You know why this new Batman feels so potent and important and necessary? Because he is. Because the world, the real world, feels like it’s falling apart, rotting away at its core from all manner of injustice and greed and indifference. Because we share this Bruce Wayne’s incoherent grief and shattering rage at the misdeeds of the powerful and the cowardly timidity of those supposedly in the right. Because the world is desperate for a champion like this, who channels fury through compassion and gets things done. To revel in Batman Begins is to be bathed, if only for a couple of escapist hours, in the sense — however fantastical, however wishful-thinky — that higher ideals that once held greater sway in our society still exist somewhere. Even if only in the movies. Even if it leaves you terrified that we haven’t quite reached the rockbottom out here in reality that would prompt their reemergence here.
Batman Begins is horrifying in a lot of ways — please, don’t bring the little tykes to this, which is emphatically not “just” a comic-book movie — not the least of which is that the vile and corrupt Gotham here is all too recognizable. Oh, from the air, Gotham is a gasp-inducing, breathtaking sight, a glorious city spread densely across several islands in a way that reminds you just enough of New York while still letting it be its own mythic place. But it is an urban spectacle in all senses of the word, where democratizing public works — like the beautiful, Art Deco elevated subway built by the Wayne family — have deteriorated into hellish near abandonment during a prolonged economic depression that has bred endemic crookedness and racketeering all the way up to the highest levels of government and business. In the hands of a less gifted director than Christopher Nolan — who cowrote the script with David S. Goyer (Blade: Trinity, Dark City), based, of course, on legendary comic god Bob Kane’s work — this could have felt parodical, even funny. But Nolan (Insomnia, Memento) creates a city of abject darkness and depravity more likely to make you snort at the blaze of recognition that shines through what is just barely satire.
There’s no over-the-top Jack Nicholson villain here to make you chortle at how wacky a crazy actor can be in a role that lets ’em loose. And I don’t mean to demean the Tim Burton installments of the Bruce Wayne saga, because they were great, in their day. (The less said about Joel Schumacher ones, the better.) But the day has changed, and as grim and semi-psychotic as Michael Keaton was — he was the definitive Batman for me until now — Christian Bale (The Machinist, Reign of Fire) brings a solemnity and a gravity to Bruce and to Batman that simultaneously creates a protomythic superhero and undercuts the idea of a protomythic superhero. This Bruce is, on the surface, the same Bruce we’ve known for years, who witnessed his parents’ murders as a child and grew up to direct the resulting anguish into vigilante justice-dealing. But Bale — aided by the beyond marvelous script, which is far more about the elemental roots of the character than any of the other Batman films — gives us a Bruce who isn’t just angry but lost, isn’t just bitter but struggling to find a way to deal with it. When he falls, early in the film, into the “path of the League of Shadows,” under the tutelage of the mysterious Henri Ducard (a shivery-splendid Liam Neeson: Kingdom of Heaven, Kinsey), we feel how precariously Bruce is teetering on the knife edge between genuine insanity and the just-crazy-enough to do what he knows needs to be done to save Gotham… and to save himself.
Events later in the film demonstrate how much sharper that knife edge was than we realized at the time. Everything here, in fact, is working on multiple levels, with more going on than we can fully appreciate during individual moments, and there’s a richness to the twisty turns that — as with Nolan’s Memento — are not about throwing gimmicks at the viewer but about creating a human tapestry that leaves you filled with so many conflicting and powerful responses to the material that you hardly know where to begin thinking about it. Did I mention how abso-fuckin’-lutely brilliant this film is? And I’m not grading on a comic-book curve. Nolan has given us a story that is downright Shakespearean in its scope, in its tragedy, in its redemption and awakening of us all to the power within ourselves to conquer the fears that keep us from realizing our potential. There’s a moment when Bruce, facing his terror of bats — which originated in a childhood incident that is at once prosaic and primal — forces himself to stand among the thousands of flocking bats in the literal bat cave beneath Wayne Manor that is to become Batman’s hidden lair. Bale somehow uses his hearty, masculine physicality, as he spreads his arms and lets the creatures throng around him, to convey sheer horror… and that it’s taking all his will not to run and scream and hide.
There’s not a moment of fetishistic, geeky glee to any of this, either: Nolan gives us an intense, masterful car-chase sequence involving the truly cool Batmobile and a fleet of police cars… but he cuts away from all the money shots, the flips and crashes and the explosions. He gives us images of urban devastation that cannot help but invoke 9/11, with wounded buildings and destroyed infrastructure, but he doesn’t linger on that, either, lets it slide by as just another element of the tapestry of lush despair he’s creating.
But most profoundly, Nolan doesn’t geekily fetishize Batman, when I’m sure the temptation to ironically tweak all the images of the character that have come before must have been almost irresistible. The upshot is that Batman Begins is so fresh and feels so definitive that there might as well not have been any such creature as Batman ever before.