Batman Begins (2005) changed the game for superhero movies and summer action franchises by delivering on several big promises. It was the first real superhero reboot, disavowing all the other movies that came before it and the bad taste they had left. Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman was interesting but also contained deep flaws (the casting of Commissioner Gordon; turning the Joker into a gangster with ties to Bruce Wayne’s past). The sequels that followed only got progressively sillier, basically making the 90s a complete wash for Batman films. Many other series have since learned to move on from previous installments. The more recent Spider-Man, X-Men, and even James Bond films have turned to the origin of their characters to tell the very core stories behind them. Begins is big on one primary motivation: fear. Batman’s mantra from the comics has always been that “criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot” and that his tactics would play upon their weaknesses. And the very best part of Nolan’s re-imagining is that the possibility of a millionaire actually becoming a vigilante is taken seriously.
The film goes into great detail showing how and why Bruce Wayne develops his arsenal of weapons and equipment. An attempt is made to make the Batsuit and the Batmobile modeled after actual military applications. It’s a refreshingly far cry from the handy can of “Bat-Shark-Repellent” of the 60s era Batman. The choice of villains also play into the idea that every costume or ability needs a real world justification. Ra’s al Ghul’s (Ken Watanabe) League of Shadows play a large part in the first scenes of Begins, showing Bruce Wayne’s physical and mental training to become a perfect warrior. The notion from the comics of the immortality granting Lazarus Pit is also done away with, and Ra’s al Ghul’s longevity is instead explained away in a clever twist. The Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) also rounds out the secondary villain role as a natural fit to the theme of overcoming fear. His fear gas is probably the most unbelievable element of the movie, but an attempt is made to justify his weapon and his mask as an experiment on the inmates of Arkham.
The training segments of the film allow Christopher Nolan to use a small amount of his flashback style narratives. Scenes of Bruce as a child are intercut with his self-imposed exile from Gotham. By the time we see an adolescent Bruce, we see a man driven by the need for revenge but without the means or the maturity to effectively act on it. The addition of the character Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) as Bruce’s childhood friend gives him motivation to act within less chaotic means. Aside from this motivation, Rachel is an odd inclusion for this film as she makes for a bland non-love interest, an invention solely for this film series, and is handled by the rather twitchy sensibilities of Katie Holmes. Maggie Gyllenhaal did her best with this still mostly unnecessary role in The Dark Knight (2008).
Bruce’s path to understanding the minds of criminals is explained in great detail. The mob boss responsible for much of Gotham’s corruption, Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), remarks that people will always fear what they don’t understand. In that moment Bruce makes the decision to travel until he reaches a place where no one recognizes him and to live with criminals. While the League of Shadows prepares him physically, he disagrees with their methods of zero tolerance against thieves and murderers. Just as every length is taken to make the audience believe the fantastic comic book elements of the movie, every step of Bruce’s personal transformation is analyzed with complete sincerity.