`The comic book movie in 2005 was entrapped in its own split-decision bifurcation. On one hand, the likes of Elektra and Fantastic Four were omnipresent holdovers from the 1990s and markers of a genre strangling itself into childish submission. On the other, Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City sought to experiment with the comic book form as an avenue for pure cinema, and David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence was caught taking the medium of cinema to task with the violence of the human condition. Both were attempts to push the comic book medium to new depths, but both also tacitly exposed the limits of the superhero genre by eschewing the likes of Spider-Man or Superman for stories that, at their structural elements, had very little to do with the tradition of the comic book. Just as the comic book had grown up and left some of its inner core back in the minds of teenagers, so too was comic book cinema moving away from the fluff and the puff and toward something a little more brutalized and tragic.
Not brutalized and tragic, however, in a way that really challenged the superhero myth in any way. If Rodriguez and Cronenberg were using stories that happened to stem from comic books, they weren’t tackling the kingpin of the form, the “superhero”, and their successes said more about the breadth of potential in comic books than they did about the anchor of the medium, the superhero narrative itself. They were, in other words, experiments, and for the comic book film to really grow up, it would have to either abandon its origins entirely or take those origins, those capes and those cartoon villains, with it into the nether realms of adult cinema. Which is where Christopher Nolan comes in.
Specifically, this is where Nolan explores the superhero myth not by doing anything original with it, but by essaying its unoriginality in the most explicit, dreamlike, romantically lush way possible, doing away with the halls of naturalism and pop fantasy and turning the Batman story into an open-faced act of myth-making. Following the temperamental and wonderful Christian Bale as bruised playboy billionaire Bruce Wayne along an arc where he transposes his own internal fear of the night into an act of nightmare-inducing fear-making, Nolan’s film is first and foremost a tragedy. As the film progresses, we see how Wayne’s inner trauma – he lost his parents at a young age – coalesces and weighs him down, until he harnesses it and utilizes it as an avenue for coping with his loss by externalizing his fear onto the world and stalking other primarily organized criminals who would do harm to the city of Gotham. Ultimately, Begins is the story of a dehumanized man replacing his humanity with the only thing he has left: a myth.
A myth that Nolan captures with a grimy yet lush eye for Hollywood noir and the implicit connection between the Batman figure – created by Bob Kane in 1939 – and the cinematic nightmares dotting the American landscape at that time. Accompanied by cinematographer Wally Pfister’s dense chiaroscuro, he films Gotham as a seedy playground of human nihilism corrupted to the point of hellish abandon. It is a nightmarish idea of a city filtered through warped, distorted shadows and glimpsed most frequently while rushing forward and turning one’s shoulder to see if anything is lurking behind. It is realist, but it explores myth-making as it exists in reality. Or, rather, it explores the reality that comic books and superheroes are myths meant to keep the demons away. The Batman it presents is a human, sure, but he is also an idea stalking you in the darker regions of your mind, a figment shared around campfires, and ultimately, a legend to be captured in print. And on celluloid.
Capture him Nolan does, exuding the sensual urgency of a born-again storyteller letting loose in the big leagues for the first time. For, whatever you want to say about Christopher Nolan, he is a big league storyteller when all is said and done; his game is not really the art house, nor will it ever be. Contrary to what his defenders might have you think, he doesn’t really talk a great talk; his films are, at their best, encumbered by enough excess verbiage to encircle the Earth, and Batman Begins is incapable of hiding long enough in the shadows from the stalking pen of Nolan and co-writer David S. Goyer. The two track the film down and load it up with sub-plots and characters that, at their worst, distract from Nolan’s oftentimes startlingly cinematic vision. When Begins is at its business taking a simple, straightforward path and showcasing that boldly cinematic vision with all the tools of the grand Hollywood toy box, Nolan is on the right path. When he is trying to let his script do the talking, even while his visuals are on surer footing, he stumbles. The same dichotomy persists in every one of his films, killing them at their worst (The Dark Knight Rises) and confusing them at their most disjointed (Interstellar). Begins isn’t a perfect film then, but it also doesn’t need to be. Peeling back the shadows of expectation and its decade-long slumber under the weight of its dueling follow-ups, Begins is a trenchant and purposeful entry into a genre that was, in 2005, at death’s door. Imperfections aide, Nolan’s greatest trick, ultimately, is reclaiming the Bat for the world he haunts: the mythic nightmares of humanity’s imagination.