It’s hard to believe, but 15 years ago, well before the Marvel Cinematic Universe became the highest-grossing film franchise in the world, moviegoers were pretty skeptical about a new Batman film. Batman Begins wasn’t a monstrous hit like its sequels, grossing only $373.4 million worldwide against a $150 million budget, but director Christopher Nolan and his collaborators won over audiences with their sincere portrayal of the Dark Knight’s origin story, and set the benchmark for all subsequent Hollywood reboots. With Matt Reeves’s take on the young Bruce Wayne still over a year away, what better time for a revisit?
1. The Trilogy’s Prototype
Because the locations and color grading for the two sequels were so different, Batman Begins offers a lot of its own unique pleasures on rewatch, from the grotty, rusting, Blade Runner-inspired setting of the Narrows, to the Scarecrow fear gas effects, and of course, the swarms of flying bats. Nolan understandably didn’t feel like repeating those later, but the kinship that emerges with the animals Bruce feared as a child is so stirring to watch, that it’s bittersweet we didn’t see it again. None of the imagery here may be as profoundly realistic as the brightly lit streets of The Dark Knight, but I’m still grateful we got to see Nolan’s take on a comic book Gotham.
2. A Non-Linear Origin
For a filmmaker famous for non-linear narratives, Nolan conspiciously doesn’t use that kind of storytelling in The Dark Knight Trilogy outside of the first half hour of Begins, where Bruce’s early life is depicted through lengthy flashbacks. This sleight-of-hand allows Christian Bale’s incarnation to go from Bhutanese prisoner to League of Shadows trainee within minutes, but also to revisit and recontextualize familiar moments of the origin: why has Bruce become a broken, self-loathing shell of a man? Because he feels guilt for the murder of his parents, and ashamed that his first course of action when given the opportunity was to seek revenge on their killer, Joe Chill.
3. A Child’s Worst Nightmare
In the comics, Thomas and Martha Wayne are generally murdered after taking Bruce to see a Zorro movie (one of the primary inspirations for Bill Finger and Bob Kane’s character). Here, Nolan and co-writer David Goyer have the Waynes attend a performance of Mefistofele, where the bat-like performers frighten Bruce, and convince his parents to leave through that fateful back alley: the decision explicitly ties together the boy’s fear of bats with the sense of powerlessness he felt losing his parents, and turns bats into a symbol for that trauma, reinforcing the bravery of Bruce’s eventual decision to style himself as his phobia, and his fear that he was responsible for their deaths.
4. Poverty is the Cause of Crime
Joe Chill (Richard Brake) may have pulled the trigger, but he is not, as Alfred suggests, “alone” in causing the Waynes’ deaths. As his parole hearing and Bruce’s subsequent discussion with Rachel reminds us, Chill didn’t mug and shoot the Waynes out of malice, but because of poverty and desperation (rewatch the murder scene slowly, and you’ll notice their killings are panic-induced). Chill is assassinated after leaving the courtroom, and it becomes clear the public hearing was arranged by Carmine Falcone and Judge Faden so he could be murdered in the open: the rot in Gotham is so much bigger than Chill, and Bruce almost became a patsy after smuggling a pistol into the court.
Shamed by Rachel after disclosing this, Bruce throws his pistol into the harbor and confronts Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) unarmed. Like all good villains, Falcone has a point when he calls out Bruce’s arrogance confronting him, and seemingly plants another seed for his alter-ego when he points out that while “the Prince of Gotham” may feel he has nothing to lose, his butler and childhood friend certainly do. Bruce accepts the truth in Falcone’s words, realizing he needs to shed the trappings of his wealth, and begins by trading coats with Rade Šerbedžija‘s homeless man, before stowing away on a ship.
5. Working Class Ally
Nolan and Goyer are keen to emphasize Bruce’s wealth does not make him less of a hero — he may be a buff, billionaire playboy, but he starts the movie in a brutal prison that feeds his inner demons. When he recounts to Liam Neeson’s Henri Ducard/Ra’s al Ghul how his experiences as a drifter taught him why some are driven to crime, there’s a striking moment where he shares stolen food with a Black boy (Jordan Shaw) — it’s a recognition of how your circumstances are often shaped by birth, which is more profound now than when the film was released.Continued below
Similarly, it feels pertinent that when Bruce returns to Gotham, the first woman he puts at ease is Mr. Earle’s Black secretary Jessica (a pre-Black Lightning Christine Adams), or that the first ally he gains is Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox, a Black man explicitly described as being demoted from the board of Wayne Enterprises for causing “trouble.” We also learn that (what becomes) the Batcave was used by Bruce’s great-grandfather as part of the Underground Railroad during the Civil War, strengthening the selfless streak that runs in the Wayne family, and the reminder that the most privileged members of society must use their wealth to aid the downtrodden.
