Scattered Thoughts About Batman Begins

• This is the movie where what we think of as Christopher Nolan’s style began to solidify itself. It was his third time working with director of photography Wally Pfister, and his first time working with editor Lee Smith and composer Hans Zimmer. All three would provide crucial elements of Nolan’s work. It’s easier to see like this:

Wally Pfister (cinematographer) Lee Smith (editor) Hans Zimmer (composer)
Memento
Insomnia
Batman Begins
The Prestige
The Dark Knight
Inception
The Dark Knight Rises
Interstellar
Dunkirk (2017)

Filmmaking is, ultimately, a collaborative enterprise, and Nolan’s major movies are defined by the efforts of this core team. Batman Begins has a beautiful, burnished look, with amber-soaked visuals that rely on narrow depth-of-field and crisp edges. It’s also cut incredibly fast: with more than 2,800 shots, its average shot length is just 2.8 seconds. These rapid cuts start right at the beginning, too. It’s Nolan’s way of cramming the maximum amount of information into a cinematic moment, relying as much on intimation and vibe as on actual depiction. And all those visuals are set against the thrumming, chord-hammering score. Zimmer’s composition is markedly different from, say, Danny Elfman’s rousing theme from Tim Burton’s 1989 version. It’s not about melody, but atmosphere. The “Batman theme” here, such as it is, is just a minor chord held in a crescendo, then a shift to major as the crescendo peaks. Quick, sharp, moody: this is Nolan finding his pop voice.

• The script’s structure has grown on me over the years. When I first saw it, it felt too clumsily tripartite: staring with Bruce Wayne and Ra’s al Ghul, then making it about Dr. Crane/Scarecrow, then shifting back to Ra’s al Ghul seemed off in some way. Clunky, like grinding a transmission to find the right gear. But I realize now that I was bringing too much expectation and outside knowledge into the film. To a certain degree, I was expecting both a clear announcement of the villain and a typical kind of superhero movie. What’s more, since this was Nolan’s first time working with this kind of structure, it was my first time learning how he makes movies. It feels much smoother now in part because I’m more used to Nolan’s approach. Memento‘s approach to storytelling helped put Nolan on the map, but that film is still fairly straightforward: scenes playing in alternate order, one timeline moving forward and the other moving backward, until they meet in the middle. Batman Begins, though, is much more temporally fluid: it starts with Bruce Wayne as a child, then jumps forward to reveal we were watching an adult Bruce dream about himself, then weaves in more flashbacks as Bruce leaves prison and begins his training with Ra’s al Ghul. The first time I saw it, the first third of the film felt so much like an extended prologue that I was a little jarred by later developments. Now, though, its easier to see how assured Nolan is of how he wants to tell the story. The high points even broadcast the plot in a neon that my eyes didn’t notice a decade ago: Bruce’s training is about being forced to confront his fears by powerful, ruthless men who traffic in psychotropic hallucinogens. When Dr. Crane shows up using the same methods and referring grimly to his unnamed employer, who else could he be talking about but Ra’s al Ghul?

• The script also has some shameless moments of blockbuster pandering. A civilian, dazed by the sight of the tank-like Batmobile scrambling by, actually does a double-take at his coffee cup. This is a cartoon-level gag, one step above cutting to a reaction shot of a dog covering its eyes. Jim Gordon is also impressed by the Batmobile, saying, “I’ve gotta get me one of those!” These are the kinds of moments that can’t feel authentic because they exist outside the movie’s reality. They reference a specific kind of historical gag and reference, and they’re meant to act as winks to the audience to remind them how much fun they’re having. It’s like the “woman inherits the earth” riff in Jurassic Park. It exists for no other reason than to remind people they’re watching a movie.

