Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” (2005)

After the completion of INSOMNIA, Nolan used his newfound access to studio resources to develop an ambitious project on the life of Howard Hughes.  The film would purportedly have starred Jim Carrey as the reclusive billionaire, if he hadn’t scrapped it following his discovery that Martin Scorsese was about to embark on shooting THE AVIATOR with Leonardo DiCaprio.  It was around this same time that he learned Warner Brothers was looking to make a new Batman picture– the property was one of the studio’s crown jewels, but had lain dormant ever since Joel Schumacher effectively bludgeoned it into a coma with 1997’s BATMAN & ROBIN, a two-hour consumer products department memo and toy masquerading as a movie.  Various pitches had already been made by other such high-profile directors as Darren Aronofsky, and spanned a wide range of ideas from Schumacher’s continuation of his run with a third film titled BATMAN TRIUMPHANT, to a live-action adaptation of the animated television series BATMAN BEYOND.  The closest any of these pitches came to reality was Aronofsky’s own riff on the iconic BATMAN YEAR ONE graphic novel, which explored Batman’s origins and early forays into crimefighting from the perspective of the future Gotham City police commissioner Jim Gordon.  Aronofsky’s take would have dramatically reworked some of the most iconic aspects of Batman lore, to the point that executives ultimately got cold feet and abandoned his vision.  Nolan, like many others of his generation, had grown up adoring the Caped Crusader and his surrounding universe of villains, so his interest in the vacant director’s chair was more or less a foregone conclusion.  He wasn’t interested, however, in making a quote/unquote “comic book movie” — indeed, he made no effort to conceal his lack of knowledge with the medium.  Rather, he was interested in imbuing the character of Batman with what he called a “cinematic reality”, giving the story the weight and gravitas of a real-life event.  His initial pitch meeting with Warner Brothers apparently lasted a mere ten minutes, but so confident in his vision of a realistic superhero film was he, that the executives cast aside their doubts about his relative inexperience as a studio filmmaker and hand over their most valuable piece of intellectual property to his control.

Nolan’s next move would pave the way for his eventual reputation as a Hollywood trendsetter.  He did away entirely with the continuity of the previous Tim Burton and Schumacher films, opting to reboot the story from square one so he could tell it his way with no compromises or obligations.  Rebooting a failing franchise has now become the go-to trick for frustrated development executives (especially those assigned to the Spider-Man franchise), so it’s easy to forget just how groundbreaking of an idea this was in the early 2000’s.  This decision, combined with the fact that money was essentially no object, allowed Nolan to envision a boundless Gotham City against which he could stage an epic story exploring Batman not just as a character, but as an idea. Ridley Scott had always served as a chief influence in Nolan’s artistic development, and Scott’s seminal classic BLADE RUNNER became a key reference in imagining a new kind of cinematic Gotham — a living, breathing city densely populated by diverse subcultures desperately in need of a hero.  Whereas Gotham City had generally been understood in previous iterations to be a fictional version of Manhattan, Nolan modeled the soaring architecture of his Gotham after Chicago, the city in which he’d spent a great deal of his upbringing.  With its deep ties to the colorful history of organized crime and bureaucratic shadiness, Chicago would prove an inspired fit for Nolan’s grandiose vision of a once-great city mired in corruption and decay.  By grounding the action in a tangible place, he could inject the necessary gravitas into his story while immediately differentiating his Gotham from the crumbling Art Deco spires of Burton’s Gotham or the garish day-glo labyrinth of Shumacher’s.  

Developing a  project as high-profile as Batman, with so many rabid fans angling for a big scoop, naturally required a high degree of secrecy — a requirement that dovetailed quite harmoniously with Nolan’s own showman-like penchant for strategic opaqueness.  He adopted Stanley Kubrick’s late-career practice of working from home, developing the story in his garage with a small team that included returning production designer Nathan Crowley, Nolan’s producing partner and wife Emma Thomas, and seasoned superhero genre screenwriter David S. Goyer.  Indeed, Nolan and company were so insistent on their veil of secrecy that Warner Brothers executives had to travel to them, forced to read the script on Nolan’s couch in an effort to prevent unwanted copies from leaking.  When the necessities of the pre-production process finally required him to send out physical copies of the script, he did so under a fake title — “The Intimidation Game — to avoid any unwanted scrutiny.  This unconventional process, while admittedly unwieldy, ultimately proved fruitful, empowering him with a dream cast and crew and a budget in the hundreds of millions to help realize the majestic vision he would come to call BATMAN BEGINS.

