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15 Years Later: Batman Begins

16 June 20 words: Will Channell

Will Channell explores why Christopher Nolan’s gritty Batman reboot remains relevant today...

Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Cillian Murphy
Running time: 140 minutes

15 years it has been since Christopher Nolan unmasked his masked anti-hero - played in this instance by the now critically-acclaimed Christian Bale - in Batman Begins; yet, like all things of true quality, Mr. Nolan’s re-imagining of the caped crusader has not only withstood the test of time, it has grown in significance to this day where it stands with more relevance and potency than it ever has.

Indeed, there is no doubt in my mind that this is a good film. It might even be a great film. Certainly, the two films that follow Batman Begins - The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises - and make up Nolan’s trilogy of Batman films, as a collective, are great. But why? What is it that makes Nolan’s blockbuster great? 

These are big questions to tackle, and I do not pretend to have a concrete answer for any of them. But please, don’t give up on me yet. I mean sure, an impeccable screenplay and an excellent cast (Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldham) goes a long way, but to suggest that Batman Begins owes its merit to either would, quite plainly, be a bit of an insult. The answer lies somewhere within how Nolan manages to both nurture and re-imagine the legacy of Batman simultaneously; how he reconstructs Batman so that he is both familiar and unfamiliar, new and old.

Speaking of legacy, it is clear that Nolan has paid attention to Batman’s; and it’s amazing what happens when a director treats the source material with reverence. After all, Batman is first and foremost, a creature spawned from the glossy pages of the comic book. Make no mistake, however, Nolan’s Batman is as dark as the night sky in which he can so often be seen gliding through; yet much of this darkness owes a specific debt to Frank Miller’s re-imagining of the character in The Dark Night Returns. Like Nolan’s Batman, Miller’s is tormented by psychological trauma, and the depth of character this provides is what makes both pieces of art so good. 

It is no surprise then that Nolan - whose previous films, Memento and Insomnia, earned him a reputation for indulging into the metaphysical and epistemological - sought Miller’s re-imagining as inspiration for his own version of the Dark Knight. Of course, Batman has been dark before - Tim Burton and Michael Keaton saw to that in the late 80s - but Nolan manages to succeed in bestowing this darkness with some sort of purpose and emotional density. And there is no better way to this than to start from the very beginning. 

Except Batman Begins doesn’t quite start at the beginning - not exactly. It begins in the middle. The story opens with Bruce Wayne imprisoned in a hellhole somewhere in the depths of Asia where he appears lost and void of purpose. Here, after an impressive opening fight scene that does a good job of capturing this lack of direction, Bruce is confronted by Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) and invited to join the League of Shadows: a band of mythical, samurai-like warriors led by Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). For thousands of years, the League has existed as a rectifying force for the often wayward ambitions of civilisation. It offers Bruce the path that he has so clearly strayed from - perhaps he was never truly clear on it from the beginning - and provides him with the training that will enable him to challenge his inner demons and confront his past. But of course, as is so often the case with these things, the League are not all that they seem.

With the use of some really nice camera work that makes you feel as though you’re looking through a window into the house in which Bruce’s demons live, Nolan takes us back to the start with a young Bruce Wayne running around Wayne Manor with a young Rachel Dawes (played later by Katie Holmes). Whilst playing, Bruce tumbles down an old abandoned well where his is swallowed up by an all-consuming darkness that soon materialises into a swarm of bats that bully Bruce and leave him cowering on the floor - a scene that gives a further nod to Batman’s comic book origins. 

This harrowing and nightmarish encounter with the terrible creatures understandably leaves Bruce haunted by the very memory of it; and on an otherwise normal family evening at the theatre Bruce finds himself unable to sit through a scene in which the actors, dressed in black from head to toe, are spiralling from the ceiling so as to imitate the movement of bats. To save Bruce from further torment the Wayne family leave the theatre, exiting out the back and onto a side-alley, where they are confronted at gunpoint by a mysterious, haggard-looking individual. And I’m certain that all are accustomed to the tragedy that follows... 