• One of the film’s strengths, though, is the degree to which it manages to stand on its own while also realizing — and acting accordingly — that it cannot help but be the latest link in a pop culture chain stretching back to the 1930s. It does a good job at establishing Bruce Wayne’s trauma, obsession, and general emotional instability, all of which are necessary to make the leap from “sad orphan” to “man willing to design and wear a bat costume to fight crime as a ninja.” This is why it takes so much screen time for Batman to appear (and why, in Bruce’s first outings as a nighttime vigilante, he’s dressed in a balaclava and rappelling gear). By the time Batman shows up, we’re invested.

Yet the film can also only make sense if you go in knowing who or what Batman is, or at the very least have an understanding of the basics: Bruce Wayne is orphaned rich boy turned crimefighter, his enemies are usually insane people like the Joker, it all takes place in Gotham City, etc. Batman is one of the oldest and most enduring comic book heroes in pop culture, and even a film like Batman Begins that retells the origin story in its own manner is going to rely on that collective cultural history in ways it might not even realize. If you had never heard of Batman at all, the film would mostly work, though some of the narrative and aesthetic choices would be odd. E.g., when young Bruce’s parents are killed, he’s comforted at the police station by a mustachioed young officer for a surprising amount of time. The officer’s captain enters and addresses him by name — “Gordon” — as the soundtrack briefly swells to highlight the moment. For this to make any cinematic sense, you have to know that Batman works closely with an older Gordon when he’s police commissioner in comic books, TV series, and other movies. That is the only way this scene, the way it’s done here, can matter. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, either. It’s just a sign of how hard it is to make “fresh” movies when you’re working with a story that, at the time of the film’s release, had been part of American entertainment for more than 65 years.

• Katie Holmes is a lot better in this movie than people probably give her credit for being. Rachel Dawes has plenty to do: Bruce Wayne’s childhood friend, a crusading lawyer determined to take on organized crime, and a motivating force for Bruce to examine his own life and motivations. She’s the one who shames Bruce when he admits to planning to kill the man who shot his parents, and she’s the one who tells him that actions speak loudest when it comes to social change. Holmes is good, too: sharp, engaging, a nice physical and emotional counterpoint to Christian Bale. 1 But Holmes got engaged to Tom Cruise the same month Batman Begins hit theaters, and that was pretty much it from her, in a serious way, for years. She didn’t reprise the Rachel role in The Dark Knight, instead appearing in that year in Mad Money, which tanked. She was in a couple more movies, but she didn’t divorce Cruise until 2012. Watching Batman Begins is like watching an old home movie of someone who would later be kidnapped, blithely going about their day, with no idea of what lies in store.

• The soundtrack and sound design are so crucial here (and in all of Nolan’s movies) at making small moments feel unsettling and packed with possible horror. When Crane visits Falcone in prison, he asks him rhetorically, “Have you seen my mask?” Falcone narrows his eyes as the soundtrack hums with a low pulse — quiet, gut-level — and it’s more than enough to make whatever’s about to come feel like it will be terrible. Cf. the sound design of any scene in The Dark Knight where the Joker interrogates someone.

• Batman Begins — and Nolan’s Batman trilogy in toto — changed the shape of superhero movies. It was grayer and more serious than, say, Spider-Man or Fantastic Four, and its success led to legions of imitators that aped its grim tone but didn’t have the story or directorial skill to match it. Modern Marvel movies are now basically just plodding ripoffs of Nolan: thundering, laborious, complicated, not much fun. And for all the trauma on display here, it’s still a movie that knows how to have fun. The Batmobile chase scene is undeniably fun, and there’s a prickly thrill in watching Bruce Wayne learn how to outfit himself and become a dark warrior.

• The film is packed with the kind of stunning images that still feel surprising in a superhero movie, and were that much more startling when the film was released. The awful monster Crane sees in Batman’s face when he hallucinates; the red-eyed demon Batman appears to be when he flies over a crowd of people infected by the hallucinogenic toxin; the scene in which Batman interrogates the crooked cop by hanging him by an ankle and raising and lowering him several stories at a time. No other hero movie looks like Nolan’s do.


  1. She was good in some of her earlier work, too, including Go and Wonder Boys, as well as Thank You For Smoking, which came out the same year as The Dark Knight.