I went to see Batman Begins alone in an empty theater that had a max cap of fewer than 300 seats. I knew nothing about movies and even less about directors. I made no connection between Christopher Nolan and the auteur vision that had accompanied Memento. I only knew that this was Batman, and that Batman – as a concept – had always riveted me.
The pre-publicity for Batman Begins seemed underwhelming, particularly given the big-budget push that had preceded every previous Batman effort. I could remember the 30-second teaser for Tim’s Burton’s original – that chest plate, it was everything, for the simple fact that it revealed nothing at all. As a teenager I had gone to see the original Batman during its opening weekend, at a midnight screening that ran elbow-to-elbow across every row. Cineplexes continued churning Burton’s film at 90-minute intervals throughout the end of June. Short of Titanic, it went on to become the box-office meteor of that era. Christopher Nolan’s reboot, by way of comparison, came bearing all the mingy earmarks of an undernourished dog.
Of course, no one was using the term “reboot” back in those days, which made it odder still that Warner Brothers might see fit to give some wunderkind control. This was 2005, a point when Spider Man was riding high and Superman had lost control. Revenge of the Sith was a runaway blockbuster. George Bush had just been re-elected, 18 months after declaring “Mission accomplished!” from the front deck of a boat.
Meanwhile, Christopher Nolan seemed to be approaching everything from a non-conformist style. His film was rumored to feature neither the Joker nor the Penguin. Bruce Wayne was being played by an actor who cut the tension with his jaw. Could this outsider – Christian Bale – actually take on the auspices of Batman? No one knew for sure. But his role in American Psycho guaranteed he had the billion-dollar-ethos thing down pat.
And so I bought my ticket. And what a decision that turned out to be. Batman Begins presented characters that were cerebral; a comic-book mythology, surreal. Christopher Nolan introduced a loaded rifle in Act One, then disappeared down such a hole one never thought to wonder when or if that loaded rifle might return. The movie’s twists and turns were jarring, like some well-oiled wooden coaster clattering down the tracks. And when at last the blinds were open, that rifle raised the ante by an even 10%.
Consider, by way of example, Batman Begins’ climactic sequence. On the surface, the caped crusader is confronting his mentor, Ra’s al Ghul, on the train car of a monorail. And yet, David Goyer’s screenplay has accomplished so much that the audience is already keenly aware: A) that Ra’s al Ghul represents one of three surrogate father figures to Bruce Wayne, B) that monorail was originally constructed by Thomas Wayne, C) that monorail is currently headed on a collision course toward Gotham’s water hub, D) Gotham’s water hub is located inside the center of Wayne Tower, and E) Wayne Industries manufactured the microwave emitter both men are grappling over. So on one level, the audience gets to enjoy a brilliantly-choreographed fight scene. On another, Bruce Wayne is struggling in defense of a blood oath he has sworn to uphold.
And yet, it goes much deeper than that, really. The audience is presented with an integral relationship between a teacher and his student. One uses fear as a deterrent, the other as an instrument of war. Both men are similar in style and discipline, yet separated by their mystique. Visually, these two men complement each other, Bruce Wayne appearing – at one point – in an open-mouth cowl just as Ra’s al Ghul goes strapping on a mask that covers the lower-center of his face. Bruce Wayne is the heir to a throne that has grown malignant in his absence. His family’s legacy is under attack; threatened by a company-built mechanism sent hurtling toward Gotham’s aorta like a spike meant for the heart. Meanwhile, that mechanism raises a question of ethical boundaries: Should any company secure its fortunes to a necessity for death?
Ten minutes after Nolan’s movie ended, it occurred to me Tim Burton’s original would never be the same. Nolan’s caped crusader felt vicious and forthright; the majority of his decisions felt pathologically impaired. Nolan’s sequencing moved quickly, any extraneous elements were spared. More importantly, there was no Batman during the initial 60 minutes (in the same way there was no Man of Steel during the initial 47 minutes of Superman). The story – by way of its characters – meant something. And Nolan’s ideas were executed with such precision that both Bruce Waynes explored a separate fallacy of man.
By the end of 2007, nobody gave a shit about Spider-Man anymore. Superman was on life support, and a legion of lesser-known origin stories were suddenly clamoring to be heard. The cinematic universe had shifted. And a Dark-Knight sequel featuring a $250-million budget was about to redefine the way super-hero sagas should be told.
We know now how that sequel ended. We know that Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker transformed Jack Nicholson’s iconic romp into a blurb. We know that all three films in the Dark Knight canon would include recurring metaphors and plot points; that Nolan and DC would continue to feed off of each other’s world. We know that Heath Ledger would go on to win the only Oscar ever awarded for any major role in a super-hero movie. We know that The Dark Knight would be nominated for eight Academy Awards (and that Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard would be nominated for a BAFTA Award for their score). We know that Ledger’s Joker would continue to receive all of the glory, despite Tom Hardy’s Bane eventually proving to be a much more quotable turn. We know that one decade removed, the rising swell of super-hero mania is all-but-bound to wash asunder, just as we know that Nolan’s trilogy is one of the few bodies of work that will endure.
We know that Christian Bale has gone on to A-List mega-stardom. We know that Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon revitalized an under-appreciated career. We know that – after abandoning the Dark Knight franchise – Katie Holmes has stumbled along like a wounded deer. We know that Skyfall, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Star Trek: Into Darkness, The Fast & The Furious 7, The Amazing Spider Man, Iron Man 3, Man of Steel and Daredevil (among others) have all stolen from The Dark Knight to an embarrassing degree. We know that certain aspects of The Dark Knight pop up in everything from video games to TV. We know that Batman Begins set the wheels in motion for a pair of billion-dollar juggernauts. But most of all, we know that Batman Begins currently represents the second-greatest super-hero movie ever created, just as we know that The Dark Knight franchise represents the second-greatest trilogy ever made.
(Batman Begins was originally released on June 15th, 2005.)