A Dark and Stormy Knight

Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins.

Who’s your batty?

In Batman Begins (Warner Bros.), Christian Bale’s billionaire Bruce Wayne is a grim young man, indeed. Sometimes he looks blank. Sometimes he scowls. As a change of pace, he wears a little smirk. Bale might get sour reviews, but I found the performance as layered, in its way, as Michael Keaton’s (also underrated) turn in the 1989 Batman. The actor has always internalized his characters, and his Bruce is an inchoate mass of defenses. If he could express himself in action, he wouldn’t roam the world like a vagabond, keeping company with scurvy miscreants. Damaged beyond repair by the murders of his parents (and by his own role, in this film, in their deaths), he’s all undisciplined aggression. He needs to invest in something bigger than his own irresolution. Not the Peace Corps. I mean something mythic.

Bruce Wayne’s invention of Batman is the story of Batman Begins, and it’s an epic one, with a suitably epic cast of A-list actors. The new movie travels in a different, more straightforward direction than the Tim Burton-initiated cycle that was finally driven into the pits by Joel Schumacher in the unwatchable campfest Batman & Robin. Burton had taken his cues from the original script by (my friend) Sam Hamm, which made Bruce a kind of addict, his bat persona the embodiment of a grief that most grownups are forced to move beyond. The director created a grand, operatic film with Gothic sets (by the late Anton Furst) that captured the lonely, freaky hero’s inner world of shadowed arches and gargoyles. This was a Batman whose mask and uniform allowed him to express his inner weirdness (a favorite theme for Burton, who cultivates his weirdness).

Batman Begins, directed by Christopher Nolan from a screenplay he wrote with David S. Goyer, goes back to the simpler days of Bruce Wayne’s burgeoning social conscience. Although the twentysomething Bruce is still haunted by his parents’ deaths, he’s struggling less with inner bats than with the idea of justice. Gotham City is like Chicago in The Untouchables. Gangsters run the economy, and most cops are on the take. The commissioner is noisily ineffectual. On the other hand, “vigilante” is a dirty word. Taking the law into one’s own hands is a one-way ticket to social, and personal, madness.

Sprung from an Asian prison by a prim, mysterious figure called Ducard (Liam Neeson) and trained in the art of ninja warfare, Bruce is exhorted to lay aside his individual taste for vengeance and concentrate on becoming more than a man—a symbol. This suits the young man fine; what doesn’t is the fascist turn that Ducard and his company take. No, Gotham City might be ridden with human scum, but there’s such a thing as due process, right? We’re Americans, right (except at Guantanamo)? Although Wayne parts ways with Ducard, he does absorb that be-more-than-a-man lesson. As he tells his butler, Alfred (Michael Caine), on a plane on his way back to Gotham City, he needs to create a symbolic figure to strike fear in the hearts of criminals. (Yes, I said Michael Caine as Alfred: Talk about your high-priced help. Bruce has Morgan Freeman working for him, too, as a lovable inventor. I can’t wait to see Robert De Niro’s Chief O’Hara.)

Bruce’s (and Bale’s) Batman is a splendidly hambone creation: His voice is a low rasp, and when he talks to people he cocks his pointy-eared head and looks like a winged creature at rest. In the fight sequences, Nolan barely lets you see Batman. He’s like the alien in Alien, but with martial arts: He comes at the villains from all directions, which drives them out of their minds before they’re cold-cocked.

At 135 minutes, Batman Begins is overlong, but in the second half there’s full-throttle creepiness—especially from Cillian Murphy as a clammy psychiatrist who turns into a low-tech villain: the Scarecrow, with a bag over his head that spews a high-powered hallucinogen. The crudeness of his mask (it looks like a sagging burlap sack with eye holes) is actually kind of scary. Another great creation is Gary Oldman’s policeman Gordon, who will one day become Commissioner Gordon. Only a flaky British virtuoso like Oldman could come up with an ordinary American Joe who’s this ordinary.

But there’s a lot of stuff in Batman Begins that doesn’t measure up. The adorable Katie Holmes twitters civics lessons (“Justice is about harmony”) as a crusading assistant D.A.—she looks and acts like a know-it-all student council president. (A colleague cracked that the performance should please her boyfriend, though: She plays a woman who can keep a secret.) Gotham City is mundane, with only an above-ground rail system—designed by Bruce’s liberal dad—to inject an element of otherworldliness. Some of the fighting is intense but too choppy. The musical score has no stirring, superheroic motifs: It’s just background noise. Worst of all is the Batmobile, a bat-tank with the sex appeal of a steamroller. Apart from a few tricky flashbacks, there’s little indication that Nolan directed the mind-bending Memento or the hallucinatory Insomnia.

The movie is satisfying, though—at least by the standards of that depressing phenomenon, the superhero “franchise,” with its attendant books, action figures, lunchboxes, Burger King tie-ins, and rectal thermometers. (Well, the latter is a SpongeBob product; I’m not sure if Batman is on one yet. Can I just say that the thought of my 2-year-old with SpongeBob sticking out of her ass is really appalling.) The best thing about Batman Begins is that Bruce Wayne is like an actor, his great role still a work in progress. He’s still wrestling with the idea of what a superhero should be—still figuring out the franchise.