‘Why Do We Fall?’: 15 Years of Batman Begins

Directed by Christopher Nolan
Screenplay by Christopher Nolan & David S. Goyer
Story by David S. Goyer
Release Date: 15th June 2005 (U.S), 17th June 2005 (U.K)
Rating: PG-13 (U.S), 12A (U.K)

There has always been something intriguing about the combination of a comic book-inspired film being helmed by a director who may at first seem like a left-field choice. Think of Sam Raimi going from Evil Dead movies to Spider-Man, or Patty Jenkins going from Monster to Wonder Woman, or in the case of Batman Begins, the director of Memento and Insomnia opting to bring Batman back to the silver screen.

Common wisdom has it that Batman and Robin killed Batman as a viable movie franchise character and comic book cinema, but that’s simply the case of printing the legend as opposed to how it really was.

Despite the disastrous reception that greeted Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin (negative reviews and a box office gross that saw a drop after the commercial success of 1995’s Batman Forever), development on another film featuring DC Comics’ famed Dark Knight never actually came to a halt, while the following year would see the release of Blade, an adaptation of Marvel Comics’ famed vampire hunter giving Wesley Snipes his most iconic character and which launched its own film franchise (with a Guillermo Del Toro-directed sequel that was quite wonderful), and that was only a year after the supposed death of comic book films brought about by Bat-nipples, icy Schwarzenegger puns and emphasis on gadgetry to sell toys.

While Blade was proving a box office smash, and subsequent movie versions of X-Men in 2000 and the record breaking success of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in 2002 making those three movies a kind of Year Zero for the current climate of comic book inspired cinema, Warner Bros. had at various stages of development Darren Aaronofsky’s Batman: Year One, and a script by Andrew Kevin Walker centred around a conflict between Batman and Superman that was at one point circled by director Wolfgang Petersen.

Suffice to say those films never made it before the camera, although a variation of Frank Miller’s Year One would prove to be influential when Bruce Wayne did make his return to the silver screen.

When Batman finally made his debut in a big-budget feature film in 1989, it did so influenced by a series of works that took the character in a darker direction than the more famously humorous and campier tone made famous by the 1960s television series starring Adam West and Burt Ward. The choice of Tim Burton might have seemed odd given that he had previously only directed Pee Pee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, although looking at it now he was a good choice, capable of tapping into the more gothic leanings that made his Gotham a wonderful creation, further enhanced by Anton Furst’s production designs and which took its storytelling influences from Alan Moore’s controversial and problematic The Killing Joke and Frank Miller’s critically acclaimed The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One.

The choice of Christopher Nolan might have seemed left field when announced, but given that he has since devoted his career to an intelligent brand of big budget cinema with elaborate plots, well-orchestrated set-pieces and blockbuster levels of success, it almost seems strange to think there was a time before Batman Begins when the director didn’t work on films of that ilk.

Nolan’s films up to his first foray into the world of Gotham had been intense character driven thrillers, but fuelled by a taste of the epic just lying on the outskirts of their stories; Memento, his breakout film, famously structured itself from end to beginning, while Insomnia dealt with a character having to stay in a part of the world where the sun never goes down while dealing with an accidental murder on his part and blackmail from a suspect he is persuing.

Both were films fuelled by themes of identity and revenge, which have always been at the forefront of the character of Bruce Wayne. Wayne may not be a character seeking direct vengeance, but his quest is fuelled by the loss of his family under violent circumstances, and it’s this which would fuel the exploration of Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins.

The previous generation of Batman films were frequently criticised for putting more emphasis on the villains and it is a hard notion to argue with; Jack Nicholson as The Joker in 1989’s film was the actual star of the film in a casting move reminiscent of 1978’s Superman: The Movie where Marlon Brando (effectively an extended cameo) and Gene Hackman were cast above Christopher Reeve, and while Michael Keaton and Val Kilmer headlined the sequels they starred in, with Batman Returns it was clear that Burton’s interest lay with The Penguin and Catwoman, while Jim Carrey dominated Batman Forever.

Batman Begins would take the character away from the gothic stylings of Burton and the excesses of Schumacher’s films and into the realm of a more grounded and realistic Gotham City environment.

Come 1997 and Batman and Robin, Clooney may have been Bruce Wayne, but with Schwarzenegger playing Mr Freeze, there was no way the ER star was going to be cast above one of the biggest movie stars in the world at that time.

Schumacher’s Batman films are intensely colourful messes (although the sheer awfulness of Batman and Robin makes it an entertaining film to watch), but Burton’s two films remain fascinating. He never opts for a conventional origin tale, instead having Batman fully formed at the very start of his first movie and then having the pieces be brought together as the film goes on, and with it a controversial, but powerful re-interpretation of the origin tale that still proves divisive to this day. He gives the origin tales to his villains which play like the reverse of a conventional comic book film, essentially taking the template established by Richard Donner and Tom Mankiewicz for Superman: The Movie and applying it to the character of Jack Napier (Nicholson) and the dark fairy tale of The Penguin (Danny DeVito).

