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FEATURE: Why Batman Begins is the best movie in Nolan’s trilogy

January 6th, 2013 by Jonathan 4 Comments

While the two sequels have hoovered up most of the plaudits and over $2 billion dollars at the worldwide box office, people often forget just how good the first film in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy is. And how risky a proposition it was at the time.

Now I love all three of the films, and think they constitute the greatest superhero film trilogy of all time, but I’ve always thought, even as The Dark Knight garnered the kind of praise you’d never expect a comic book movie to get, and as The Dark Knight Rises rode an unenviable wave of hype and excitement, that Batman Begins is easily the best of the three films.

I’ll try not to go into too much depth about things like the acting, the action, the cinematography, because each of those aspects is exemplary across the board throughout the trilogy. Rather, I’m going to point out the things that I feel make Batman Begins stand cowled head and shoulders above its more successful sequels.

Maybe it’s because I love a good origin story. Because Batman Begins is nothing if not a good origin story. Previous Batman films have hinted at what made Bruce Wayne decide to dress up as a bat and fight crime, but it wasn’t until Begins that the full journey was presented on screen. Sure, Tim Burton’s 1989 version showed the murder of Thomas and Martha (by The Joker, ugh), but it didn’t show why it caused Bruce to become the Caped Crusader. Begins dedicates the entire first hour to getting inside the mind of the young orphan, as well as borrowing liberally/stealing wholesale from Frank Miller’s seminal Year One, and creating a plausible comic book reality where you can believe that this chain of events leads to Bruce donning the black suit.

It has realistic villains, in Tom Wilkinson’s Carmine Falcone, Cillian Murphy’s Jonathan Crane and SPOILER Liam Neeson’s Ra’s Al Ghul that further helps the film’s more grounded approach, and in making the main villain someone who has a deep personal connection to Bruce, and who we have spent the whole first act of the film getting to know, it ups the stakes significantly when it is revealed he is the true mastermind behind it all. But crucially, none of these adversaries steal the show from the main man; something every Batman film before and, if we’re honest, since has done. Batman/Bruce is the star of the show here, as he rightfully should be. Given the spotlight, we’re finally able to see all three sides of Wayne; the tortured orphan, the playboy millionaire façade and the symbol of fear.

And the film plays up the power of Batman like never before; he really is a terrifying beast here, striking terror into the hearts of thugs and crime bosses where before he was at best just a guy in a funny suit that hits things, and at worst a garish monstrosity (yes, I’m talking about you Clooney). Take a look at his first appearance in the suit at the docks; using the shadows to frighten his enemies before taking them down. When he rips Falcone from his car and proclaims ‘I’m Batman,’ you really believe it. And Christian Bale completely nails every aspect of the character, imbuing Bruce Wayne with a soulful melancholy where before he had more of a detached quirk (a very Burton-esque touch that while it did work within the tone of that film, just isn’t Batman) and his Batman is just as he should be. Let’s just say, it’s no coincidence that under the effect of his own hallucinogenic drug, Crane sees Batman as a snarling demon. And as much stick as Bale’s Bat-voice got, it’s never used to better effect than in a scene where Batman has corrupt Gotham cop, Flass, hanging three stories above the ground and yells at him for information. Flass, terrified, replies ‘That’s all I know, I swear to God.’ Batman’s reply is just three words, but delivered in a voice that comes straight from the very bowels of Hell. ‘SWEAR TO ME!” is just one of the many moments in this film that just is Batman.

Begins is also considerably more straight forward than it’s at time incredibly bloated and overstuffed sequels. There’s nothing wrong with filling a film with as many ideas as possible, but for me, come the climax of The Dark Knight I’m exhausted. And not necessarily in a good way. Everything in The Dark Knight builds to the moment Harvey Dent becomes Two Face and SPOILER Rachel Dawes is killed. And then the film goes on for another half an hour with a silly bomb-on-a-boat subplot and if you really stop to think about it, the entire plot relies on coincidences and massive leaps in logic to make any of the Joker’s machinations possible. Begins is relatively plot light in this regard but at least it’s coherent; there’s this fear gas, the League of Shadows are planning on releasing it, Batman has to stop it. Begins builds and builds until this climax, only culminating in the final showdown between Batman and Ra’s after which we can all take a breath and relax. TDK runs out of steam after two hours and although the final moments, with Gordon delivering a trailer friendly speech (silent guardian, watchful protector, dark knight, yada yada yada), are powerful, the film really ended 40 minutes ago.

Gotham City itself in Batman Begins also sets it apart from the subsequent sequels; in The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, various real cities were used as different parts of Gotham but it just made it feel like it was any other city. I much prefer the Gotham of Begins, in what was perhaps a holdover from the earlier films a far more Gothic themed cityscape than the city in the films that followed. It strikes a neat balance between the Gothic Gotham of Returns and a more recognisable urban area that by turns looks familiar and like no city you’ve ever seen before. It breathes atmosphere. Perhaps it’s an aspect of the film that Nolan didn’t like, hence it not really featuring in TDK or TDKR, but places such as the Narrows, are given a wonderful run down, grungey look. The Gotham of the sequels looks like a nice place to live while Gotham of Begins looks like it’s a city in decay.