Christian Bale essentially beat out every eligible actor in the business for the title role by formulating his approach based on, what seems now in retrospect, the obvious concept of the character’s dual nature.  Far from the elegant and assured playboy embodied by Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney, Bale’s Bruce Wayne is a tortured young man whose psyche was profoundly fractured by the murder of his parents when he was a small boy.  The hoarse growl he adopts as Batman is the object of frequent parody now, but Bale’s choice to differentiate the speaking voices of Bruce Wayne and his alter ego came as something of revelation to Nolan during the casting process, immediately setting Bale apart from the pack of candidates.  Bale brings his signature commitment to the role, fully inhabiting the character in mind, body, and soul to arguably create the definitive screen version of the iconic hero. As the newly-orphaned son of a billionaire industrialist and philanthropist, Bruce grows up in his parents’ mausoleum-like mansion, his every need and desire attended to by his caretaker and butler, Alfred.  In his first of several collaborations with Nolan, esteemed British actor Michael Caine effortlessly also creates a definitive version of the character, giving his young charge the necessary warmth and support he needs to one day take take over the reigns of his late father’s business empire, Wayne Enterprises.  

Whereas prior Batman movies had audiences simply counting the minutes between the Caped Crusader’s crimefighting forays, Nolan makes the radical choice of delaying our first glimpse of Bruce in full Bat regalia until the halfway mark.  Instead, he traces Bruce’s formative years as his restless desire for justice prompts him to drop out of college and travel the world, giving himself a firsthand education in the nature of crime so that he can deliver said justice himself.  After landing himself in a Chinese prison, he is approached by Ducard, the urbane and charismatic face of a secret vigilante syndicate known as The League Of Shadows.  Liam Neeson proves an inspired choice in the role, becoming a firm yet compassionate mentor to Bruce while dispensing sage advice and virtuous platitudes that slowly reveal their inherently malevolent nature.  He presents himself as an underling to Ken Watanabe’s Ra’s Al Ghul, the enigmatic and Sphinx-like figurehead of The League Of Shadows– but appearances can be deceiving, and Bruce’s refusal to complete his final test (the execution of a common thief) brings his ideological compatibility with Ducard into urgent question.  Ducard’s lessons nevertheless prove influential when Bruce returns to Gotham and begins to formalize his own vigilante identity.  

Of all Ducard’s teachings, Bruce’s biggest takeaway is that he is more powerful as a symbol than as a man– a key concept of Nolan’s vision that would fundamentally inform the remainder of the trilogy.  For Bruce, that symbol takes the form of a bat, inspired by a formative moment of fear from his childhood.  Combining his flinty determination for justice with the nigh-bottomless technological resources of Wayne Enterprises at his disposal, Bruce sets out into the night as Batman, intent on eradicating the cancer of organized crime that has infected the Gotham Police Department with corruption.  Batman’s will to act inspires clandestine partnerships with a cop named Jim Gordon and Bruce’s childhood friend, Rachel Dawes, who has grown up to become an ambitious district attorney.  Renowned for his many villainous turns, Gary Oldman initially seemed an unusual choice to portray Gordon, the only decent cop in a police force besieged by compromise and corruption, but he would deliver a brilliant performance that cuts straight to the core of the character.  The character of Rachel Dawes, played by Katie Holmes, is an original creation of Nolan’s with no comic book counterpart.  She’s an ambitious district attorney and the love of Bruce Wayne’s life, stretching all the way back to their childhood.  As such, she is the only person besides Alfred who can penetrate his veneer of AMERICAN PSYCHO-style narcissism and nonchalance to access the broken little boy at his core.

