The biggest, and most interesting thing about Batman is that despite his ‘superhero’ label; he has no superpowers. He’s just a guy with a lot of gear, fighting criminals. Because of this, he is also one of the most iconic superheroes in history.
I’ve talked about his history before. How his properties have fluctuated in tone, between comic and cheesy, to dark and bitter, and how I approve of both. However, it seems Batman’s most popular portrayals have taken the latter tone over the former.
For some bizarre reason, people, particularly Batman’s most vocal fans, have this knee-jerk desire to insist that Batman be taken seriously. See, they’re forgetting that he’s a superhero, a fantasy character. His closest allies include an Amazon with magical powers, an invincible alien with super strength and x-ray vision, and a fighter pilot with a ring that can conjure any object he wants. His most prevalent enemies include a woman who’s half plant, a seven-hundred-year-old immortal, and a man who can only survive at sub-zero temperatures. Yes, this is a franchise that is begging to be taken seriously.
The first four Batman films did fluctuate in tone, but even the dark and ‘serious’ ones floated on the border near fantasy and absurdity. After all, we have Catwoman coming back from the dead, and the Joker managing to create a toxin that makes people laugh to death.
Anyone who tries to take Batman seriously is obviously fighting a losing battle. Or at least they were, until 2005, when the Batman film franchise was given a fresh coat of paint under the direction of legendary filmmaker, Christopher Nolan. But this time, things were different. This time, Nolan got the franchise to strive for realism… and oddly enough, it worked.
The first film opens with a pre-Batman Bruce Wayne, played this time by Christian Bale, in a Chinese prison, surrounded by brutal and possibly racist inmates. He is set upon by a dozen or so hardened criminals, and quickly wipes the floor with them.
As he’s placed in solitary, he is visited by a man named Ducard, played by Oscar Schindler. I love Liam Neeson, ever since I saw him in Schindler’s List, one of the best films of all time. Ducard tries to recruit Wayne into the League of Shadows, an anti-criminal group fighting for, what they call, “true justice.” They’re not simply vigilantes, they’re something more. Ducard explains that a vigilante is a single man looking for self-gratification. A single man can be destroyed or locked up. But if one lifts themselves to an ideal, and manages to be successful, they become something more than a man. Something that can’t be destroyed so easily: A legend!
Bruce is told to collect a special flower, and climb up a tall mountain to its snowy caps. I don’t quite understand why they operate at the top of a mountain. Perhaps the struggle is part of the point. At the top he is initiated into the League, and is trained in some form of ninjutsu, with an emphasis on stealth.
In these early scenes, most of the story is told in flashback, detailing how Bruce developed a fear of bats, and how it inadvertently led to the death of his parents, when the play they walked out of featured bats.
Then, several years later the man who killed them is up for parole, and Bruce plans to enact vengeance as the man’s being released, but Falcone, the city’s biggest mob boss, beats him to it.
His closet childhood friend, a new character played by Katie Holmes named Rachel Dawes, discovers this, and chews him out over it. She explains what true justice is, and after a quick chat with Falcone, Bruce realizes he’ll never understand justice until he understood what is was like on the other side. Until he understood what it was like to be a criminal. He moves thousands of miles away from the all the privilege that comes with being the sole surviving member of the city’s wealthiest family.
He starts living within the criminal underworld. He steals so he wouldn’t starve, and he begins to understand that right and wrong is not black and white. He learns the nuances. Then, as he helps steal some products from Wayne Enterprises, he’s caught and thrown in a Chinese prison. And we’re all caught up!
The biggest problem with the opening scenes is how rushed they feel. Of particular note is the scene on the train, where young Bruce Wayne is asking his father questions he should already know the answer to. The exposition is crucial to the overall plot, but I get the feeling it could have been spaced out.
During these training sessions, they talk a lot about fear, but I don’t see how it plays into Bruce’s life up to that point. He develops his fear of bats after falling into a well, and after that, he tells Falcone he’s not afraid of him. But it doesn’t really fit with anything else.
