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.