The Batman universe has always been known for its rich world of well-developed allies and enemies, a grand tradition in which BATMAN BEGINS easily follows.  In his performance as Wayne Enterprises R&D head Lucius Fox, Morgan Freeman takes one of the most underappreciated characters in Batman comic lore and transforms him into one of the property’s most indelible personalities and a key ally on par with Gordon or Alfred.  By supplying Bruce with the gear he needs to function as Batman, he becomes analogous to “Q” from the James Bond series, and a vital tool for Nolan to ground Batman’s fantastical tech in the real world.  Nolan is gracious enough to give Freeman his own character arc, as well as his own nemesis in the form of the smug chairman of the Wayne Enterprises board, played memorably by Rutger Hauer in yet another nod to BLADE RUNNER’s key influence on the picture.  MEMENTO’s Mark Boone Junior embodies the Gotham PD’s shameless corruption as Gordon’s slovenly partner, Flass, while Tom Wilkinson’s Carmine Falcone serves as the refined face of the city’s organized crime epidemic.  With his appearance here as the psychopathic psychiatrist Dr. Crane, Cillian Murphy would join Caine and Bale as a recurring collaborator in Nolan’s larger body of work.  Crane, of course, is better known by his supervillain alter ego The Scarecrow– a rogue who employs fear as a weapon, imposing terrifying hallucinations on his victims.  Like Ra’s Al Ghul, Scarecrow is one of the more fantastical villains in the Batman canon and doesn’t necessarily lend himself to a grounded cinematic reality, but Nolan creates a highly effective adaptation while staying true to the character’s comic roots.  His ability to incite fear stems not from a supernatural source, but from a chemical that he’s weaponized into a spray that paralyzes his targets with debilitating waking nightmares.  

Whereas prior BATMAN films chose their villains first and forced the script to twist itself into narrative pretzels to accommodate their pairing, Nolan avoids marquee villains like The Joker or Penguin to place the focus squarely on Batman himself.  Besides the obvious benefit of using villains never before seen on the big screen, Nolan’s emphasis on story allows him to create a rather harmonious pairing between Scarecrow and Ra’s Al Ghul, linking the former’s fear spray directly to the latter by revealing its active ingredient to be a mysterious blue flower that grows in the mountains where The League Of Shadows has established their temple.  This unique pairing also allows the ideological concept of fear to emerge as the central theme of BATMAN BEGINS, a pillar upon which every narrative decision can revolve around.  Part of what makes THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY so resonant is Nolan’s ability to distill each individual installment into a singular, unifying theme.  In the case of BATMAN BEGINS, that theme is fear, and it doesn’t just make for a convenient justification of Scarecrow and Ra’s Al Ghul’s master plot– it’s also an entirely appropriate prism through which to explore the genesis of Batman himself.  Indeed, BATMAN BEGINS is the first Batman film to truly understand and portray the character’s nature as something that strikes genuine fear in the hearts of criminals.  Finally, Nolan uses the opportunity to include a few minor cameos that are nonetheless notable in the context of his artistic growth.  For instance, FOLLOWING’s Jeremy Theobald and Lucy Russell make fleeting appearances, the former being a technician for the Gotham Water Board and the latter being the elegant foil of a heated political discussion at a fancy restaurant.  GAME OF THRONES fans will also recognize the inclusion of King Joffrey himself, Jack Gleeson, as a small boy growing up in the Narrows who encounters Batman outside his back porch.  