Then it’s time for Bruce’s final exam, which involves inhaling the smoke produced by burning the special flower he grabbed before he arrived. It causes fear-based hallucinations as he tries to find Ducard within an army of identically dressed minions. He passes with flying colours, and the leader of the League, Ra’s Al Ghul, says he’s ready to lead an assault on Gotham City, his home town.
Ra’s argues that Gotham has become so corrupt, the only solution is to destroy it. But first they must ensure that Bruce is willing to take the extra step, and demand that he execute a murderer. He refuses, explaining that he’ll fight criminals, but he won’t kill them.
Remember when Rachel chewed him out for his desire to kill the man who murdered his parents? Apparently it stuck with him and became the foundation of his personal moral code.
But Ra’s is adamant. Either he kills the man, or they kill him. So Bruce lowers his sword, and uses it to throw a conveniently placed hot coal into a pile of gunpowder.
The place blows up, and Bruce makes his escape. During this, he watches Ra’s die, and saves Ducard from falling off a cliff, leaving him in the hands of some local villagers.
He heads back to Gotham City, with a new mission: He’ll take on the criminal underworld, while adopting a symbol to inspire others.
He finds an underground bat cave on the grounds at Wayne Manor and establishes it as his secret base of operations. What a perfect coincidence!
Actually, he first encountered this cave as a child and this is what caused him to develop his bat-phobia.
Of course during Bruce’s seven-year absence, he had been declared dead, and Wayne Enterprises was about to go public. So it comes as quite a shock to the company’s CEO when Bruce appears at the head offices looking for a job.
He meets up with his new boss, Morgan Freeman, who’s in charge of the Applied Sciences Division. A department that’s more or less mothballed. Filled with prototypes of advanced technology that weren’t considered feasible enough to enter full production.
Freeman shows Bruce around. He’s introduced to a utility harness, grapple gun with a 300 pound monofilament, and $300,000 body armour. Bruce asks to borrow it, and to keep it between them, making up some stuff about cave diving. But Freeman explains it’s his regardless.
Of course we all know what’s going on here. Grapple gun and monofilament, that’s the Batrope; utility harness, he turns into a utility belt; and the armour becomes the Batsuit. The cowl they assemble from two pieces, ordered from separate companies. I’m surprised they don’t go through the trouble of trying to make it themselves.
Of course the most unrealistic thing in Batman’s arsenal is the cape. You all probably know this. Why have a cape? What’s the purpose? Movies such as The Watchmen and The Incredibles have already explained that capes are too much of a danger to be useful to a crime fighter. So why would Batman have one?
Of course Nolan should just scrap the cape, some might say. Well he doesn’t. Instead, he gives it a function.
On his first outing as Batman, Bruce nearly kills himself jumping from building to building. So he goes to Freeman (this time making up some stuff about base jumping) who shows him a special type of fabric that becomes rigid under an electric current. This becomes his cape, which he uses as a makeshift hang glider.
Of course, Freeman starts to get suspicious. So Bruce decides to come clean, I guess, and notices a tank in the warehouse.
He takes it out for a test drive. It’s heavily armoured, fast, manoeuvrable, and has a rocket engine on the back. Ladies and gentlemen, we have our Batmobile!
So Bruce starts to get all his equipment together. He makes the batarangs by hand, and goes out to kick some ass.
I really like this part of the movie. In the last Batman franchise, it’s never explained where Batman gets all his equipment. The Batmobile comes out of nowhere, and the only ones who appear to know about the guy are Bruce himself, and Alfred. Did one of them build it by hand? What about the later repairs?
Covering all this stuff kinda makes the film more fun and more awesome, because you get the feeling that it could actually work. That a man could pull all this off.
Meanwhile, as Bruce is creating Batman, Doctor Johnathan Crane, a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum, is working with the mob to import certain products into the city. In exchange he keeps made men out of prison by declaring them insane.
This attracts the attention of Rachel Dawes, Assistant D.A., which makes the mob uncomfortable. A hit has been put out.
