(Christopher Nolan, 2005, USA/UK)
Charged with rebooting a franchise surrendered to the camp irreverence of Joel Schumacher’s destructive Batman & Robin (1997) – the final nail in a once rotting coffin, Christopher Nolan thankfully strips the series down and darkens the mood, delivering a refreshingly gruffer Batman instalment that explores the origins of the caped crusader on more of an introspective level that has been seen before.
Whereas Tim Burton’s duo contributions to the canon mixed gothic nightmare with static spectacle (to mixed results), matching a stiff Bruce Wayne with tropes that have become all too accustomed within the ensuing tenor of comic book movies, Nolan here is more interested in the inherent themes of corruption, moral decay and vengeful heroism that are part of the Batman mythology, and are here shakily set up to be the backbone of his eventual trilogy. Exploring Wayne as a tortured outsider reeling from both the death of his parents at an early age and the ripples it causes in an already decaying Gotham City, Nolan’s film places him in a world rife with absent authority and wriggling principles, navigating through the bent cops and paid off magistrates that fuel the flames of his resulting turn to studied theatricality in the form of Batman. A stimulating montage sequence depicts Wayne fine-tuning the minutiae of becoming his masked alter ego by designing the costume and sourcing the Applied Sciences division of his family business for cape and cowl, elements that help ground the film in a much needed realism.
As significant as these observations are to the character and his numerous struggles, Nolan rarely displays the patience to fully paint an authentic portrait of a city apparently lost to a depraved infrastructure, instead taking as face value the teeming ferocity of mob boss Carmine Falcone (a snarling Tom Wilkinson) and the thugs he has under his widespread employ. As a result the citizens of Gotham are faceless entities suffering under a menace the film’s relentless narrative pace refuses to comprehend or characterise. Similarly rushed – and exacerbated by Hans Zimmer’s incessantly mumbling score – are the numerous relationships between the characters, each given profiles that are all too easily summed up by sobering one-liners and hokey epitaphs (e.g. “Why do we fall down Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up”) that render them hollow shells merely spouting Nolan and David S. Goyer’s weak and expository dialogue. A notable misstep is the depiction of the murders of Thomas, a man whose legacy and notorious goodwill form the foundations of Bruce’s incorruptible shield, and Martha Wayne are not given the chilly poignancy the film ignorantly treats them with, instead acting as footnotes for Bruce’s ongoing guilt.
However delicate the interactions between Bruce and Alfred (an effortless Michael Caine) and Bruce and Rachel Dawes, a childhood friend convincingly played by Katie Holmes, are, the central characters aren’t given enough time to fully collate before the film adheres to the superhero subgenre formula of good versus evil. Interestingly for a large-scale franchise rejig – and unlike the recent The Amazing Spider-Man, Nolan and Goyer refuse to pander to conventionality by peppering the film with recognisable villains. Cillian Murphy’s underused (and sometimes inaudible) Scarecrow and Liam Neeson’s Ra’s al Ghul feel natural to the story Nolan is trying to tell, calculating troublemakers that emanate from the thematic tensions of the narrative rather than shoehorned in to award the film its already ensured bankability. There is no showboating in Nolan’s universe; costumes are practical, the action dynamic and industrious rather than needlessly excessive.
While Nolan here struggles with the task of fitting in as much back-story and forward momentum that can possibly fit into a 130-minute runtime, establishing a sloppy approach to editing and sound mixture that is again prevalent in The Dark Knight (2008), his is a film the Batman franchise desperately needed, and while it remains a bold and occasionally brilliant step in the right direction, it is mired by an overly hasty stride and a chilly emotional palette that robs it of the greatness its toned premise has the potential for.