How I once introduced myself to a friend of a friend:
Her: Hi, I’m Rachel.
Her: Do you like that name?
Me: That’s what Batman said.
Said introduction miraculously did not scare Rachel away and eventually led her to watching the Dark Knight trilogy, the Batman Begins of which she claimed was “the BEST MOVIE EVER!!!!!!!” (Yes, I journeyed back to a four-year-old Facebook conversation to copy that.) While I surely wouldn’t go that far, I, a non comic reader, would call it the quintessential live-action Batman movie. And if you told me ten years ago that I’d say that, I would have thought you belonged in Arkham Asylum.
When it was first released, I didn’t realize it was a reboot and thought it was a prequel to the Tim Burton Batman movies, the twisted natures of which I now hold in much lower regard; and since I was used to Michael Keaton’s performance as the Caped Crusader, I found Christian Bale’s casting laughably over-the-top and ruined the movie for me. I couldn’t get why people were raving about it.
It wasn’t until The Dark Knight where I began to appreciate Batman Begins, the ironic part being how much my appreciation has grown since; even the gravelly Batvoice has grown on me. Now, in an age where I’m starting to get tired of superheroes, I still have quite a respect for Batman, which at one point became an unhealthy obsession back in high school thanks to these movies. I mean, take away the Batsuit and Batman’s still a ninja and, as Batman Begins actually shows, a detective!
What sells Batman Begins for me is that whereas the sequels shaft Bruce Wayne in favor of other characters, this one’s all about Bruce Wayne. We see what drives him to become the Dark Knight. We see how he not only battles criminals but understands where they come from. As Studio C has pointed out, the very premise of “Wealthy orphan goes into exile then comes back to save his people” is the bare bones of Exodus, giving the story a biblical edge. …Well, more mythic than biblical in this case. (And don’t get me started on Christian Bale’s actual Exodus retelling.)
This film may have initiated Hollywood’s obsession with dark and gritty reboots, but it still fairly balances stylization, such as the way Batman actually behaves like a giant bat—a creature that attacks from the darkness. He strikes fear into opponents who strike fear into the public. It also deals with a diverse cast of villains, ranging from a mob boss to a psychopath to a commanding mentor.
In terms of thematic missteps, there is a death that the anti-killer Batman could have prevented through an act of mercy, and he causes nearly fatal vehicular damage with the Batmobile. And although Bruce Wayne believes that there are still good people left in a city as authoritatively corrupt as Gotham, and his belief is proven true through Katie Holme’s district attorney Rachel Dawes and Gary Oldman’s Lieutenant Jim Gordon, there’s no time for us to be shown the goodness in ordinary citizens. Though perhaps that’s more of a want for myself than a necessity for the story.
The other biggest aspect that sells it for me is how nothing, not even the breakneck pace, gets in the way of its emotional resonance, such as Michael Caine’s wonderful Alfred’s commitment to Bruce, whether he’s trying to inspire his adopted son or discourage his reckless antics.
Plus, since we get to know Bruce’s sympathetic father before he’s killed, this depiction of the murder of his parents—the moment that defines the Batman character—has a genuine sense of heartbreak, and Bruce’s bond with lifelong friend Rachel refuses a cliche “hero gets the girl”.
All of this not only makes for great superhero storytelling, but it’s wrapped up in a sort of mythmaking, not just the biblical premise but the first act’s fictional Tibetan setting and the score’s booming horns that embody both the heroism and the darkness of its icon, that makes it one of the superhero movies I compare all others to.