So Batman goes out on his first major mission. He takes out a bunch of men who are taking care of a special drug shipment, and it just so happens that the big boss himself, Carmine Falcone, is there to oversee it. He explains that half of the shipment goes to ‘the man in the Narrows,’ who’s obviously Doctor Crane.
Big fight scene and it ends with all the men getting beaten down, and Falcone being tied to a nearby searchlight, projecting a bat-like image into the clouds.
Of course with all the realism, some very unrealistic things happen that make little sense. For starters, at the end of this fight scene, Batman just flies up into the air. How? I have no idea. It’s as if he’s being pulled on a cord, but since he’s outside, it seems unlikely. Perhaps there were some trusses overhead, who knows. But when the same thing happens again, later in the film, he’s interrogating a man as he hangs him, upside down, with the Batrope, on a cloud. What’s going on here!?
The next morning, Alfred suggests Bruce start keeping up appearances. That he go out and start acting like a self-centred douche. Which explains his double persona.
During all this, Batman finds an ally in Sergeant Jim Gordon, who is one of the few good cops left in Gotham. He’s played by Gary Oldman and I have to say I like his performance, but there’s one issue. I would expect Gordon to come off as more of a badass, but Oldman gives more of a nerdy impression. This is mostly in the way he holds himself and his general appearance. He just doesn’t look like a tough guy. But I still like it, feels different, and he actually has a major role here, unlike in the last series.
Eventually, we meet the film’s big bad: Scarecrow, played by Cillian Murphy, who would later work with Nolan in one of my favourite films of all time, Inception. By the way, his real name is Doctor Crane. The drugs he’s been acquiring from the mob, they turn out to be the same plant that Ra’s Al Ghul gave Batman for the final exam. The fear-based hallucinogen. Only he weaponized it, as an aerosol, creating the character’s iconic weapon: Fear Gas.
He stores the gas in wrist-mounted dispersal units, and is protected from blow-back by his scarecrow mask, which has a built-in respirator. It also scares the shit out of everyone. So we have a reason for the mask, which I like.
The thing about this character, is that it seems like he could be interesting, but he isn’t. He has no clear motivation, and no real personality. He’s completely stoic throughout the film. He’s just boring.
But during his first encounter with the Caped Crusader, Batman get’s a face full of Fear Gas and it appears to incapacitate him, to the point where he has to call Alfred to pick him up. I don’t know how he did that without raising suspicion. Especially considering Bruce made the call on the top of a roof.
A few days later he wakes up and is told that Morgan Freeman analysed his blood and made an antidote to the Fear Gas. One that should also inoculate him for the time being.
Batman goes to confront Scarecrow, as Rachel confronts Doctor Crane about his testimony that Falcone is insane. What she doesn’t know is that Crane made him insane with the Fear Gas. But she quickly learns this when Crane shows her the production facility and gives her a lethal dose.
Batman shows up and saves her, making a few discoveries along the way. But unfortunately, Scarecrow called the police, who are actually out for Batman. They don’t tolerate vigilantism.
Gordon rushes in and helps him get Rachel out of Arkham. With her life in danger and the only known cure at the Batcave, they can’t risk explaining it to the cops. So Batman summons a swarm of bats… though how is a mystery… and makes his getaway, as Gordon takes care of Rachel.
They end up outside, and he loads her into the Batmobile, leading the cops along a merry chase across the city.
This scene bugs me a bit, because Gordon offers his car, and in spite of the Batmobile’s availability, I think he should have taken it. Would have been easier to get out of town. In fact, given that Rachel’s life was at stake, he should have led them on the merry chase, and told Gordon to get her to Wayne Manor. Or perhaps he could bring her somewhere else, where Alfred would have placed the antidote.
Bruce arrives at the Batcave, and doses Rachel with the cure, then joins his ongoing birthday party on the level above, but not before Alfred chews him out for reckless driving.
But it’s not over yet. Crane has lost it after being dosed with the Fear Gas, and he already poured all the stuff into the water supply. It’s everywhere in the city right now, but drinking it won’t affect anyone, you have to breathe it in. So I guess there’s nothing to worry about.