That doesn’t absolve Bruce of how he benefits from inequality, but Nolan and Goyer are well aware they can’t already undermine what they’re spending time establishing — however, they use Michael Caine’s Alfred (whose legendary accent reinforces Bruce’s working class ties) to voice concerns that Batman is not the healthiest use of Bruce’s money: likewise, during the end, when Rachel tactfully rejects Bruce, she expresses hope that his dire solution to the city’s corruption will be only temporary. (In a version of the DC Universe where everyone else is as human as Batman, that’s only reasonable.)
6. Henri Ducard Is and Isn’t Ra’s al Ghul
The third act reveal that Liam Neeson’s character is Ra’s al Ghul, posing as his own second-in-command, is a delightful nod to his comics counterpart’s immortality. Rewatching the film knowing this, Ducard’s duality becomes more apparent: when he leaves Bruce to die in his burning home in revenge for leaving him “for dead,” it’s not because the old villager on the mountain didn’t tell him Bruce saved his life — it’s because he considers the whole League, and his decoys, extensions of himself. (The parallels with Bruce, and the act of making himself more than a man, are also woven into Bruce’s final test, when he turns members of the League into decoys of himself.)
The twist has led to charges that Nolan and Goyer whitewashed the character, who is an Arab of East Asian descent in the comics, but it’s important to remember, firstly, that Ra’s al Ghul is a title (it’s Arabic for “head of the Demon,” his organization in the books), and secondly, he is not a centuries old terrorist in this film — Henri Ducard is merely the current Ra’s al Ghul. Finally, having Ken Watanabe as the real Ra’s might’ve dated the movie as a post-9/11 take on Batman: the League’s ethnically diverse casting helps remind us terrorism has no race or religion.
7. Darkness vs. Pessimism
Batman Begins is dark, but it presents a fundamentally optimistic view of humanity, which is Bruce’s empathetic view that even murderers are victims of a corrupt elite. However, the League of Shadows does not share this belief in the value of every life, and are fine with the collateral damage of the poor and working class losing their lives, homes, or jobs. (Their attempt to destroy Gotham with an economic depression before Bruce was born ironically exacerbated the inequality they seek to destroy.) The League may have been a force for good once, being described as having taken out imperial powers like Rome and Constantinople, but now they’re worthless nihilists, “lost in [what Ra’s calls] the scramble for [their] own gratification.”
Cillian Murphy is wonderful as Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow, his blue eyes radiating an icy menace well before he dons the burlap sack. Crane isn’t afforded as much depth as Ra’s, but he displays the same awareness of Gotham’s problems as him and Bruce Wayne, cynically exploiting the poor record of rehabilitation in prisons to move Falcone’s “criminally insane” thugs to Arkham Asylum, and orders his men to call the cops on Batman because he knows they’ll hinder him more than them. Sometimes, you don’t need a complex villain: you just need a resentful (if inexplicably good looking) nerd who wants to be the top dog for once.
What primarily makes this portrayal a joy to revisit though, is the vividly rendered fear gas-induced hallucinations, which culminates in the awe-inducing sight of Crane himself seeing Batman as a living, drooling bat monster ripped from the pages of “Batman & Dracula: Red Rain,” and Scarecrow astride a fire-breathing horse. Again, it’s understandable Nolan didn’t want to repeat himself in the sequels, but it’s a shame he didn’t bring back these surreal illusions with Murphy himself. (Can you imagine how Heath Ledger’s Joker, or Aaron Eckhart as Two-Face, would’ve appeared under that filter?)Continued below
9. “A Black… Tank”
The Tumbler simply remains an absolute beast of an Batmobile, unsettlingly fast for its size and roaring like a ghost in darkness. The whole sequence where Batman escapes Arkham with the fear gas-infected Rachel is such a rush, for many reasons, including that miniatures are being used instead of CGI, and the simple fact you are actually seeing the car race through the streets of Gotham.
It’s also a joy to see Batman using a vehicle designed for the military-industrial complex to turn the tables on the cops, who are utterly (and amusingly) baffled by this monstrous car. Not that driving this thing is harmless, but for a director often erroneously called humorless, it’s extraordinary how Nolan makes the police the butt of the joke.
10. Gotham’s Finest
On that note, the depiction of the corrupt GCPD, largely inspired by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s ‘Batman: Year One,’ feels startlingly relevant after the issues of violence and racism in police departments across the globe reached breaking point this year. When the police are sent to apprehend the escaped Arkham inmates, a Black resident (Mel Taylor) accuses Gordon’s colleague Flass (Mark Boone Junior) of “harassment,” to which he responds by threatening to use “excessive force.”
