Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins ranks among the more frustrating movie-going experiences of the past year for me: so much is rich with ingenuity and daring that its constant missteps are exceptionally glaring. The pacing, much like Ang Lee’s Hulk, is deliberate, but all the better for it. Batman Begins traces Bruce Wayne’s ascension to the Dark Knight: fear and anger (both born from his parent’s murder) merge to fuel his intense training, and fierce determination to save Gotham from its hordes of corrupt politicians, drug kingpins, and thugs. As such, Wayne (Christian Bale) doesn’t don the bat-outfit until halfway through the picture, and only one classic villain, the Scarecrow (played deliciously by Cillian Murphy), partakes in the main storyline. Rather, Nolan focuses on the never-ending battle with fear that we all fight; even those who are viewed by the public with starry eyes must conquer their worst nightmares, perhaps even more than most. While this angle is certainly uncharacteristic of the Batman movies, it’s a welcome breath of fresh air…theoretically.
As fantastic as the concept is, the execution for much of Batman Begins is equally lackluster. The dialogue is consistently heavy (“What is fear?” serves as the mantra for life in Gotham , which apparently means repeating some semblance of it 97 times), pulling down the tension like a weighted anchor. Esteemed actors such as Michael Caine (Alfred), Liam Neeson (Ducard), and Tom Wilkinson (Falcone) ham it up, and less-esteemed “actresses” like Katie Holmes continue to embarrass themselves. Morgan Freeman plays a superb Morgan Freeman. Gary Oldman (Lt. Gordon) is more than serviceable, though, toning it down quite a bit from his days of Leon: The Professional. As for Bale (the crucial cog here and an actor whom I’ve grown to admire), he does a superb job of harnessing Wayne’s inner demons (as best the script allows, anyway). He’s not quite as successful as Batman, where his enunciations come across as over-the-top, and the frenetic hand-to-hand combat editing (which primarily consists of an onscreen flash, then a whole bunch of unconscious villains on the ground) keep the audience from breathing in the Caped Crusader’s dark grace. And that’s just it: Batman Begins has a dark storyline, dark (and excellent) cinematography, and dark, humanistic characters, but it doesn’t have a particularly dark aura. The shoddy writing and hokey love subplot constantly drag us away from the gritty determination that gave Batman Begins so much potential, and aside from a few great moments—mostly involving Scarecrow—it too often feels like a crushing missed opportunity, eschewing an in-depth character study for cheesy nonsense.I suspect that Nolan—who helmed the indie phenomenon Memento (2001), as well as Insomnia (2002) with Al Pacino—was severely handcuffed by the studio here.
If Batman Begins had been just another empty Hollywood action flick at its core, I would have subscribed to the theory that Nolan betrayed his filmmaking roots, but there’s too much creativity furiously bubbling beneath the finished product, desperate to emerge, to write Nolan off so easily. Perhaps he was handcuffed by the 180 million dollar budget—coaxed into dumbing down the screenplay—or perhaps dollar signs really did seduce him. Whatever caused it, Nolan’s Batman Begins ends up as a maddening, tantalizing failure unwilling to follow through to the end and as much as I admire ambition, the end result is several notches below X2, Hulk, and even Spiderman as genre pieces. And that’s a damn shame, because more than any of those films, Batman Begins had the potential to rise above its genre, and be truly great.