If INSOMNIA’s majestic cinematography hinted at Nolan’s ambitions towards classic Hollywood spectacle, then BATMAN BEGINS makes those designs clear for all to see.  Nolan is something of an iconoclast in the film industry, in that he vigorously bucks modern trends in favor of old school techniques.  He’s become a valiant defender of celluloid film, resistant to the relentless advances of digital filmmaking.  He endeavors to ground his stunts and set-pieces in practical effects as much as possible, where the vast majority of his peers prefer the surgical precision of computer-generated imagery.  He dismisses Hollywood’s convictions about 3D as the way to attract modern audiences to the theater, presenting an alternate argument for larger 2D formats like IMAX that are capable of staggering clarity.  This aspect of his artistic profile is why the release of a new Christopher Nolan is regarded as such a cultural event– his methods simply give his films the kind of weight and gravitas we accord to monuments.  BATMAN BEGINS is the first instance of this, harnessing the full power of a nine figure budget and putting it all up on the screen in a way that would popularize the concept of the “dark and gritty reboot”.  Cinematographer Wally Pfister returns for his third collaboration with Nolan, capturing the action on 35mm film in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio and coming away with an Oscar nomination for his trouble.  Deep wells of inky shadow, low-hanging clouds of impenetrable fog and torrents of rain conjure up an appropriate film noir look that’s less THE THIRD MAN and more BLADE RUNNER in its rendering of a dystopic urban landscape.  Nolan packs his story with epic compositions and soaring camerawork, further peppering his signature helicopter aerials throughout to find Batman’s majestic silhouette amidst Gotham’s towering spires.  A color palette of earth & metal tones further grounds BATMAN BEGINS’ aesthetic in realism while immediately differentiating itself from prior cinematic iterations of the Caped Crusader.  While Nolan actively avoids replicating the frenetic handheld camerawork typical of action films of the time, he works with editor Lee Smith to bring a chaotic quick-cut approach to the film’s action scenes, especially in fights that aim to convey Batman’s mastery of hand-to-hand combat as an unstoppable and disorienting force, doling out a barrage of street justice in handy bite-size form.

The challenge of reinventing Batman goes much further than overhauling his iconic cape and cowl.  It also means redefining all the other little things that make Batman “Batman”: Wayne Manor, the Batmobile, his grappling hook, and the fantastical theatricality of his villains amidst a myriad of other aspects.  It’s a very intimidating task, but production designer Nathan Crowley proves up to the challenge, reinforcing Nolan’s grandiose vision of a cinematic reality.  All of Batman’s gear is based off real military tech in some capacity, the Batmobile (referred to within the film as The Tumbler) is completely overhauled into the bastard lovechild of a Hummer and a Lamborghini, and the sheer size of the practical sets — indeed, spanning the size of multiple city blocks — would require one of the largest aircraft hangars in the world to house them in.  Composing team Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard tackle the unenviable task of following Danny Elfman’s Batman theme, one of the most instantly recognizable music cues in recent film history, but their efforts result in a score that obliterates our musical memories of Dark Knights past and provides the necessary lift for Nolan’s interpretation to soar.  Zimmer and Howard are excellent composers with highly celebrated individual careers, so their pairing here must’ve seemed very unusual in theory.  In practice, their partnership —  an idea brought to the table by Zimmer when Nolan initially approached him —  proves quite inspired, reflecting Batman’s fragmented psyche with a bifurcated approach that sees Howard tackling dramatic sequences with sweeping strings and mournful brass instruments, while Zimmer fuels the action with an urgent orchestral staccato and atonal electronic rhythms inspired by flapping bat wings. The score has since become widely recognizable and imitated in the wake of the success of the larger DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY, so one could be forgiven for failing to remember just how visionary it truly is — it’s so radical in its adherence to the story’s key themes and willingness to experiment that it’s something of a minor miracle that Warner Brothers ever allowed it anywhere near their most prized property.

