your eyes or make with your own two hands. In BatmanBegins,the Batmobile looks like the love child of an Abrams battle tank and a Ferrari, the Batsuit is a mix-and-match ensemble of parts ordered from various Asian manufacturers, and even the Batcave is exactly that—the sepulchral, slightly refurbished home to a flock of chiroptera. So it's hardly surprising that Nolan gets charged up by the very aspect of superhero mythology—the origin story—that most comic-book movies treat as a bothersome bit of exposition to be disposed of quickly en route to the spandex. For Nolan, BatmanBeginsis more than a title—it's a mission statement that mandates his Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) not become Batman until more than halfway into the movie.

Fortunately for viewers, there's a method to Nolan's obsessive-compulsive madness. Together with co-screenwriter David S. Goyer (the comic-book guru who previously scripted DarkCityand all three Bladefilms), he's concocted a terrifically involving tale of how the college-age Bruce, consumed by years of guilt and rage over his wealthy parents' brutal murder, leaves Gotham City behind and proceeds to walk the Earth (rather like, well, KungFu'sKane), immersing himself in the transnational underworld in an attempt to understand the workings of the criminal mind. Landing in a Bhutan prison, he submits to the tutelage of a man called Ducard (Liam Neeson, as a leaner, meaner Qui-Gon Jinn), who was once as lost as young Master Wayne—until he found his calling in the service of an enigmatic Asian guru, Ra's al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). The training sequence that follows, as Ducard whips Bruce into shape under Ra's watchful eye, is the most routine passage in BatmanBegins,at least for anyone who's seen a Liam Neeson movie recently. But these scenes, unfolded against a breathtaking snowcapped expanse, are hardly throwaways. Rather, they're imbued with a bracing sense of man's ability to transform himself through focus and discipline. We're seeing Batman get built from the ground up, and it's thrilling.

While Bruce and Ra may share a revulsion toward the world's deviant elements, Bruce's trust in the human potential for good is dismissed as a sentimental weakness by his mentor, who soon stands revealed as part of a terrorist network, the League of Shadows, that is driven to destroy societies that have grown fat and decadent. (Sound familiar?) So Bruce turns his back on his rogue mentor, returning at last to Gotham, to Wayne Manor and its loyal head butler Alfred (Michael Caine), to childhood sweetheart Rachel (Katie Holmes) and to a family megabusiness now in the hands of a downsizing autocrat (Rutger Hauer). At the same moment, Batman is teaming up with police lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman), Gotham's last honest cop, to loose the city's ever meaner streets from the grip of the gangster Falcone (Tom Wilkinson, so oily he merits hazard signage)—and the nefarious psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), more terrifying than even Tom Cruise could imagine. But as Bruce/Batman's instinctual sonar quickly tells him, Falcone and Crane are merely pawns in an old foe's dreams of mass extermination.

That BatmanBeginsgives us an utterly contemporary villain motivated by ideology rather than abject power lust, and has him engage in a philosophical debate with our noble hero is only one of its ingenuities. The movie is a smashing entertainment in which one senses Nolan and Goyer processing all that has come before in the Batman franchise (from Kane to Burton to Frank Miller), jiggling it about and making it their own, resulting in that rare comic-book movie that is at once revisionist and reverential, a deeply personal vision for its creators and yet one that seems destined to sate all but the prickliest of fanboys. Nolan, whose prior films include Memento and Insomnia, makes this movie his own in other ways, too, particularly in those splintery ruptures of its linear narrative that might by now seem a parlor trick in the hands of a less skilled filmmaker, but which on Nolan's watch amount to a lucid visualization of the subconscious. Working again with cinematographer Wally Pfister and production designer Nathan Crowley, he's also made a Batmanmovie that looks and feels unlike any of its predecessors. With its hard edges and sharp corners, his Gotham City seems to have sprung right from the screen of a 1930s Warner Bros. gangster melodrama directed by William Wellman or Raoul Walsh, and the visceral action sequences (including a spectacular freeway pursuit) are like frames lifted not from a comic book but from the greatest James Bond movie never made.

Of course, a Batmanmovie is nothing without a Bruce Wayne, and, by a mile, Bale is the best of a lot that has ranged from the square-jawed slapstick of Adam West to the more dedbonair stylings of Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney. No stranger to reinvention himself, Bale (who reduced his 6'2" frame to skeletal proportions for his previous role in The Machinist) handily trumps his predecessors because he doesn't try to play the part in any one particular way. Instead, he embraces the fragmented identity of a man who wears so many masks he feels his real self slipping away in the scramble. This Wayne is by turns brooding adolescent, foppish playboy, concerned social advocate, and then, with a quick change of costume (and voice), a terrifying force of the id—a Batman who, even demystified, still manages to cast a long, dark, mythic shadow.

BATMAN BEGINS WAS DIRECTED BY CHRISTOPHER NOLAN; WRITTEN BY NOLAN AND DAVID S. GOYER, BASED UPON CHARACTERS APPEARING IN COMIC BOOKS PUBLISHED BY DC COMICS; PRODUCED BY CHARLES ROVEN, EMMA THOMAS AND LARRY FRANCO. NOW PLAYING COUNTYWIDE.

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