Nolan sprays a new, darker coat of paint upon the legacy of Batman

Just as Bruce spray paints his newly acquired Batsuit completely black, so too then does Nolan spray a new, darker coat of paint upon the legacy of Batman. Of course, the story of why Batman identifies with bats and why he seeks justice against injustice has been explored before; however Batman Begins was the first to fuse these two together. That is to say, that it was the first time that the death of Bruce’s parents was positioned as a direct result of his childhood trauma: his fear of bats. So, if we were looking for emotional density, I think it’s fair to say that we found it. 

What Nolan presents to us in Batman Begins isn’t an epic, fearless, antihero, but, quite simply, a man - a man that is largely governed and motivated by the prospect of revenge and the guilt he feels over the death of his parents. The film isn’t so much about Batman as it is about what makes Batman; and in this sense it is about Bruce Wayne - not the arrogant bachelor disguise, but the human who is truly behind the mask: the man that is Batman. This is where the film’s darkness lingers and it is a big part of what makes the story so good. 

These dark undertones are enhanced by the film’s much-needed shift into the realm of realism. Indeed, as I have already said, Batman has been dark before in films such as the ones put forward by Tim Burton, but, for me, these films have always struggled to detach themselves from the two-dimensional darkness that was already present in Frank Miller’s reincarnation of Batman. In Batman Begins, however, this darkness feels real, and it feels close enough to home so as to evoke a certain oppressive quality—with the all-too-familiar landscape of Gotham almost reaching out to envelop us in its withering grasp of despair and depression. I am not saying that the film is realistic by any means, but it acts as if it is.

Gotham itself is modelled on the very same cities in which the film was shot, with the Wayne industries’ towering monorail cutting through the heart of the landscape - a gleaming symbol of hope, Thomas Wayne tells Bruce - and the problems that plague the city (drugs, violence, corruption, politics) are the same problems that fester and leech upon our own cities. All the clichés of the genre, too, are given a much needed revamp to coincide with this shift. The Batmobile - the source of some of the film's most tantalisingly brilliant moments - is no longer a sleek, upgraded sports car, but a monstrosity of bulk and intimidation that looks more like a tank that has spent a couple of unsolicited hours with Tim Westwood. And the Batcave? Well, the Batcave is just that: a cave filled with bats, which makes for a surprisingly nice touch considering that this is, essentially, an origin film. 

It is fair to say that Batman really does begin in Batman Begins. Nolan manages to give us the film that, in hindsight, no one was aware that Batman needed. He provides us with both depth of character and a welcomed 21st century revamp. But I am still yet to answer my own question. What is it about Batman Begins that means we are still talking about it and celebrating it 15 years later? 

I have always believed that good films entertain, but that great films reach for a higher purpose. They challenge norms and deconstruct binaries. They create. They push boundaries. And then they entertain. As counter-intuitive as it may seem then, great films are made when it is not their purpose to entertain. When someone creates something new and purposeful, that really stands for something and really means something - something that defies all preexisting conventions of what was previously considered possible - the entertainment value often takes care of itself. 

Throughout all the dark moments in Batman Begins I would be somewhat forgiving if Nolan, at some point throughout the film, lost who at the very heart of the legacy Batman is and what he stands for. But this doesn’t happen. Sure, the message is often obscured at times behind the aspect of realism and the influence that revenge plays on the story, but Nolan never truly lets us lose sight of the fact that, when stripped of the mask, Batman is just a man with the courage and will to act against the injustice that he sees in the world. So, as the film draws to its brilliant close, Batman leaves us with a stark reminder: “it’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.” 

Perhaps now, more so than ever before, someone needs to be Batman. Or maybe we all do. 

Did you know? Although the film aims for a more mature approach to Batman, Nolan avoided the inclusion of any explicit gore or bloody violence. “I certainly didn’t want to exclude the sort of ten-to-12-year-olds,” he said. “As a kid I would have loved to have seen a movie like this.”

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