Short review: Brilliant.
A longer review with medium spoilers follows…
The film opens with an anonymous Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) lost to the world in a remote Asian prison. He’s wandered the world learning the blend in with the criminal element, trying to understand the detrius of humanity that murdered his parents when his was a small child. He is friendless, adrift, and lacking in focus. He is saved by the shadowy Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) who inducts Wayne as an initiate into Ra’s Al Ghul’s (Ken Watanabe) League of Shadows. From them Wayne learns to control his fear and give focus to his anger, they hone his already impressive skills into a tempered weapon. But he refuses to accept their final ritual, to execute a murder, and brings their black temple crashing down in flames. Shortly afterwards Bruce Wayne leaves Asia for Gotham City to reclaim his father’s company and to use the League’s training to bring fear to Gotham’s criminals as the Batman.
And that entire sequence is takes the entire first third of the film. Neeson is suitably Qui-Gon-ish while spouting the various pyschobabble that layers Bruce Wayne’s motivation. I felt that Watanabe’s Al Ghul was a little wasted with the League of Shadows being an obviously more huggable version of the League of Assassins. Still it works well within the context of the film. I also like one or two of the other inserts into the origin. Joe Chill is given a larger role, but it’s also one that is at odds with the current comicbook Batman.
Near the start of the credits is a card saying “Story by David Goyer”, what it should really say is “Story by David Goyer after Frank Millar after Bill Finger.” To all intents and purposes this film in Batman Year One. If you’ve read the graphic novel you’ll recognise certain scenes that have been adapted straight off the page and a legion of incidental characters. Locations get shuffled and character’s get redrawn, but a lot of it’s spirit is here. Even a certain pearl necklace makes an appearance.
As we were leaving the cinema a friend commented that it was a remake of the first Tim Burton film. It took me a while a see it, but the formula for Batman Begins is to merge Batman The Movie and Batman Year One in equal measure, replace the Joker with the Scarecrow, mimic the Superman The Movie act structure, and tie everything together with Ra’s Al Ghul and his League. Luckly it’s a winning formula that produces a film that is, in my opinion, vastly superior to any of the other recent superhero films. Katie Holmes is quite good in the film, but you do get the feeling that she’s just there as the Aunt Harriet character.
There is only one moment in the film that really pulls me out of the picture. We’re use to hollywood superheroes not bothering to save the villain from certain death, but I’ve never liked it. The Batman I grew up reading would never have left the villain to die, he valued human life far to high to do that and wouldn’t have paused before he put his own life on the line to save even the lowest scum. It’s what he does, he is after all a hero! Yet near the end of this film Batman says to one of the villains “I won’t kill you, but I won’t save you!” The real Batman wouldn’t make a distinction between the two – refusing to save somebody you could save is the same as killing them!! It was an unnecessary quip that almost ruined the ending for me and stopped me ranking this film as a 5/5.