Confidently, I remembered most of Batman Begins beat for beat. The one aspect I did forget, though, subsumed by the momentum of Christopher Nolan’s latter Bat-films, was how tentative it was. Large patches of dialogue are clunky, sounding like meddlesome studio notes–beyond the Wayne Tower employee explaining the significance of Ra’s al Ghul’s stolen microwave emitter repeatedly during the final showdown, there’s also Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne asking for clarification of obvious points throughout the opening act (Liam Neeson says he can become “invisible,” and he responds “Invisible?”). The choppy editing of fight scenes doesn’t help, either. Initial goings suggest Nolan is aiming to put audiences in a position of weakness: fights play out first from Bruce’s POV, when he’s outmatched during his training; when he becomes Batman, we then see criminals and cops reacting to, and attempting to process, this predatory, almost supernatural figure, glimpsed fleetingly and leaving broken bodies (the sequence where Batman surgically strikes Scarecrow’s gang in Arkham Asylum, then escapes Gotham PD, is the film’s best). The climactic showdown, where Bruce confronts the genocidal would-be father figure aboard the hijacked remains of his real father’s public transit system, is where Nolan’s choices betray him. Unwilling to show even a complete attack chain, the fight is simply a mess which ends on a false punishment note.
So what makes Batman Begins successful, despite such huge, fundamental mistakes for an action film? Breaking down Bruce Wayne. Nolan and co-writer David Goyer introduce the man at his lowest point: grubby, imprisoned, fighting random thugs, and most of all angry. Flashbacks reveal not only his parents’ murder and the resulting fragile emotional state, but a narrowness of vision. When the mugger is scheduled for early release, in exchange for testimony against a crime boss, he fumes at this, even when the killer expresses genuine regret. This almost leads him to assassinate the man, before getting a rude awakening to how crime and class intersect. A childhood friend (Katie Holmes) who lacked the insulation of billion dollar inheritance shows him the crime bosses and ruling class pals who profit off a system which creates more abject poverty, the kind which leads to similar tragedies he endured. Shocked and in need of new purpose, he wanders the globe, training with al Ghul’s ninja clan in the ways of vigilantism. Their solution, however, rests on wiping out the poor and the downtrodden. Disgusted, Bruce blows up their HQ.
While Christian Bale retains the physique of Patrick Bateman, the vainglorious, murderous WASP he portrayed in American Psycho, Nolan codes Bruce in working class terms. He spies on targets while wearing ratty coats and baseball caps, assembles his arsenal and constructs the Batcave in jeans and T-shirts, and bicker banters with Cockney-accented Alfred (Michael Caine) on everything from mask construction to daytime hobbies. When Bruce does dress upper, Bale goes into a smirking, preening vaudeville mode, a chandelier-lit mockery of privilege. Notably, his public return to Gotham (and Wayne Enterprises) involves helping a secretary practice golf, disrupting a CEO’s get-even-richer dealings. As Batman, he doesn’t randomly attack petty crooks, but specifically targets authorities (mobster Carmine Falcone; crooked judges and cops who have to swear to him; the abusive, greedy doctor who becomes Scarecrow). He networks with a blue-collar Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman). Nolan’s Bruce Wayne follows an edict: wipe out corruption in the halls of power, level the playing field, allow opportunity to spread. Crime will dwindle as a result. Bale, Nolan, and Goyer redistribute a fascistic, 1% icon into a figure of bleeding heart populism, then drop him into a class war conspiracy in a rain-drenched, Blade Runner inspired ghetto. This core, considered ideal powers through Nolan’s awkward transition to blockbuster filmmaking.