BATMAN BEGINS, and the larger DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY, is not content to simply detail the exploits of the iconic hero as he romps through Gotham fighting crime.  It aspires to something greater, using its pulp framework to explore heavy ideological concepts.  Indeed, BATMAN BEGINS often plays like a law school thesis paper masquerading as a summer blockbuster.  While this has an unintentional side effect of forcing its characters to contort themselves into unwieldy “idea delivery machines” rather than sound like living, breathing people, the overall effect is nonetheless one of profound resonance that must have felt quite relevant at a time when news headlines were dominated by overreaching surveillance measures and the controversy of pre-emptive war.  With its exploration of of the urban landscape’s relationship to crime and justice,  BATMAN BEGINS provides an opportunity for Nolan to fully inhabit the wheelhouse of a key influence, Michael Mann.  He uses Batman as an entry point into a philosophical deconstruction of justice itself– what is justice, especially when delivered outside the bounds of conventional law enforcement or the court system? When it comes to vigilantism, do the ends ever justify the means?  The justice system is just one of many that Nolan utilizes to tell BATMAN BEGINS’ story, taking inspiration from HBO’S THE WIRE in detailing how corruption spreads its tendrils into the various infrastructural systems that support a city.  This can be seen most immediately in the villains’ plot to use Gotham’s water supply as a delivery mechanism for an inert chemical agent that, once activated, causes anyone who ingests it to go insane with fear.  Gotham’s transportation system is also utilized, with an elevated subway car being another delivery mechanism for the machine that will catalyze Scarecrow’s fear drug upon reacting Wayne Tower.  We also see social systems, represented by diverse economic castes and the varying appearances of different districts, giving Gotham a tangible, realistic quality that eluded Burton or Schumacher’s rather theatrical interpretations.  There’s an elegant, modern financial district anchored by Wayne Tower and inhabited by Gotham’s privileged class, while the poor and other undesirables are condemned below ground to a seedy, forgotten underbelly that appears to have been, at one point, the street-level Gotham before it was built over by the current one.  There’s also the Narrows, a densely-populated island of slums and abject poverty set apart from the mainland; home to Arkham Asylum and the majority of Gotham’s criminal population.  The inclusion of such a destitute neighborhood as the setting for the film’s climax contrasts directly with the mask of privilege and wealthiness Bruce bears to the public, further illustrating the extent to which he must depart from a life of luxury in order to purge himself of his interior demons.  

BATMAN BEGINS’ exploration of urban systems and the malleability of the built environment has come to be a prominent theme in his subsequent work, culminating in INCEPTION and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES with characters physically resculpting cities to their own singular designs.  A common image throughout Nolan’s filmography is that of imposing architectural monoliths brought to rubble by a fundamental weakness, an aspect of his artistic character no doubt profoundly affected by 9/11.  BATMAN BEGINS establishes this conceit rather literally, defacing the city streets around Wayne Tower by crashing a runaway subway train into it.  The fact that The Narrows is an island is also important– its isolation from the mainland becomes a critical flaw when Scarecrow’s fear gas is unleashed, instantly transforming the island slum into a confined labyrinth of terror.  In an oblique way, this aspect of BATMAN BEGINS also hits on the magician-like, puzzle-esque nature of his artistic persona, in that he takes something exceedingly mundane like the subway or an urban island and turns it into something of a spectacle.  

That same nature also causes him to take what might otherwise be a fairly linear story and jumble up the timeline into a highly strategic non-linear order.  BATMAN BEGINS ostensibly covers Bruce Wayne’s long transformation into Batman, from his first encounter with bats in an old well as a child, to his first victory as a vigilante, and finally to the solidification of his new identity after saving Gotham from an insidious crime syndicate.  However, Nolan doesn’t quite tell the story in that order– at least, not during the first half.  We first meet Bruce as an inmate in a Chinese prison, detailing the circumstances leading up to his meeting Ducard and becoming involved in The League Of Shadows.  While he trains to become one of them, Nolan peppers in flashbacks that fill out the backstory, showing how Bruce’s parents were murdered and how his frustration over being unable to avenge their killer himself led to his travels abroad.  The ordering of these sequences is quite deliberate, calculated in such a way so as to maximize the emotional power of BATMAN BEGINS’ first half by feeding us visceral nuggets of backstory that underscore the context of the scene at hand.  This is what director Guillermo Del Toro is referring to when he calls Nolan an “emotional mathematician”– he evokes emotion by structuring his stories in a way that’s precise and measured– almost to a fault, as his detractors tend to find his films devoid of organic warmth, akin to the gut level revulsion of encountering the uncanny valley.  As Nolan’s filmography has grown, there indeed appears to be a formula for how he structures his stories for maximum emotional impact.  One of the most evident products of this formula is the specific manner in which he ends most of his films, riding an emotional wave conjured by a cathartic montage and swelling score before smash cutting to the film’s title (which is usually the first time we actually see the title itself onscreen).  BATMAN BEGINS marks the first time that Nolan employs this formula, a choice that’s quite apt for the subject matter and, in particular, the closing scene at hand.  

