Batman Begins Gave Birth To The Superhero Genre As We Know It
In 2005, ‘something elemental, something terrifying’ sparked a superhero evolution: under a cowl of prestige, Batman Begins dared for a darker knight.
Comicbook movies have never been, nor will they ever be, for children exclusively. They spawn from often long, extensive literary histories tailored to maturer reading; whether it be Chris Claremont, Frank Miller or, particularly, Alan Moore.
Hollywood’s post-millennium output hinted towards their multiplex domination: X-Men and X2 brought mass-entertainment mutants alive, while Sam Raimi’s first and second Spider-Man films are considered cultural cornerstones. However, today’s gritty heroes owe one director a debt: Christopher Nolan.
Attempts to ‘grow up’ superheroes prior to Batman Begins never soared. Daredevil was a bomb, The Punisher (albeit equipped with Thomas Jane) was a hammy mess, and while the likes of Blade, The Crow and Darkman are incredible in their own rights, they’re too far from normality to achieve ubiquity.
The caped crusader’s filmography is a fascinating record: from Adam West’s ultra-silly portrayal, to Michael Keaton’s nutty Burtonian edge, to Joel Schumacher’s pantomimic nipples. Batman is a household name, yet the tenets of his being were rarely explored beyond his parents’ murder. Sound the origin story siren.
Nolan has a kink for time; it is but a concept, after all. Memento sparked his interest, later dabbling in Interstellar’s relativity ticking and Dunkirk’s converging timelines. Somehow, he managed to weave such craftiness into the template of a superhero backstory – in itself a remarkable feat.
Batman Begins’ first act balances three points in Bruce Wayne’s life: his childhood in the manor, playing in the garden and developing a phobia of bats from a tumble into a hole; as an adult around the trial date of the man who killed his parents in a Gotham alleyway; and his stint in the Himalayas, brawling with inmates in a Bhutan prison (he balks at the guards’ calls for protection, to which they reply: ‘No, protection for them’).
We float between them in a haze, bearing little if any confusion to the viewers, with one uniting message from his dad in a constant state of echo: ‘Why do we fall Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves back up.’ Whether it be from the hole, the self-loathing or hardened training, he succeeds again, again and again.
The thematic principles of Batman come to the fore via Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson in a brilliant twist that still reverberates upon rewatch) and the League of Shadows, convincing Bruce to devote ‘himself to an ideal rather than recklessly pursuing self-gratification… that’s how you become legend’.
The League of Shadows see themselves as the world’s reboot button. When society reaches ‘the pinnacle of decadence’, they invoke man-made disasters and genocide as a means of cleansing. Think of other post-Begins antagonists who seek to restore balance through death: Richmond Valentine, Ozymandias, Apocalypse and notably, Thanos.
Ra’s himself seems like a stereotype – but to quote a later foe, he was ahead of the ‘hold on, the villain might be right’ curve. David Goyer, a writer alongside Nolan, previously said: ‘He’s not crazy in the way that all the other Batman villains are. He’s not bent on revenge; he’s actually trying to heal the world. He’s just doing it by very draconian means.’
While it may not be the top entry in the hero’s big screen outings, this is far and away the finest Bruce Wayne movie. Think about the essence of Batman: he’s a billionaire playboy philanthropist (sorry for the plagiarism, Tony) who likes to dress up as a bat to ‘fight injustice… to turn fear against those who prey on the fearful’. This requires a lunatic, rather, an American Psycho: enter Christian Bale.
The Welshman was a very different Bruce than we’d seen before: more intense, brooding, taciturn and above all, furious. ‘My anger outweighs my guilt,’ he says. His most effective scenes unfold as he sketches his new persona, unfettered by anxiety or common sense. ‘As a symbol, I can be incorruptible’ – something especially prescient of today’s needs.
Bale brings a mysterious aristocrat down to a human level – later comicbook movies, such as Iron Man 3 and Doctor Strange, similarly dismantle their eponymous heroes’ egos (although, one could argue the MCU’s lighter successes are part-in-thanks to the contrasting vision Begins et al., making up two sides of the superhero coin). In stripping down Batman to his bones – before unleashing his wrath with terrifying panache later – Nolan gave us a hero we could truly believe, not just admire.
Visually, Begins is a landmark. While far apart from the theatrical, misty architecture of Burton’s world, Nolan’s Gotham is a halfway-house between the gothic playground years past and today’s grounded playgrounds.
While planet-levelling visual shenanigans are common of the genre, practical spectacles are name of the game here. All of Batman’s toys are tangible: the Batarangs, the grapple hook and the Tumbler, aka the Batmobile (in the film’s funniest line, Bruce asks Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox: ‘Does it come in black?’ ).
Even the later versions of Gotham in his trilogy seem more real-world than Begins, where bats assemble in the sky like an emblem and rain falls like a Blade Runner’s LA. Also bear in mind how frightening Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow and his arsenal of psychotropic hallucinogens prove to be, with apparitions including maggot-infested faces and fire-spouting horses.
Without it, the DCEU simply does not exist. Of course, there’s the flip-side of Begins’ darkness: as gritty became trendy, its impact upon Snyder’s superhero visions has proved to be to the detriment of the franchise, not a USP.
Begins is felt in mostly Man of Steel – even produced by Nolan’s production company, Syncopy – and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The former tracks a similar down-to-earth, hard-done-by rise to superheroism, unfortunately draining Superman – created as a beacon for hope – of light along the way. BvS went a step further, drawing the ire of mainstream audiences and critics for its bleak, mercilessly moody tone (its Knightmare sequence could arguably be credited to Scarecrow’s freaky mind-trips).
It’s regretful that Begins is often lost in the shadow of The Dark Knight, its monstrous sequel with the all-time great villain performance in Heath Ledger’s Joker. The ooh-inducing chill of Nolan’s new-era Gotham, that pulse-pounding blend of ‘taking theatricality a little too seriously’ and harsh reality, changed cinema’s heroes forever. ‘Everlasting’, you could say.
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