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The Dark Knight Returns
A review of Batman Begins
by J. D. Rummel

It's a pretty common geek thought pattern: When I was a young boy I wanted to be a super hero. I knew that I was not from another world or if I was then Fate had short changed me because Earth's atmosphere gave me nothing beyond post nasal drip. I also knew that if I got bitten by anything radioactive then I would most likely die of leukemia. But the comic book world held out one hope:

I could be Batman.

Director: Christopher Nolan

Stars: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Gary Oldman, Cilian Murphy

Rating: PG-13

Release: 06-15-2005

Time: 134 minutes

Buy Movie at Anyone with the will could forge him or herself into the Dark Knight. All that was needed was the drive to live in the gym and library in relentless pursuit of self improvement (bankrolling items like the car and the utility belt was a minor consideration).

That young boy above is the one that Christopher Nolan (Memento) plugs into with his remarkable Batman Begins. While this film takes some liberties with the official canon the end result is a gritty, dark tale that is fueled by the headlines that make us pull our children inside at night. You almost believe a man would not only dress like a bat but succeed at crushing the creeps that make watching the nightly news so grim (criminals not the anchors). Previous Bat films ran the range from good (Tim Burton's Batman) to unforgivable (both Joel Schumacher installments) but none of them could be mistaken for the world we work in. Nolan is the first to drop Batman onto streets we have all walked at some point and dressed him up with the things a head case like Bruce Wayne would need to operate. For the first time some explanation is given for how it could be done (note to wannabes: being a billionaire is a key element).

Nolan and David S. Goyer (Blade) the screenwriters have gone to the source material, taken the heart of it and crafted a pure work that is faithful and powerful. Both men clearly love and respect the comics that spawned The Batman and they offer up a wonderful feast for fans and a solid entertainment for civilians. In terms of direction this is a balancing act and Nolan completes it with few missteps.

When I first saw Christian Bale in American Psycho I was moved by his portrayal of a disturbed, charming figure. He brings that same focus to the role of the adult Bruce Wayne, the character who as a child witnesses his parents' murder and can never forgive himself for it. Bale owns the part for as long as he wants it. Other performances are likewise effective, Gary Oldman as Gordon, Michael Caine as Alfred, all navigate their parts well, drawing us into the fantasy and making us buy the premise whenever we get to thinking too hard about it.

Thematically Nolan and cast do a tremendous job making us feel the loss that is the heart of the character and the scene where young Bruce is orphaned misted me over. The plot is an acceptable vehicle that mounts the needed scenes that we expect to see (Batman putting the thump down on lawbreakers). The origin material while modified is still very familiar with some nice film editing moving us back and forth in the development of the wounded Wayne psyche. Heavy on atmosphere the film is mostly shadow, mist, driving rain and dirty wet streets.

The film does what heroes and movies about them are supposed to do: It makes us have faith that there is a right way and a reason to pursue it.

Is this perfection? No. The climax is oddly dull and while loud and expensive does not really give us any catharsis. It seems almost patched on, as if someone's mother was calling them home with all players agreeing that we have to end this thing. In the comics Batman is not only a physical specimen of Olympic proportions he has a keenly trained mind as well. There is nothing in this genesis to suggest that Nolan's Wayne has the same thorough focus on academics (as they apply to his mission). The real Batman would not be stumped by a scientific explanation as this one is late in the film.

Is this the best comic book super hero movie? The only other reasonable contender for the title is Spider-man 2 and both films are incredible rides from start to finish. Deciding which is best between two such towering successes is is not a problem I mind thrashing about in some geek chat room.

The film also raises the old comic book question: does the presence of super heroes create a need for bigger threats (super villains)? It answers this in the affirmative in the final frames of the movie. One wonders who will be cast because Jack casts a long shadow. The next film should try to retain what succeeded here (character development, serious regard for the material) and avoid mistakes of the past (Please, one villain at a time). People love the Batman character. Batman and Superman were characters that sprang from the economy and society and that essence will always deliver to the public.

Another matter is more serious to me as a parent. I grew up on comics in the sixties and Batman comics were pretty tame even silly things. In our drive to legitimize super hero comics and gain respect for the medium we have forced the children outside. I mentioned that Nolan does a balancing act; here is an example: in the film which is seasoned to taste like real life Nolan adds a young boy who believes in Batman and knows he will arrive in time (he does) it is a credit to Nolan's deft touch that this works. In real life we know what would happen. In comics today that young boy would be murdered in an effort to lend verisimilitude. I'm not sure how I feel about that. Actually, I am sure and I will be thinking about it for a long time.