Our standards not being so high, a man dressing as a bat to fight crime is an idea we're perfectly willing to accept as a summer-blockbuster premise. Yet in Batman Begins, filmmaker Christopher Nolan sees the premise as pretext: His take on the comic-book canon wants to know why.
Unsurprisingly, Nolan's Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is also a Seeker. Born to privilege, he's driven by the childhood trauma of seeing his parents gunned down in a stickup; angry, fearful and confronted with the systemic corruption of the city his humanitarian billionaire father helped build, he disappears into the criminal underworld. We meet the future Batman -- where else? -- in a prison in Asia, though he's soon hiking pilgrim-like across what appear to be the Himalayas to keep a shadily arranged appointment with a mystery guru promisingly named Ra's al Ghul (Ken Watanabe).
Ghul's major-domo, Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), ninjas up Bruce, teaching him the value of a good sword thrust as well as stealth, theatrical deception and the use of terror against one's opponents. But when Ghul formally recruits him for the ancient and nebulous League of Shadows, whose next mission is to liquidate Bruce's crime-ridden hometown, the acolyte rebels, making sudden enemies of his mentors (though not without saving Ducard's life) and returning to Gotham with a new plan to save the city.
That this plan comes to involve a cave, a cape and a horned cowl constitutes the story's familiar trappings. But Nolan's bildungsroman-as-action flick stands out: Batman Begins is serious without being too heavy-handed, a divertissement with a few psychology courses under its belt.
The script, by Memento writer/director Nolan and David S. Goyer (Blade, Dark City), takes a pleasingly literate path to its requisite slam-bang finale. The film's first words, spoken in a flashback by Bruce as a child, are "Let me see"; as a callow undergrad, Bruce wants to know the score so badly that he brazenly confronts Gotham crimelord Carmen Falconi (Tom Wilkinson), a suited thug who shakes him with visions of his own helplessness. Like the hero of a kung-fu flick, Bruce must master his own anger and fear before he can help others.
Emerging from self-imposed exile -- we're to consider it a tortured soul's sojourn rather than a heir's slumming -- Bruce confronts a family corporation gone corrupt and a Gotham invariably shrouded in night. Glowing skyscrapers looming over the trash-strewn alleys he'll patrol as Batman, neighborhoods resembling South Asian shantytowns. He combines his father's sense of social justice with the League of Shadows' kick-ass methodology, and discovers that his first battle is against the League itself, and its dastardly plan to derange Gotham with air-borne hallucinogens.
A literal flick of the wrist by the masked sub-villain named Scarecrow halfway through turns Batman Begins into a more standard actioner, complete with timely one-liners and sleek editing. (Though unlike Tim Burton's kicky Batman, no Prince songs here; the score is by Hans Zimmer and James Howard Newton, freshly teamed for oceanic pomp.) It's still pretty satisfying: The drug trope lets Nolan play with perception -- Batman looks as menacing to people he's trying to help as to the bad guys -- and the script takes such pains to ground us in the particulars of Batman's body armor and gadgetry that it all seems plausible, somehow (the exception being a lengthy Batmobile chase in which our hero endangers dozens of lives to save one).
Like the latest Star Wars, Batman Begins also offers an especially fun play-at-home version of cinema's post-9/11 game. The League of Shadows might be Red America's heartburn dream of a terror cell: Ethnically Other, possessed of weapons of mass destruction and plans to turn a city's own infrastructure against it, and intent on bringing down a society gagging on its own decadence. (Or call them the Taliban, and the pre-Bat Bruce a version of fellow child of privilege and adrift seeker Johnny Walker Lindh.) On the other hand, the villainous Ducard's rhetoric is rather Republican, all about confronting evil, "the will to act" and the perils of coddling criminals.
Or perhaps, like the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers -- whose chilling pod-person paranoia was either anti-Commie or anti-Red Scare, depending on your taste -- Batman Begins simply reflects a fear-addled time. The film addresses the mastery of fear, but also its manipulation: The bad guys ("Scarecrow") ultimately seek to sow panic -- a goal of terrorists as well as of governments cultivating compliance in the populace. Thinking outside the Himalayan dojo, Batman pillages the League's psychological armory but rejects its fascistic tendencies.
Nolan's first crack at a blockbuster (he also directed the psychological thriller Insomnia) falls short in a few ways. With a charismatic performance by Bale, he delves into Bruce Wayne's psyche even while leaving every other character a cipher. True, Neeson's carries off Ducard ably, and Michael Caine, as Wayne's butler Alfred, and Morgan Freeman, as a wry weapons expert, charm. But Nolan generally underworks his cast, most unforgivably forcing Gary Oldman, as Gotham's Last Good Cop, to spend the final reel playing second fiddle to a pair of terrible eyeglasses and an overachieving SUV.
And of course, movie heroes confronting society's decay invariably end up wishfully: Whatever the script's rhetoric, it always comes down to one good guy knocking off one bad guy. No exception, Batman Begins tell us that the rich should help out, but not why the poor are kept poor. It ends sequel-ready, with a wronged city's fate in the hands of a righteously batty billionaire, playing his masked role with well-armed noblesse oblige.