Building the Bat: Batman Begins (2005)

A column article, Shot For Shot by: Paul Brian McCoy

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During the production of Batman and Robin (1997), Warner Bros. was so impressed with the dailies that they immediately began work planning another sequel, Batman Triumphant, with an expected mid-1999 release date, and to be honest, it sounded like a pretty interesting idea. But once Batman and Robin was released, a very different reality set in.

The film was critically panned and after a strong opening weekend, plummeted dramatically. After ultimately grossing $107.3 million domestically and $130.9 million internationally, those sequel plans were scrapped, and while director Joel Schumacher offered to do a more back-to-basics Batman: Year One, the studio chose to explore other options – none of which included him or panned out.

There was talk of a live-action Batman Beyond film as well as a script going around called Batman: DarKnight (involving Man-Bat), and then in 2000 another attempt at Batman: Year One, this time with Darren Aronofsky hired to write and direct. Christian Bale was approached for the role of Batman, but passed. However by 2002, Warners decided to pull the plug on Year One and throw their weight behind Batman vs. Superman with Wolfgang Petersen on board as director. Again Christian Bale declined the offer of playing Batman (and Josh Hartnett turned down an offer to play Superman).

But then Petersen moved on to direct Troy and Warner Bros. decided to move in yet another direction, with Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer beginning work on the script for Batman Begins in 2003. In September, Christian Bale finally agreed to be the fourth live-action Batman since 1989.

During this Bat-Downtime there had been a seismic shift in the production of comic book films, starting with the 1999 release of Marvel's Blade and continuing through X-Men (2000), Blade II (2002), Spider-Man (2002), X2: X-Men United (2003), Hulk (2003), and then Spider-Man 2 in 2004. Camp was out and the most successful films during this period were much more realistic takes on the material. Not every film worked (2003's Daredevil, 2004's The Punisher, and 2005's Elektra, for example), but Marvel's success played a major role in Warners' shift in attitude toward focusing on a realistic approach to Batman.

Batman Begins had added pressure on it, given the absolute collapse of Warner Bros. treatment of DC properties Steel (1997), Catwoman (2004), and Constantine (2005) – the only other DC properties with live-action film releases during this period.

Nolan's film drew its initial inspiration from the 1989 Denny O'Neil and Dick Giordano story "The Man Who Falls" while also incorporating the character Henri Ducard, who was created by Sam Hamm, the screenwriter of the 1989 Batman film in his first comic book script, 1989's Blind Justice. Both stories were originally published during the promotional build-up to the Tim Burton film.

In addition to these direct nods to the comics, Nolan's and Goyer's approach to Sgt. Jim Gordon is based on the way the character was presented in Frank Miller's and David Mazzucchelli's Batman: Year One, and the character of Lucius Fox, originally created in 1979 by Len Wein and John Calnan is introduced as another of Bruce Wayne's main allies.

Unlike any of the previous Batman films, this version focused mainly on Bruce Wayne's early years, specifically his time in Bhutan consorting with criminals in an effort to understand the criminal mind. It is here that he is recruited by Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) to become a ninja and join the League of Shadows – a group led by the mysterious Ra's al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) dedicated to the violent cleansing of criminal elements from corrupted societies. Wayne takes these lessons, turns on the League of Shadows when he refuses to execute criminals, and returns to Gotham to assume the role of masked vigilante.

Along the way he must also deal with having his father's company stolen from him by CEO William Earle (Rutger Hauer), balancing his emotional commitment to childhood sweetheart (and current Assistant D.A.) Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), and stop the League of Shadows of wiping Gotham City from the map with the aid of Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy) and his hallucination-inducing gas.

Visually, the film stands out in stark contrast to the earlier versions, with Chicago standing in for Gotham and most of the actual filming being done at Shepperton Studios in England. The parts of the film that deal with Wayne's training and eventual return to Gotham are nicely paced and provide an original and refreshing take on the character, despite Nolan's apparent inability to NOT cut a scene into as many small shots as possible.

While the sweeping, Oscar-nominated cinematography by Wally Pfister is beautiful, the action sequences suffer from too many jump cuts that fragment the scenes in ways that make smooth transitions virtually impossible. The training sequences between Wayne and Ducard fail to capture anything about the grace and fluidity in the way the ninja training should be presented.

Despite this technical drawback, the performances are mostly solid, particularly Michael Caine's extremely approachable Alfred. However, the chemistry between Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes and Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne is lacking any real heat, so it's hard to really feel any sympathy when she spurns him in the end.

Plotwise, there are a couple of nice twists along the way, particularly involving Ducard, but the climax of the film boils down to a fairly predictable action set piece that really doesn't live up to everything that's come before. There's a lot of fire and huge explosions, as well as quite a few nightmarish hallucinations as the citizens of Gotham are exposed to the Scarecrow's Fear Gas.

And along the way, Batman even rescues a young Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson).

Overall, Batman Begins is a respectable film that firmly reestablished Batman in the public consciousness; essentially rebranding the character for a whole new generation as dark and brooding, with very little humor about him. And if the box office is to be believed, that's just what the audiences wanted. Nolan's first outing with the Bat ranked #8 for the year, bringing in over $205 million domestically with another $167 million overseas, making it the highest grossing Bat-Film since Tim Burton's 1989 film (although with adjusted ticket prices, it actually falls behind the first three films).

This success made Nolan's initial plans for a trilogy a sure thing, and Warner Bros. banked on having a one-two punch of Batman and Superman films coming out virtually back-to-back. Unfortunately, that sort of success was not meant to be and it wouldn't be until 2008, with the release of The Dark Knight that Warners and DC would have another hit on their hands.

But oh, what a hit it would be.

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