I’ve already gone on record saying that Batman is the best superhero, you know, once you mentally subtract the campy 60s version. Other than his budget, Batman doesn’t have any super powers–just will and wits. His weaknesses are human weaknesses, not shiny green rocks. And though many of his gadgets defy physics, at least his very nature doesn’t compromise the laws of conservation of mass and energy. All that said, before 2005 we hadn’t seen Batman executed better than the 1989 version which, though well done, was bound by Tim Burton’s eccentric vision. But Christopher Nolan’s reimagining of the Batman mythos was a game changer. If X-Men created a relatable world for superheroes, Nolan’s Batman Begins brought them into our world. That film immediately stole the crown as the best superhero film ever and despite the success of Ironman, I’d argue held it until its own sequel. Nolan’s gifts as a filmmaker are critical to the success of both films. His Gotham is dark and atmospheric, even when the lights come on. In Begins especially, his distinctive nonlinear storytelling and en media res style lifts the comic book genre into the same territory as drama and thriller–truly marking the arrival of this much-belittled sub genre to its current stature of Hollywood mainstay.
Both films also give Batman something to do. Even Burton’s version had little to offer in terms of plot, and the horrific Schumacher sequels were pure farce. Begins, perhaps more than any other comic book origin movie, gives Batman more to do than just figure out who he is. Yes, we see him discover the Batcave and get his gadgets, but the conspiracy underneath his return to Gotham actually features some suspense and tension, tying in the early scenes with a palpable threat. With this ground work laid, The Dark Knight went farther, much farther. Railing against the terror of the Joker, Batman is unfortunately reactive, but the scope of the nightmare woven together by Nolan and Ledger makes Batman’s second-fiddle act forgivable.
Both films should be applauded for avoiding too-many-villains-syndrome, the blight of many a comic books movie (including every other Batman picture except Burton’s first). Begins juggles crime boss Falconi, the Scarecrow, and Ras Al Gul, while Knight pits Bats against the mobsters, the Joker, and eventually Two-Face (sort of). The supporting cast is also excellent. Michael Caine’s Alfred is much more integral to the story than previous versions and helps draw out Bruce Wayne’s humanity–something that often felt tacked-on at best in previous films. Gary Oldman’s Gordon is similarly indispensable. Much less steady is the (wholly original) character of Rachel Dawes. There’s nothing especially wrong with Katie Holmes’s performance, but it’s hard not to give Gyllenhall’s interpretation higher marks. The script for Begins doesn’t help when it has her laying down stinkers like, “Your true face is the one Gotham’s criminals now fear.”
Well, you know what the final word is, don’t you. Liam Neeson’s Ras Al Gul is a suitable antagonist, to be sure. He’s complex enough and layered enough and delivered with enough aplomb that his reappearance in the third act really lights the fire for the climax of Batman Begins. He’s good, don’t get me wrong…but he’s no Joker. Bringing the Joker into this Batman universe was incredibly ambitious. Ras had been a bit otherworldly (literally so, in the comics) and his presence stretched the feeling that this Batman story was possible in the real world, and the cackling fiend in white face paint could have easily drawn out the more two-dimensional aspects of the Batman mythos. Instead, though, Nolan’s vision set the stage for a truly spectacular film villain. He only gets half the credit, though, because it really is Heath Ledger’s execution that makes this film such a stand out. His Joker will long rank in the top ten of movie villains for good reason. The unassailable menace he brings to the film is all the more remarkable for the concomitant humor and emotional confusion he brings to the part. The Joker is chaos itself–unsettled, even suicidal at times, but Ledger always integrates these paradoxes into a consistent lunacy that few actors could have pulled off. Ledger’s Joker is rarely angry, but when he adds that extra inflection, it sends chills down the spine.
Batman Begins: 35
The Dark Knight: 45
- So the psychotropic compound in the water supply can only be absorbed through the lungs. Okay…so I guess we’re to believe that no one in Gotham takes hot showers?
- Wayne Tower is the unofficial center of Gotham city because all of the monorail lines run right through it…funny, the building seems to have completely disappeared, along with all those monorails, in the sequel.
- Why does it look like the mayor is always wearing eye-shadow?
- The biggest asset of this film is also my biggest nitpick: The Joker. Just how does he manage to stash all these explosives in all those places without being detected? How is he able to anticipate every single move the good guys make? It might be more forgivable if it weren’t for the fact that other Hollywood villains are being given this same superhuman ability to outwit the protagonists–including his own successor, Bane.