The film naturally accommodates other thematic fascinations of Nolan’s, both established and emerging.  BATMAN BEGINS continues a tradition seen in all of his work since FOLLOWING by positioning the protagonist as profoundly flawed.  Admittedly, this has always been a core aspect of the character since his creation by Bob Kane in 1939, but previous Batman pictures mostly chose to overlook it in favor of highlighting his heroic qualities.  Nolan’s Bruce Wayne is a man haunted by a horrible tragedy and desperately in need of a guiding purpose in his life.  His solution to dress up as a bat and fight crime, then, requires an intimidating amount of philosophical reflection in order to combat the sheer psychosis of the idea.  Even then, Bruce knows his quest is doomed– he’s well aware that no amount of crimefighting can bring back his parents or heal his psychological wounds, yet he can’t help but become utterly consumed by his desire for justice.  Nolan’s sartorial fascination with functional style finds plenty of opportunity for indulgence in BATMAN BEGINS, not just in the various utilities of the Batsuit’s design but also in the amount of screentime he allocates to the discussion of what the suits means on a symbolic level.  Finally, BATMAN BEGINS’ expansive, almost operatic scope allows Bruce to be seen travelling the world before settling back in Gotham, whereas previous Batman films never left the city limits.  Nolan would bring this same globetrotting sensibility to his subsequent work, orchestrating his stories so as to require frequent travel to exotic locales that help to convey a larger-than-life scale.  As his career has grown, his travels have extended beyond the confines of Earth itself, venturing to entirely new worlds in INTERSTELLAR’s outer space as well as the lucid unconscious of INCEPTION’s inner space.  BATMAN BEGINS has its sights set on far more modest horizons, employing the dramatic and almost-alien vistas of Iceland as a stand-in for the majestic Himalayan Mountains of Asia.

All of this led up to what was easily the most ambitious film of Nolan’s still-fledgling career.  His ability to convey scale had grown from FOLLOWING’s modest back-alley origins to that of a sweeping overview of an entire city under siege.  His self-confidence as a director, evidenced by his refusal to storyboard or sit in video village during the production of INSOMNIA, enabled him to execute his vision with awe-inspiring clarity while further bucking long-established studio filmmaking practices– indeed, he felt that every shot was so vital to telling his story that he dispatched with a second unit altogether, gathering every single action beat, establishing shot, or insert himself.  While not without its fair share of criticisms, BATMAN BEGINS debuted in the summer of 2005 to very positive reviews, many of which claimed that the Caped Crusader had finally been done cinematic justice.  The film also established Nolan’s enviable ability to create box office juggernauts, earning $373 million in worldwide receipts.  Far from simply being just another summer blockbuster, BATMAN BEGINS has proven highly influential, causing a chain reaction of events still being felt across the cinematic landscape nearly fifteen years later.  Hollywood’s trend of comic book adaptations had truly begun with the success of Bryan Singer’s X-MEN in 2000, but BATMAN BEGINS showed the world that these properties could be something more than just escapist fare– they could be legitimate forums in which to explore complex social and political issues.  Furthermore, it pioneered the now-stale trend of “rebooting” a dormant or failed property as a way to restore its freshness– indeed, CASINO ROYALE and the Daniel Craig-era of the James Bond series was a direct reaction to BATMAN BEGINS.  The success of its limited IMAX run also established a viable market for large format presentations of narrative features, offering a technical advantage suited to huge spectacle that conventional theaters or television simply couldn’t match.  Nolan himself would become enamored of the format previously best known for short-form nature documentaries, beginning a love affair that would fundamentally shape his career.  For audiences, BATMAN BEGINS would begin their love affair with Nolan himself– the character of Batman became, for many, an entry point into the burgeoning director’s particular style of filmmaking and created a whole new wave of Nolan admirers and acolytes.  For the Nolan faithful who had already seen the light with MEMENTO, the massive success of BATMAN BEGINS reinforced their convictions in his formidable technical skill-set and narrative dexterity.  In one fell bat-swoop, Nolan had gone from indie maverick to the biggest VIP on the Warner Brothers lot, well on his way towards a destiny as a director who would revolutionize and revitalize old-fashioned spectacle filmmaking for a new generation of audiences around the world.  The Hollywood machine demanded a sequel, and quickly, but a return trip to Gotham wasn’t on Nolan’s itinerary just yet.