The title of the latest Batman adaptation reportedly went through numerous changes, from "Batman: The Frightening" to "Batman: Intimidation Game."
Ultimately, the producers settled on the more befitting "Batman Begins."
This is the first movie to successfully adapt the comic book hero to the big screen, and thus represents the introduction of a franchise that shows as much promise as the "Spider-Man" and "X-Men" series.
It's not a dark comedy obsessed with production design like Tim Burton's "Batman" and "Batman Returns." It's not a supervillain-packed, homoerotic cartoon like Joel Schumacher's "Batman Forever" and "Batman & Robin." It's certainly nothing like the kitschy 1960s parody "Batman: The Movie."
Filmmaker Christopher Nolan ("Memento") has made an emotional, action-filled, revenge drama that taps into the essential nature of the character. And he's done it by concentrating on the one element virtually ignored by the previous adaptations: Bruce Wayne.
Whereas the other projects treated Wayne as an afterthought - or a necessary evil - in this film he is its centerpiece. As portrayed by actor Christian Bale, the orphaned billionaire playboy becomes a magnetic and plausible individual. The man's transition into the dark knight seems like a logical step in the development of his personality, given how skillfully Nolan and co-writer David S. Goyer ("Dark City") set up his life story.
"Batman Begins" first finds the soul-searching Wayne having departed Gotham City to lose himself in the underworld of central Asia. While imprisoned there, he is recruited by an aristocratic warrior named Ducard (Liam Neeson) to join the League of Shadows, an organization camped high in the Himalayas and lorded over by the mystical Ra's al Ghul (Ken Watanabe).
Intercutting flashbacks show how Wayne's boyhood was traumatized when his philanthropist parents were killed in front of his eyes, leading to a lifelong obsession with avenging them.
Batman Begins *** 1/2
Filmmaker Christopher Nolan ("Memento") makes an emotional, action-filled, revenge drama that taps into the essential nature of the dark knight. And he's done it by concentrating on the element virtually ignored by previous adaptations: Bruce Wayne - portrayed with magnetic plausability by actor Christian Bale.
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Ducard asks, "Do you still feel responsible for your parents' death?"
Wayne replies, "My anger outweighs my guilt."
After seven years, Wayne returns to Gotham - a place as corrupt as "Sin City" - to take up the battle against crime. Aided by his lifelong butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and the head of the applied sciences section of Wayne Industries (Morgan Freeman), he goes about creating the caped crusader.
Wayne also inadvertently stumbles upon a plot that involves a major crime boss (Tom Wilkinson), a prominent psychiatrist with a deadly secret (Cillian Murphy), a childhood friend who is now an assistant prosecutor (Katie Holmes) and a shadowy enemy from his past.
While the talented Nolan will earn a lot of credit for resurrecting the Batman brand, the kudos should be shared with Bale. The newly buff star (who had dropped to a skeletal 120 pounds for his previous role in "The Machinist) delivers a performance that really points out just how weak previous actors such as Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney were in the role.
As with Tobey Maguire in the two "Spider-Man" flicks, Bale understands that the key to portraying a superhero is to completely humanize his alter ego. No matter how ridiculous Batman is - or his gadgets, the Batcave and the Humvee-esque Batmobile are - the actor grounds the character in reality.
"Batman Begins" only suffers a few missteps along the way. The ending goes a little too Hollywood with all the crashes and chases and duels. A climactic scene atop a speeding monorail was already effectively rendered in "Spider-Man 2" and is done no better here. The film also has the distracting penchant for casting well-known actors in what are often mere cameo roles. (Hey, isn't that so-and-so playing the homeless guy?)
But for a movie that engages in the daunting task of handling the entire exposition of a superhero and crafting an airtight adventure for him, it's quite an accomplishment.
The picture also may be the best yet at laying the foundation for a string of sequels that will inevitably follow.
By the end of the tale, none of the primary villains are dead and all the evil inmates of Arkham Asylum have been released into the city's streets.
There's a great concluding conversation between Batman and police Sgt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) that involves "escalation." If you have a pistol, criminals get automatic weapons. If you have a bulletproof vest, criminals get armor-piercing bullets. So what will happen when a costumed crime fighter starts patrolling the city?
Gotham beware. And keep those hands ready to switch on the Batsignal.