Review: Batman Begins

After licking the wounds left behind from Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, I was wondering if the world needed another telling of the Dark Knight. Did we truly have to go to the well one more time and rehash the old story of millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne becoming the most feared detective of Gotham City?

No, we didn't. Instead, we all got what we really needed: a re-inventing of a DC Comics icon, the re-telling of one man's journey to find his destiny, and the re-claiming of a legend.

RATING: Screw the system?this one's an instant classic!

Looking back on the comic book-to-film titles, it seems that Marvel has been dominating the silver screen with some impressive works. Okay, okay ? we have survived our fair share of duds with Hulk and Elektra, but we tend to let those slide when Toby McGuire slings his web and Hugh Jackman bears his claws. DC Comics, however, hasn't been faring so well. Christopher Reeve's Superman and Michael Keaton's Batman eventually declined into laughable mockeries of themselves like Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and the earlier mentioned Batman and Robin where director Joel Schumacher threw every Bob Kane convention into a blender and served us a train wreck of a film. And then there's Oscar-winner Hallie Barry in Catwoman?a film that Evo is still asking ?Why? Oh, God, Why?!?? So, comparing the track records and box office receipts, Marvel Films is enjoying a wave of success, The Fantastic Four being their next roller-coaster ride of success.

Unfortunately for Dr. Reed, Sue and Johnny Storm, and Ben Grim, the bar has been raised. The Bat is back in Batman Begins.

For those of you who might not be hip on the legend of Batman (which, if you're a regular visitor to this blog, would shock the hell out of me?), young Bruce Wayne is emotionally thrown for a loop when he watches his parents gunned down in front of him during a mugging. This is the defining moment where Bruce Wayne's life of privilege turns a corner and he begins his journey to where he eventually becomes Batman.

You might think ?Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know all this?? but here's where Batman Begins, instead of rehashing the same old-same old, takes its own, original angle and reinvents the legend of The Dark Knight. Between the shooting of Bruce Wayne's parents and the first appearance of Batman in Gotham City, the details are a bit murky. Some canons claim that Bruce Wayne traveled the world and picked up his tricks of the trade from all walks of life. Others claim that Bruce went to Tibet to learn the higher arts of combat from orders hidden in the mountain ranges. What writer David S. Goyer and director Christopher Nolan create is a return to the basics while reinventing the origins with familiar people from Batman's lore.

In this reinvention of Batman's developmental years, Bruce Wayne returns home for the hearing of the man who killed his parents, facing early parole for turning over state's evidence of Gotham's biggest mob boss. Bruce is planning to pull a ?Jack Ruby? on the thug until the mob boss arranges a hit of his own. Terrified of what he was becoming, Bruce disappears into the world, wandering from odd job to odd job, eventually turning to a life of crime. He winds up showing something of a survival instinct, and that attracts the attention of The League of Shadows, a mysterious order under the leadership of a powerful individual named Ras Al-Guhl. Bruce is recruited and trained in their tactics of combat and stealth. He appears to be the best thing to hit the League until he flunks his final test: executing a farmer accused of murder. Turning his back on Al-Guhl and the Order, Bruce (narrowly) escapes, but manages to save the life of his mentor Ducard.

The training was not a total loss as Bruce returns to Gotham and begins to develop the persona of The Dark Knight.

From here, you're on your own to discover how Christopher Nolan does for Batman what Ronald Moore did for Battlestar Galactica. This movie was nothing short of astounding, both from a visual point-of-view and a performance point-of-view. The dark vision that Tim Burton captured so brilliantly in the first two Batman films is taken a few shades deeper into the black with Nolan. We are even given a brief glimpse of Gotham when times were better, and empathize a bit more when we see how far the city descends during Bruce's life. Goyer should be given one incredible nod to pull off successfully what the earlier Batman films, particularly the last two, failed to achieve. The origin of Batman is told, a love interest is developed, and two villains clock in equal time and work seamlessly with each other. The decision to bring in Ras Al-Guhl, the most enigmatic and captivating of Batman's adversaries, was a stroke of genius, adding to the mix the villain Scarecrow. Then you have a pleasant curve ball thrown into this epic tale that catches everyone, even Bruce Wayne, by surprise. Nolan and Goyer, while remaining true to the Batman legend, decide to turn to Frank Miller's visions of the Batmobile, the Batcave, and even the look of Batman's suit?sans nipples. (Thank you, Mr. Nolan!) And taking a lesson in subtlety from Spider-Man 2, Batman Begins drops a hint at who could be the next villain The Dark Knight will face in Gotham.

What I also appreciate in Batman Begins is how the cast approached the project, not as a comic book being translated to film, but more as a piece of modern American mythology. Each performer respected their part and the material, giving the film a touch of class not seen since the original Superman of 1978, directed by Richard Donner. There is not one weak performance from this cast (and I was particularly thrilled to see Ken Wantanabe from The Last Samurai appearing in this film!), and Christian Bale does not disappoint in his performance as both Bruce Wayne and Batman. I loved him in American Psycho and enjoyed his performance in Reign of Fire, but in Batman Begins Bale comes into his own, successfully restoring credibility to a role that Kilmer and Clooney managed to damage, some thought irreversibly. Well done, Mr. Bale!

As a final thought, I do think a serious gauntlet has been thrown in challenge to Marvel. If you'll notice in the opening credits, we see a rapid succession of comic book artwork and panels, that continue to flip rapidly until the logo ?DC Comics? comes into focus?much like the introductions we see before Marvel Comics films. This was, to me, a subtle note to The House That Stan Built: We at DC are here to play. With Fantastic Four gearing up for a premiere, DC has increased the stakes.

But I will also give DC a friendly note of advice (provided they happen to blog here): Watch how high you raise those stakes. Marvel knew with the success of Spider-Man that they couldn't slack off with its sequels or other titles like X-Men, and (for the most part) they didn't. DC has pulled out all the stops with Batman Begins, and now comes their next offering: Superman Returns. Can the Man of Steel measure up to the Dark Knight? (A question many fans continue to debate to this day...) Time, and Bryan Singer, will tell?but the fact Singer is using archival footage of Marlon Brando as Jor-El doesn't make me optimistic over one of my favorite DC creations.

Until then, do not miss Batman Begins. I believe in this film enough to fight fatigue at 3:30 am EST to post this review. This movie warrants such dedication!

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