It's a little odd that it's taken five films to get around to Batman's origin story, but then nothing about the Caped Crusader's bumpy road to the big screen has been ordinary. From the campy 1966 movie (based on the equally campy TV show) to Tim Burton's extremely gothic vision of Gotham City to Joel Schumacher's painful return to camp, Batman has never gotten the live-action adventure he deserves. (Animation is a different story-the stellar Fox series "The Batman Adventures" and its companion film Mask of the Phantasm remain the definitive interpretation of the character outside of the comic books.) Even the best of the previous movies, Burton's Batman Returns, wasn't exactly a faithful rendition of the Batverse; with its collection of lonely, obsessive costumed misfits, that film said a lot more about Burton than it did about Batman. One of the main problems with the movies made to date is that they don't allow enough room for the Dark Knight and his alter ego Bruce Wayne. While Bruce is always grudgingly handed a subplot, his scenes out of costume often seem designed to simply mark time until he suits up again.
That's why it's something of a bold move for Christopher Nolan to begin his version of Batman with Bruce rather than the Bat. In fact, Batman doesn't even show up until roughly an hour in. Instead, we follow the adventures of Bruce Wayne, the only child of Gotham City's most prominent family, whose life is forever changed by the brutal murder of his mother and father. Blaming himself for their deaths, Bruce abandons Gotham and journeys abroad to learn the ways of the world...and pick up a few martial-arts skills along the way. His path eventually leads him to the mountaintop training facility of Ra's al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), the leader of a mysterious organization known as the League of Shadows. Under the stern tutelage of Ducard (Liam Neeson), Ra's right-hand man, Bruce quickly transforms from a self-pitying rich boy into a formidable warrior. But when he learns of the League's sinister plans for his hometown, he burns the place to the ground and returns to Gotham with the intention of becoming the city's protector.
If you're at all familiar with Batman's origin from the comic book, you're probably scratching your head right now. League of Shadows? Mountaintop training facility? Don't worry-this isn't precisely how Batman began according to his creator Bob Kane. Nolan and co-screenwriter David S. Goyer have kept the basic framework of his comic-book origin, but altered certain details and added some of their own inventions. Purists may object (they always do), but Nolan and Goyer do a good job building a new mythology out of familiar material. Besides, even the most zealous fanboys will settle down once Bruce begins the process of forging his new identity. Returning to his father's company, which is now being run by the Gordon Gekko-like CEO Richard Earle (Rutger Hauer), he signs on to work in the Applied Sciences division under the eye of Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). Not only was Fox an admirer of Bruce's father, his basement warehouse is filled with all sorts of cool, limited-edition gadgets that are perfect for an aspiring crimefighter. Thus, Bruce is able to "borrow" some special body armor, a grappling gun and, best of all, a monster car known as The Tumbler. As each chink in Batman's armor falls into place, you can almost feel Nolan somewhere off-camera grinning hugely. And when the Dark Knight finally makes his appearance, the audience knows exactly who he is and how he came to be.
All of Nolan's meticulous plotting would come to naught, however, if he hadn't picked the right person to wear the new Batsuit. Fortunately, he settled on Christian Bale, who brings the same focus and intensity here that he displayed in such movies as American Psycho and last year's The Machinist. Like Nolan, Bale takes the character completely seriously; in his hands, Bruce is a haunted soul who fights his internal demons by waging a one-man war against injustice. Both in and out of the suit, Bale owns the role in a way none of the previous three Batmen did. Strangely enough, the last actor to bring this sort of commitment to the part was Adam West. Say what you will about the tone of the '60s series-for a whole generation of fans, West was Batman.
The supporting cast follows Bale's lead. Nolan took a risk by stacking the deck with so many famous faces. (Cillian Murphy, Gary Oldman and Tom Wilkinson also appear in important roles.) After all, it would have been very easy for a well-known actor like Neeson or Freeman to simply coast along on their reputations. But all of these heavy-hitters work hard to make their characters a convincing part of this universe, especially Neeson, who brings a darker edge to the mentor role he has played many times before. The only odd person out is Katie Holmes, who puts the obligatory in obligatory love interest. No doubt Nolan and Goyer felt that they needed someone on hand to humanize Bruce, but, to be honest, his faithful butler Alfred (wonderfully played by Michael Caine) fills that role quite nicely.
After a strong beginning and middle (the highlight of which is a terrific car chase through the streets-and rooftops-of Gotham), Batman Begins flags a bit as it heads into its third act. The storytelling loses some of its snap (there's a late-inning revelation about the League that feels particularly sloppy) and the final confrontation is something of a letdown, especially compared to the Batman/Joker face-off in the 1989 Batman. But the movie regains its swagger in the last scene, which functions as both a clever nod to Burton's picture and a hint at what audiences can expect to see in Batman Continues. In other words, stick around-wait until you get a load of what's coming next.