I went back and revisited Batman Begins a few days ago. This was my first time stepping into Christopher Nolan‘s Batman-verse since seeing The Dark Knight Rises in theater this summer. I’ve been of the opinion since then that TDKR, while very good, was the weakest of the series. A close call with Batman Begins though, so a rewatch of this first entry seemed in order. Overall, I think this was my third or fourth time seeing Batman Begins. I’ve always enjoyed it. Not even getting into the new ground it broke for superhero movies or the box office impact the trilogy would go on to have, it’s also an entertaining movie in its own right.
Here are a few thoughts that sprung to mind for me during this rewatch. Warning: There will be spoilers ahead.
1. Ninjas sounds like a silly thing, but it’s a good fit for Batman.
The whole story of how Bruce Wayne becomes Batman takes an interesting route this time around. I remember the first time I saw the movie, the whole League of Shadows thing felt a bit odd. I’ve never been familiar with the Batman mythos apart from the movies, so having a bunch of ninjas involved was not something I was familiar with Batman-wise. It totally works, though. Minus the whole killing thing, Batman is kind of like a modern day ninja. He’s sneaky, he lurks in shadows, and deception and trickery are as fundamental to him as strength in combat. Bruce Wayne being trained by assassins makes for a cool origin story.
2. There is plenty of (retroactive) foreshadowing to The Dark Knight Rises.
I say retroactive because the third film in the series wasn’t really being planned when Batman Begins was written, so it’s more a case of The Dark Knight Rises building on things introduced here. Still, there’s a lot in Batman Begins that carry extra meaning when you know what happens in TDKR. The whole “Why do we fall” thing, for one. Or Alfred urging Bruce Wayne to consider his future rather than dwelling on the past. There’s plenty of neat stuff like that in Batman Begins.
3. Michael Caine steals the show.
In a truly star-studded cast, it’s Michael Caine in the role of Wayne’s butler Alfred who delivers the best performance. There is the dry wit and loyalty that one expects from a butler character like this, of course, but what seals the deal is the real affection that’s evident from Alfred towards his young master, both in the flashback scenes to Bruce’s childhood and in the present days of crime fighting. The relationship between the two is maintained throughout the whole trilogy, and it very much serves to remind us that beneath the mask, Batman is very much a human being.
4. Ra’s al Ghul was a great choice for an antagonist.
Batman’s rogues gallery seems to me a double-edged sword. On one hand, having a variety of colorful villains means you can tell plenty of different stories. On the other hand, this means that Batman himself often seems less interesting by comparison. With Batman Begins being an origin story, you want the hero to be the center of attention. For this purpose, having Ra’s al Ghul as the big antagonist is perfect. At least in this incarnation – again, I know little of the comics – he’s not as flashy as a Joker, a Riddler, or a Two-Face. In fact, by having him serving as Batman’s mentor, you get a hero-villain dynamic where they’re from the same root, yet differ in key philosophies. Plus, with Scarecrow as the secondary threat, there’s still enough of the “typical” Batman villain craziness to keep things fun. Even if Ra’s al Ghul doesn’t get the chance to steal the show like Heath Ledger‘s Joker does in The Dark Knight, he still has to be considered the right pick for this part.
5. Ken Watanabe is wasted.
Admission: I’m not overly familiar with Ken Watanabe. Like most in the western hemisphere, I first took notice of him in The Last Samurai. That said, he was teriffic in that film, and you have to assume that it was that performance – along with the attention his Oscar nomination got him – that made Nolan pursue him for Batman Begins. It’s unfortunate, then, than his role as a decoy Ra’s al Ghul is so limited. He barely has any lines, doesn’t get to do much, and he’s killed off early on. There are reasonable explanations for this, of course. Perhaps his short appearance was meant to make you believe that he might return later on, only to then spring an extra twist on you by having Liam Neeson‘s character turn out to be the real Ra’s. It makes sense, I suppose. Still, it’s a shame that an actor as good as Watanabe wasn’t given a bigger chance to show his stuff here. It was cool of Nolan to bring the actor along in a more substantial part in Inception, though.
6. Christian Bale’s Batman voice is less pronounced here.
I get that Bruce Wayne wants to hide his identity, while at the same time coming off as intimidating. He thus adopts a deep growly voice for his Batman alter ego. In The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, this goes overboard. He sounds like he’s trying way too hard, and the effect is a bit silly. In this first film, however, he plays it a bit softer. It’s enough to make him seem dark and foreboding, while still concealing his true voice. Maybe the fact that Ra’s still saw through his disguise in this film made Bruce extra cautious in the sequels. I prefer this voice, though.
7. Nolan wasn’t very good at shooting action scenes yet.
While Nolan had certainly made great movies before Batman Begins, this was still his first venture into the action genre. It shows. The fight scenes have always been one of my main problems with this movie. Shaky-cam coupled with quick cuts, to the point where it’s almost impossible to tell what is actually going on. This is a trap many action films have fallen into in the post-Bourne era. Luckily, Nolan would get better at this in future films, but it still remains a blemish on this one.
8. Katie Holmes is mostly useless.
Well, not in general. She has had decent showings in other films. In the role of Rachel Dawes, however, she’s pretty lame. Some of this could be chalked up to Nolan’s trademark weakness when it comes to writing and directing female characters, but part of the blame still has to reside on Holmes herself. She’s a poor fit for the character, there’s no chemistry between her and Christian Bale, and there’s simply nothing impressive about the performance at all. Her being replaced by the great Maggie Gyllenhaal was one of my main sources of excitement for The Dark Knight – although Gyllenhaal turned out to be not great for the part either. Alas.