Nolan and co-writer David S. Goyer opt for a Donner/Mankiewicz approach to the first of their Batman trilogy and the shadow of Donner hangs over the film. Donner wanted a verisimilitude approach to a tale of a character who came from another planet and could fly and it’s that attitude that Nolan would bring to Batman’s world, while never losing sight of the character himself. Burton and Schumacher may have clearly loved their villains, but Nolan, having come up in a more mid-budgeted world exploring characters fuelled by stories of vengeance and loss of identity, grabs Bruce Wayne’s trauma and fears and uses it to tell a Batman story that has the hallmarks we want from a Batman film such as the action and the gadgets and a sense of scale, but never losing sight of character.

The first third of the movie takes a non-linear approach to the story, presenting Bruce Wayne’s origin story as one of memory, as he embraces a future of vigilantism while struggling to let go of a past that saw his parents murdered, and an earlier attempt at vengeance being taken away from him by the criminal underworld of the city, represented by Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson).

Nolan being Nolan, there is a criticism to be had with gender here, unfortunately. Everything about Bruce’s relationship with his parents is filtered through Thomas Wayne (Linus Roche) and not through Martha who barely gets three lines of dialogue and where all of Bruce’s memories which fuel his drive towards becoming a figure of fear in the city are all centred around his father. Parental relationships are a key factor in many of Nolan’s works; The Prestige, Inception and Interstellar all deal with parental figures who, through the nature of the narrative, are kept away from their children and who fight throughout the stories to be reunited with them. Admittedly Interstellar does give us a father/daughter dynamic that is powerfully played, but the lack of screen time or acknowledgment of Martha Wayne throughout Batman Begins does give critics of Nolan and his treatment of female characters some legitimacy.

The film essentially builds the world of Gotham brilliantly and while Nolan famously never wanted to leave things open for sequels, opting instead to use every good idea he would have for each film (although Begins does have one hell of a tease in the final scene that sets up The Dark Knight), you can sense him building the complexities of this Gotham with which he would run with come the second and third instalments of his trilogy; Begins is very much about the criminal and law enforcement; The Dark Knight opens the story to a political arena and one centred on an antagonist fuelled by anarchy; The Dark Knight Rises takes Begins’ passing reference to economics and utilises it in a story centred on a story fuelled by the 99%’s anger against the 1%.

As for Bruce Wayne himself, Christian Bale was most famous for American Psycho, and while Bruce Wayne is never as vicious a character as Patrick Bateman (Batman with an added ‘e’), he brings a similarly nervy psychotic energy at times that almost reminds one of Keaton but which Bale and Nolan take in a different direction; if Keaton’s Batman had more a touch of a Jay Gatsby (‘Can you tell me which of these guys is Bruce Wayne?’ Vicki Vale asks to which Wayne himself replies, ‘I’m not sure’), then Nolan and Bale are unafraid to have their version of Bruce Wayne embrace a fake life of being a cheerful, clueless billionaire so nobody will ever suspect that he’s Batman (although the fact that both Batman emerges at the same time Wayne returns from having been missing for several years might have had someone suspicious, you’d imagine).

The psychology is fascinating here; Michael Caine’s Alfred, the warm centre of much of the trilogy and who gets many of the trilogy’s best lines, suggesting that if Bruce pretends to have fun he might have a little by accident is astute and very funny. Bale is in the vast majority of the scenes, making this the most Bruce Wayne-heavy Batman film up to this point, with Nolan and Goyer’s screenplay fully embracing the comic book origin tale in a way that Burton and screenwriter Sam Hamm subverted in 1989 by keeping to the sides.

We might make fun of how many times we see Martha and Thomas Wayne get shot nowadays, but it was still a rarity to see it in 2005. Where Burton took a nightmarishly gothic and dreamy approach to the scene in his own film, here it happens so fast that it comes as a shock, over before it’s even begun, the shots that kills them ringing out in sudden fashion.

Burton’s interpretation is still the best, even if aficionados of comic book mythology cry foul over it being a young Joker pulling the trigger, but in the context of watching Nolan’s film in 2005, the image of a child crying over his dead parents still stung hard, although the sight of a young Bruce Wayne crying over their bodies, spilled pearls and all, is one that audiences have been battered with since thanks to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the television series Gotham and which was something we couldn’t even escape when it came to Todd Phillips’ Joker which once again went down that alleyway in that film’s final stretch.

Amongst the many comics stories that would inspire Batman Begins, the biggest influence came from Frank Miller’s critically acclaimed Batman: Year One, while the film would mark the first of many on-screen deaths for Thomas and Martha Wayne in Batman-related media in the 21st Century.

Loading the film with a major cast also recalled Donner’s Superman; where that film gained a sense of legitimacy in the eyes of many thanks to the casting of Brando and Hackman, two of the biggest movies stars at the time, as well as the likes of Glenn Ford as Jonathan Kent, Nolan similarly filled out the supporting cast of his own film with the likes of Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson and Gary Oldman as the definitive on-screen James Gordon in his pre-Commissioner days.

