Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy won acclaim from critics, made billions at the box office and made it ok for adults to like superheroes. Now, with the next incarnation of Batman on the way, we take a look back at the Dark Knight trilogy to see if it’s stood the test of time. First up, we go back to where it all began with Batman Begins.
This film’s only crime is make it compulsory for all subsequent superhero franchises to do an origins story, and this is only a result of how good this is. It begins in a prison somewhere in a remote part of Asia, where a young Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is brawling with criminals. In the non-linear narrative we find out that he’s running from the spectre of his parents’ death, desperately looking for a place in the world.
The opening feels so unlike a superhero film the first time I saw it I briefly wondered if I’d put the wrong DVD in. Set in a far more realistic world, it’s dark and ominous as Bruce trains with the League of Shadows, under the tutelage of the mysterious Duckard (Liam Neeson). It makes sense that Batman would have martial arts training in his past, unlike, say Hannibal Lecter. That would be stupid.
Back in Gotham, he develops his batsuit while beginning to work on tackling the organised crime in Gotham. Each aspect of his costume is shown to have a purpose, with his gadgets far more grounded in real-life science than the ‘shark-repellent batspray’ era. One of Batman’s many titles in the comics is the World’s Greatest Detective, and Batman Begins is the first time we get to really see this side of him on film.
Supporting characters like Alfred (Michael Caine) and not-yet-Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) that got only a token appearance in previous cinematic outings are here fully fleshed out characters. The secondary villain is the fairly low-profile Scarecrow, a criminal psychologist superbly played by Cillian Murphy. His plot is elaborate and sinister taking place in the docks, slums and Arkham Asylum reflecting the far darker tone of these films. Batman makes use of fear and showmanship rather than brute force, like in one of the best scenes in the film when he wipes out a whole group of criminals in the docks without them ever seeing him, simultaneously striking fear into the hearts of Gotham’s criminals.
The crucial difference between this and other films of the genre is that it’s dark and scary. This is the one of the trilogy where Gotham looks darkest, dirtiest and most broken. The scenes involving Crane’s fear toxin are still as scary as ever but it also manages to remain humorous throughout. While some origins films feel like an explanation of how the hero came into being with a villain fight tacked on the end, Batman Begins feels like it could have worked even without the origins aspects, with a strong plot and supporting cast.
This is what marked out Christopher Nolan as the most exciting and interesting blockbuster film maker of his generation and made it acceptable for adults to like superhero films. It also paved the way for what was to come: the all-encompassing brilliance of The Dark Knight.