Of all the foes that Batman's faced--the Joker, the Riddler, Two-Face, the Penguin--the only one that ever really kicked his ass was Hollywood.
Filmmakers and studios have never quite known what the hell to do with DC Comics' dark, brooding, and borderline sociopathic superhero. (Or, more accurately, anti-superhero, if there is such a thing.) Created in 1939 by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, Batman comics have always resonated with readers--but their often violent and cynical tone put off accurate adaptations from studios looking for an easy superhero fix. In the campy '60s TV series, Adam West played Batman as a bumbling goof, Michael Keaton's Batman was a wimpy weirdo in Tim Burton's Batman and Batman Returns (which weren't about Batman so much as they were about Jack Nicholson's Joker and Burton's directorial style), while Val Kilmer and George Clooney suffered through Joel Schumacher's gayer-than-thou, neon-slathered hack jobs of Batman Forever and Batman & Robin.
Eight years after the more-than-justified failure of the execrable Batman & Robin, Warner Bros. has decided to reboot the Batman franchise. Enter Batman Begins--a vigorous, intelligent film that's dark, disturbing, and thoroughly adult.
Greatly influenced by the Batman comics of Frank Miller, director Christopher Nolan (Memento) and screenwriter David S. Goyer (the fun but stupid Blade movies) start off Batman Begins with a young Bruce Wayne, the fortunate son of a billionaire industrialist. Bruce roams his family's mansion, learns lessons from his father, and is cared for by the Waynes' warm, dryly witty butler, Alfred (Michael Caine)--until Bruce's parents are killed in Gotham City's dank alleys.
It's here that Batman Begins stretches out, forging a reimagined story of a lost Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) searching the world for meaning. Eventually, he's found by Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), who trains Wayne in combat and philosophy under the auspices of Ducard's sinister mentor, Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). Coming to terms with his anger, Wayne decides to return home--to avenge his parents and protect Gotham.
What follows is too good to ruin in a rushed synopsis. Leave it to say that the film overflows with tension, verve, and a plot that involves a Gotham visit from Ra's Al Ghul, an alliance with the city's last honest cop (Gary Oldman), a reunion with Wayne's idealistic childhood friend (Katie Holmes), and run-ins with a sinister psychologist (Cillian Murphy) who uses hallucinogens and a scarecrow mask to experiment on his patients.
But beneath Wayne's actions--and underlying Nolan's entire film--are decidedly un-Hollywood themes of fear, vengeance, and dedication. Nolan's Batman Begins is so much fun because it embraces Batman's inherent creepiness rather than trying to hide it. By day, Wayne puts on the act of a billionaire playboy; at night he beats the shit out of crooks while dressed as a flying rodent. It's a funny, bizarre dichotomy, and one that the talented, sure-footed Bale takes full advantage of.
But a good portion of the film's success is due to the supporting cast (Neeson, Caine, Oldman, and the always-good Morgan Freeman, who shows up as an unexpected ally), all of whom are smartly subtle. There is some silliness here--largely with Holmes' love interest character (can anyone look at her and not see Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah's couch?) and with Murphy's sometimes chilling, sometimes lame villain. But Goyer and Nolan usually keep it grounded; Batman's sordid, scary world feels both fantastic and real. And for the first time, Batman feels aligned with the times--it'd be too much to extol Batman as a Bush-era superhero (he was invented in 1939, after all), but how recognizable the corrupt Gotham feels and how justifiably angry Batman is are parallels both disconcerting and apropos.