As no-one knew how a Batman movie would fare after the debacle of Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin, the film did decent if not spectacular numbers, but even if it hadn’t what we would have been left with is a lovely self contained Batman story. A one shot, to use the comic book vernacular. And one with the greatest tease to future adventures I’ve ever seen. That Joker card doesn’t feel like a ‘to be continued…’ at all, despite the fact that the next film does feature the Clown Prince of Crime; it feels like a film that’s confident enough to leave you happy that this world continues long after the credits have rolled, much like the ending of The Dark Knight Rises.

Basically, the film is so good because the source material was finally given the respect it deserves. Yeah, we’d had a couple of X-Men films before this and two Spider-Man films, but Batman Begins is the first film to take these characters and not just plonk them in kids’ films that adults could also like; these were proper real grown-up films that just happened to have a man dressed up as a bat fighting crime. The books had long since been far more sophisticated than non comic readers gave them credit for; it was time for a film to treat them in the same way, and not just as camp superheroics.

Batman Begins just gets the world, the tone and most importantly the character of Batman so so right, as evidenced by the last lines of the film which get me teary eyed even thinking about them, not just because they’re great lines but because this was a movie in which someone had done Batman justice. They made me want to stand up and applaud the first time I saw Begins in the cinema. And they’re another example of something that just screams Batman.

Gordon: I never said thank you.
Batman: And you’ll never have to.

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When he's not trying to convert his wife to the ways of The Force, he really likes Star Wars, Jonny can more than likely be found in front of a screen. Probably watching a ridiculous amount of TV. Or playing a ridiculous amount of games. Or basically doing anything in ridiculous amounts. He really likes Star Wars. He's writing a book, or at least trying to. You can follow him on twitter if you like (@Jonny_C85) or find him on facebook. That's another screen you're likely to find him in front of. He really likes Star Wars.

  • CJ Wheeler

    Hear, hear! Batman Begins came out of nowhere and was better for it. Nolan fanboys didn’t exist back then and the movie stood on its own. The Dark Knight was a close second thanks to Joker but by The Dark Knight Rises things had descended into the pits, appropriately enough. The ending to Dark Knight Rises – specifically the bomb scene and Joseph Gordon Levitt’s character – is one of the most hilarious things I’ve ever seen and sadly undermines the previous movies. It also wastes fantastic performances by Anne Hathaway and Tom Hardy. You make a good point that Begins is a great origin story. It’s just a shame that the producers of Dark Knight Rises didn’t realise that nobody can end Batman. Comics have a different structure to film and it just doesn’t work.

    • Anonymous

      Well said CJ. I’ve got into so many arguments when i say Rises is an inferior movie. (Marc)

    • Jonny Cardwell

      While I do think Rises is the weakest of the three and have significant problems with the pacing as well as the reveals in the third act (Talia for instance), I feel that the montage of scenes near the end, minus the clunky ‘Robin’ bit, is note perfect. I’m happy that the film closed the book on the Bruce Wayne incarnation of Batman (that scene where Alfred spots him makes me cry) and the theme of the series (Batman being a symbol) is neatly set up in a way, like I said above, that makes you happy that the world of Gotham will continue, just we don’t get to see it. Although, I too have problems with JGL’s character, as he’s essentially just there for that final shot.

  • winnmachine73

    Picking the best of these three movies is tough because they are all excellent but in the end I do like Batman Begins best. Origin stories have the potential to be excellent. They show how our hero became the hero. Unfortunately, most of them are either boring or don’t give us enough info to understand the transformation. Batman Begins does an excellent job of showing Bruce Wayne’s yearning for a reason to live. You can tell he is completely lost, that his life really lacks meaning. But beyond the mental/spiritual growth, we understand how he BECAME Batman. We see him spend years learning to fight, to exist in the seediest parts of the world, to understand the thieves and killers he’ll come to fight. I think they also do an excellent job of giving a rational explanation of how he gets his gear. The Applied Sciences division was perfect. He had access to amazing gear. He wasn’t sewing together his own suit a la Spiderman. He benefited from the work of scientists and developers and appropriated their work for his needs. The idea that things like the Batsuit worked great but were too expensive to produce is not only reasonable – it is believable. When it comes to comic book/superhero movies, we often have to suspend disbelief and just go with it. With Batman Begins, we see our hero grow through years of training and fighting. We see him make use of amazing tools. He takes thousands – perhaps millions – of dollars in government contracts to make himself into the Batman. One of the best line in any comic book movie comes from this one. When Batman is about to take off after the train, Rachael stops him and says that he could be killed. She wanted to know who he was. When he replied “It’s not who I am underneath but what I do that defines me” and then took off, I literally got goosebumps. I think all three movies are excellent (although it took multiple viewings for me to really love Rises) this is still the best one. Beyond that, it is probably the best “origin” movie ever made.

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