Gary Oldman’s Gordon is the ideal police officer, being there for Bruce the night of his parents’ death (an overt change to the comic’s version, who moved to Gotham at the start of ‘Year One’), but our hero still has to ascertain whether he’s been corrupted or not during the intervening years. While Gordon complains that he’s become complicit because he has no one to “rat to,” his superior, Commissioner Loeb (Colin McFarlane) doesn’t appear corrupt like his ‘Year One’ counterpart, though he does seem envious of the Batman, and more concerned with capturing him than the operations he uncovers. (For the record, Loeb’s not Black in the comics either.)
Loeb’s not much help during the crisis in the Narrows either, sending every officer there to contain the breakout: Ra’s al Ghul seems well aware the police can be our own worst enemy, and it’s potent that he uses the fear gas to actively turn them on the civilians they’re meant to protect. It brings to mind current concerns that the police force in America is just too large to reform effectively — thank goodness Gordon’s willing to knock out, and cuff Flass (like in ‘Year One’), before he kills two children at least.
11. How Old is Gordon?
Gordon is seen with his wife and an infant child at home, which is a big inconsistency with The Dark Knight, where both his children are pre-teens roughly a year later: it’s a reminder of how much this version was meant to be based on ‘Year One,’ where James Junior was a newborn baby. The discrepancy is all the more amusing following DC’s 2011 relaunch ‘The New 52,’ when they decided to ditch the character’s Colonel Sanders look in favor of something closer to the ‘Year One’ version, meaning Oldman may as well have been playing the older Gordon the whole time.
12. Ms. Holmes
Speaking of changes, it’s so strange seeing Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes, after the role was recast with Maggie Gyllenhaal in the subsequent films. The best thing you can say about her performance is that she’s perfectly adequate as Bruce’s childhood friend: otherwise, she is very much the weak link in an otherwise stellar cast (have I mentioned Rutger Hauer, Jo Martin, and a pre-Game of Thrones Jack Gleeson were also in this?)
She seems simply too young to be an assistant DA: perhaps she might’ve been a decent Barbara Gordon/Batgirl, but Nolan ultimately made the right choice replacing her with Gyllenhaal. It’s also admittedly impossible to see her and not immediately cast your mind back to 2005, when tabloid gossip made her into an Internet meme: she is undoubtedly the most aged aspect of a film where everything else feels timeless.Continued below
13. Batman is Human
Rachel does have one of the best lines, a mantra that I will never forget and even Batman quotes: “It’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.” Which raises the question: does Batman break his one rule abandoning Ra’s al Ghul on the collapsing monorail? It’s perfectly understandable that he felt Ra’s was too dangerous to be left alive amidst the chaos, but he seems too pithy about his decision.
As funny as his indifference to police cars are now, Bale’s Batman is recklessly unconcerned about deaths he might accidentally cause (which is what concerns Alfred). Still, let’s not dwell on it too much, given there was a 165-minute sequel about the consequences of this sin, and the toll being Batman has on Bruce.
(On a more flippant note, I’m personally glad he left that patronizing jerk: Ra’s wasn’t a patch on his real father.)
14. The Nolan I Knew
When Rachel tells Bruce at the end she hopes to see the man she loved again one day, instead of this demon of the underworld he’s become, I couldn’t help but think about the trajectory Nolan’s career has taken after directing this film: every movie he’s made since, aside from The Prestige (which was released a year after Begins), has also been a gigantic spectacle. Dramatic and poignant spectacles, yes, but I can’t help but be more intrigued to see him direct another low budget mindbender like Memento, Insomnia and The Prestige — hopefully, we will again someday.
In the final scene (lifted from ‘Year One’), where Gordon unveils the Bat-Signal and informs the Dark Knight about the Joker, the concept of escalation is brought up: “We start carrying semi-automatics, they buy automatics. We start wearing kevlar, they buy armor piercing rounds.” It’s something I think about often when it comes to America’s gun crime problem: the mass shooting sprees, murders by police, and other gun-related tragedies all stem from fear of an opponent with more ammunition than you.
The phrase also takes me back to the halcyon days of 2005, when we all assumed the sequel would be called Batman: Escalation: it was such a fun time, speculating about which actors would play the Joker and Harvey Dent; sharing photo manipulations; and wondering what role Scarecrow and Penguin might play, among other elements we wanted in the eventual film. It was a welcome distraction, especially after the 7/7 London bombings that occurred shortly after the film’s release: I vividly remember, after that tragedy, wanting to know why we had terrorists, but not anti-terrorists like Bale’s Batman. 15 years later, I still wish we had a law enforcer like him, to strike awe and hope in all of us by expressly rejecting lethal force and firearms.
This piece is dedicated to Dennis O’Neil, whose story with artist Dick Giordano, ‘The Man Who Falls,’ formed part of the basis for the movie: without him, we would not have talked about Ra’s al Ghul, or Batman himself, today.