It was a call to anyone who doubted the film, still stung by the stench of Batman and Robin, that this was not going to be merely a rehash of what came before and that we were in for something different and more legitimate. Character and plot were grounded, which meant that when the film delivered action and spectacle, the audience was invested and cared for what happened, although there was criticism of the fight sequences which were edited to such precision that it was hard to make out what was going on, It was somewhat difficult to tell if Nolan’s assertion that the fight scenes were edited to put the audience into the point of view of the villains was true or if it was simply a case of that mid-2000s thing of everything being edited to without an inch of its life that it was simply hard tell what the hell was going on (c.f. Quantum of Solace).

Despite that, the film felt like a breath of darkly hued fresh air. Here was a Batman and a Gotham that felt real. Even the gothic feeling of Burton’s film was gone, replaced with a Gotham City that looked and felt like a genuine city, with Chicago doubling for most of the city, and with studio backlot work reserved for the scenes set in The Narrows which makes up a large chunk of the film’s climax.

Gotham City felt like a legitimate Chicago or New York on steroids, a feeling that would be embraced even more fully in the sequels (The Dark Knight would return to Chicago, while New York would play Gotham in the final part of the trilogy) and an aesthetic to many of the scenes that was deeply influenced by Blade Runner, a film that allegedly Nolan showed to the crew before filming began to indicate what he was aiming for.

Blade Runner presented a rainy, murky depiction of a futuristic Los Angeles, and while Batman Begins takes place in the present day, it also presents a rainy, murky depiction of a major American city, albeit of a fictional variety, one marked by a criminal infrastructure with considerable power that it’s managed to corrupt the criminal justice system of the city itself, a theme of power and corruption that would run into the sequels as well, with each film using its story to tell a story about the here and now, but doing it with some of the most famous characters in the Batman and DC Comics cannon.

The proliferation and increasing popularity of comic book cinema really shouldn’t be a surprise. While Blade and the first X-Men movie delivered box office returns that earned sequels, it wasn’t until the first Spider-Man film that we saw box office records start to be smashed by the genre, the film itself premiering in the summer of 2002, not even a year since the horrifying events of 9/11. The horrors of that day arguably fed into a need of audiences wanting a comfort afforded by our movies and with the release of Spider-Man, Hollywood found a formula and a medium with which they could tap into those fears while delivering the blockbuster goods. Some of these films did well (the Raimi Spider-Man trilogy and subsequent X-Men sequels made a lot of money during the 2000s), while others didn’t (Daredevil, Elektra and Catwoman failed to launch the franchises expected of them, and it sometimes comes as a shock to realise that the Halle Berry-led Catwoman movie was only one year prior to the premiere of Batman Begins).

Released into cinemas on June 15th, 2005, Batman Begins did respectable business. With a worldwide gross of $371 million, it may not have made Spider-Man levels of money, but critical acclaim and a subsequently successful DVD release was enough to convince Warner Bros. to commission a sequel. We were still a bit a way yet from when billion dollar worldwide grosses would become the norm and subsequently expected, but it was clear that the film had gotten a new iteration of Batman films off the ground, after several years in the wilderness and a period of time where it seemed as if new Batman and Superman movies were going to be in development hell for a long time.

The next two films of the series would subsequently grab hold of the political climate to tell stories that were fully embracing what was happening in the world (and it’s strange to say it but The Dark Knight Rises has increasingly become the most prescient film, even if it was concerning itself with economic controversies of the time). Having said that, the world was still an uncertain place in 2005. George W. Bush was not long into his second term as President of the United States and wars were still ongoing in Afghanistan and Iraq as a result of the War on Terror, all the while here was a Batman film where one of the main themes was fear and which ended on the future Commissioner of the Gotham City police force warning Batman that his existence and inserting himself into fighting those who are threatening law and order could lead to an escalation of violence and terror in a major American city.

While many other superhero movies have held a mirror up to the real world but done so through escapism, jokes and wise-cracking characters (before anyone complains, I am a fan of Marvel Studios and the work they’ve done), right from the very beginning, Nolan’s trilogy was offering up an interpretation of Batman that wasn’t going to shy away from the real world. It wasn’t Ken Loach, but it wasn’t Joel Schumacher either.

There were no nipples on display, no puns, and no over-the-top villainy. Hell, the film actually kept the real identity of the villain a surprise until the third act, and subverted audience expectations by having Liam Neeson turn out to be the real bad guy the whole time, the film taking the Ra’s Al Ghul character and making his band of martial arts-trained vigilantes into more of a terrorist organisation who might talk about balance but aren’t above poisoning the water supply while extolling the virtues of having failed to take apart a major city by economical methods.

Fifteen years after its premiere, it still remains a high benchmark of the genre with much in the way of meaty themes and ideas, but above all else, what really makes the film still stand as tall as it does it that it’s an honest to God brilliant slice of blockbuster filmmaking.

Batman Begins is available to stream on Hulu in the U.S and on NOW TV and Sky Cinema in the U.K.

1 thought on “‘Why Do We Fall?’: 15 Years of Batman Begins

  1. Pingback: Dunkirk (2017)

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