Meanwhile, the CEO of Wayne Enterprises learns that one of the company’s prototypes, a microwave emitter, designed to vaporize an enemy’s water supply, has gone missing. Freeman mentions that it could be used to disperse a chemical weapon.
So, at the party, Bruce shakes hands with Gotham’s movers and shakers. Including a man named Ra’s Al Ghul… wait.
That’s right! He’s alive! In fact Bruce learns quickly that the Ra’s who died was a decoy. Ra’s Al Ghul is actually played by Liam Neeson.
Bruce kicks the guests out and Neeson explains why Gotham must fall: Too much corruption. He also refuses to believe that Bruce can do anything to help, even as Batman. He also explains that this isn’t their first attack on Gotham. Last time, they triggered an economic depression, leaving the citizenry desperate and struggling to survive. Making one person so desperate, he robbed and killed two people exiting a theatre, in front of their only son.
Ra’s kicks Bruce’s ass, and burns down Wayne Manor. Payback for burning down Ra’s’ home.
Thankfully, Alfred arrives and saves Bruce, while Ra’s makes his getaway. The plan is to start in the poorest part of town, The Narrows, where Arkham Asylum inmates are being busted out.
Let’s talk about the Narrows for a second. It appears to be Gotham’s slums. Basically, a shanty town. I like it because the look within the Narrows feels more stylized. Can’t say I can identify it with any modern city. The same goes with the monorail, and Wayne Tower. They have a unique, retro-futuristic look that I love, and unfortunately, fails to carry over into the sequels. But I digress.
The cops arrive, and seal off the Narrows, to keep the criminals in. But Gordon and Rachel are sealed in as well.
The Microwave Generator is activated, blowing every pipe in the Narrows, and releasing the Fear Gas into the air. Causing an already desperate populace to lose their minds. Fortunately, Rachel and Gordon are inoculated, but no one else is.
Scarecrow is around as well, riding on horseback, scaring the shit out of everyone he sees. At least until Rachel shoots him in the face with a Taser. God he’s a pussy.
So, Ra’s’ plan is to take the generator onto the city’s monorail train, and bring it straight into Wayne Tower.
Wayne Tower is the central hub for the city’s water supply. It’ll vaporize the entire system, spreading the gas throughout the city.
Batman arrives, bypassing the bridges, and explains his plan to Gordon, giving him the Batmobile. Unfortunately, he doesn’t explain it to us.
He finds Ra’s and chases him down, but in the end, I don’t see why. Since as this is happening, Gordon is driving the Batmobile straight to Wayne Tower. He shoots at one of the supporting pedestals of the monorail, and the train drives straight into the street, killing Ra’s and destroying the Generator.
The city is saved, and the threat eliminated. But it’s not over yet. Batman still has work to do. He meets Gordon on the roof of the Major Crime Unit, after being signalled. You see, Gordon built his own Batsignal… clever.
They talk about what’s left to do, including dealing with, what he calls, escalation.
Turns out the criminals might have a taste for theatrics as well, and one particular nut leaves a calling card: a Joker playing card.
Which will lead us into the next film: Batman Begins. No wait, that was the title at the end of this. Do many films do that?
But before we get into that, there’s a bit more I’d like to mention. As Bruce goes over the remnants of Wayne Manor, Rachel arrives and professes her love for him, but explains that she can’t date Batman. He told her who he was during the battle of the Narrows. Don’t you wish Vicki Vale were still around? She was fine with it.
So, if Batman ever goes away, perhaps things’ll change, and they can be together. But that can’t happen yet. I think this is a good thing. Of course it’d be pretty boring if every film ended with the hero getting the girl. We need to see things change up every once in a while. It keeps life interesting.
I really like how Nolan opened this new franchise. It gave us some great insight into the character, and was just a fun ride all around. The cast rounded out a bit more, no one took centre stage for too long, and the whole film was just all around a fun romp.
We need more films like this.
Next time, the sequel.