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Friday, July 8, 2005
Cary Ashby

"Batman Begins" is a creepy, moody film for all the right reasons; it's an original adventure based on the comic book legacy of the Dark Knight.

In fact, "Begins" feels nothing like the typical Hollywood super hero action movie. The beginning sets the tone for a drama about Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), a man searching for who he is and what direction his life should take after his parents are murdered. Director Christopher Nolan makes intrigue the top priority in storytelling, then adds the action and an hour into the film, gives the audience a thrill in revealing the hero himself.

The unorthodox combination is the right mix to pull off a movie touted as staying true to the 66 year history of the DC Comics legend. As the title indicates, "Batman Begins" traces the origins of the Caped Crusader, but it's no prequel.

Fans and critics jaded by the previous four-movie franchise have nothing to fear. Not only is "Batman Begins" not affiliated with the Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher films, there truly is almost no comparison. "Begins" is the real deal for comic book fans and any fan of the grim guardian of Gotham City who strikes fear into the hearts of criminals.

The only similarities between the previous franchise and "Batman Begins" are very few: Batman again wears all black, he uses a grapple gun (a gadget later introduced into the animated series and comics) and Bale uses a version of "the Michael Keaton Batman voice" that's even huskier and grittier - making the Dark Knight just that much scarier.

Nolan's intentions are straightforward. In order for the audience to root for The Man in Black, we must first know exactly who Bruce Wayne is.

Bale pulls it off beautifully. Wayne is as flamboyant, charming and debonair as the Batman is intimidating, dangerous and gruesome. The multibillionaire is as concerned about his father's business as the Batman is passionate about stopping crime. Both alter egos will do whatever it takes to protect Gotham City.

Wayne, and in turn, Batman, is focused on stopping crime and helping the helpless when childhood friend Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), an assistant district attorney, helps Wayne realize Gotham City is corrupt from head to toe.

When he realizes that Sgt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) is one of the few cops in the Gotham Police Department who doesn't roll over for the criminal underworld, Wayne/Batman knows he might have an advocate in crime fighting.

Wayne leaves home for seven years and during that time is encouraged to focus his fear by the mysterious Ducard (Liam Neeson). Wayne learns the art of being a ninja while addressing his fear under Ducard and the leader of the League of Shadows, Ra's al Ghul (Ken Watanabe).

Wayne tells Ducard that he seeks a way to use fear against those who prey on the fearful. Batman later uses Ducard's lesson of "basking" in another person's fear in his war on crime and while battling the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), who specializes in fear toxins.

"Batman Begins" is ripe with ironies, both onscreen and off. Nolan is a stranger to the genre, yet he co-wrote the screenplay with David Goyer, a self-professed comic book lover. It's equally ironic that a fairly unknown Welsh actor (Bale) properly embodies an American icon - after several animated series and a half-dozen animated movies nailed Batman and his universe more than the previous four live-action movies that were a hodgepodge of Hollywood, comics and the directors' quirky visions.

Two of the most subtle onscreen ironies are visual - the manner in which Batman leaves a captured crime boss for the cops and the Caped Crusader's gauntlets are identical to those used by Ducard and the League of Shadows.

Wayne, both as a multi-millionaire and crimefighter, enlists the aid of only those he trusts and calls friends: family butler Alfred Pennyworth (Sir Michael Caine); Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), a demoted Wayne Enterprises expert in applied sciences; Dawes and Gordon, who is promoted to lieutenant by the film's conclusion. Caine, Freeman and Oldman pull off charismatic yet understated, masterful performances worthy of their comic counterparts.

Caine is perfect as Alfred - even without the pencil-thin mustache. The butler is dedicated to "Master Wayne," despite some initial misgivings about the young man's crusade. He also has insight in how Wayne needs to distinguish his two identities. This Alfred, like Michael Gough in the previous series, is witty and loveable, but Caine's Alfred comes off as more grounded with the world outside of Wayne Manor and is certainly more concerned about Bruce Wayne and his family's legacy. This Alfred is more family member to Wayne than servant.

Freeman, as with any role he takes, is classy as Lucius Fox, a genius inventor relegated to the basement of Wayne Industries. Fox welcomes Wayne openly when he shows an interest in the ditched military prototypes placed in storage that Fox says, "are yours anyway." He doesn't care - and doesn't want to know - why or how Wayne uses them; he's just glad to see them in good hands.

Oldman as Gordon is ripped straight out of the comic book pages. He is a family man who is somewhat skeptical about Batman the vigilante, but soon realizes the Dark Knight is a force for good. And Nolan pays homage to their history by having Batman disappear quickly after their conversations - a skill Batman uses to his advantage against various henchmen. Gordon remains leary in the closing minutes of "Begins" of what impact the presence of a costumed super hero will have on Gotham's criminal world.

The differences between "Begins" and the comics are subtle, yet are ultimately unimportant within the context of the storyline. The Wayne family sees an opera instead of a Zorro movie before Bruce's parents are gunned down before him. The new Batmobile, a souped-up military vehicle which Fox calls the Tumbler, has no Bat symbols or fins.

The biggest difference between the film and the comics is that Gordon is the first person to show young Bruce Wayne compassion after his parents' murders instead of Dr. Leslie Thompkins. Nolan's decision only makes their collaboration later that much more powerful, and quite possibly, inevitable.

Dawes is a movie creation, but she doesn't come off as a distraction forced into the script, like several love interests in the previous franchise. Since Nolan establishes her as a life-long friend of Wayne's, she is a foil for his journey of self-discovery - and Wayne beginning his career as Batman.

Three and a half bats out of four

BOF contributor Cary Ashby writes a twice-monthly comic book column for the "Norwalk Reflector." He is also the newspaper’s crime and education reporter. Cary has an extensive collection of Batman comics and has been an avid fan for nearly 30 years. He can be reached via e-mail at

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