Batman Begins. Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Christopher Nolan. Written by Nolan, Bob Kane and David S. Goyer. Running time: 140 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for intense action violence, disturbing images and some thematic elements). Starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Katie Holmes, Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson, Rutger Hauer, Ken Watanabe.

Batman Begins

If there's one thing that the recent crop of superhero movies has taught us, it's there's one simple way to make such a motion picture good: take the material seriously. Don't wink at the audience, don't revel in the outlandish material; play it straight, and pretend it could happen. No one goes into a superhero movie expecting to see something reasonable, and we don't need to be reminded how silly it all is. Play it straight, and we will be more than willing to suspend disbelief; anyone who isn't shouldn't be watching the movie to begin with.

Take, for instance, the Spider-Man movies. Yes, they are bright and cartoonish, but director Sam Raimi cares about the material, and he respects his characters. So when Peter Parker discovers his powers, we aren't meant to chuckle at a boy swinging around New York on webs; we understand the fun of his actions, and the result is a wonderful, joyous sequence. Or, during the last scene of Spider-Man - or the wonderful last shot of Spider-Man 2 - the characters' emotions are real, and these films are ultimately just as affecting as many serious dramas.

Take it seriously. For the longest time, the Batman series didn't, and it was an embarassment. Tim Burton ignored the inherent drama in the series and turned his films into extravagant freakshows, parading over-the-top villains around, ignoring Batman himself; when all we get is Jack Nicholson hamming it up, we are drawn out of the action, and it is impossible to care about anything that's happening. And then, of course, Joel Schumacher returned the series to the high camp of the television show, resulting in Batman and Robin, which we will mercifully not dwell upon.

But Christopher Nolan gets it. He understands that the comic books were never about the villains, or camp; they were about Batman. They were about the man behind the mask; Bruce Wayne's dark history; his desire for justice, to avenge his parents' murder. That's not silly; that's demands a dark, serious retelling. And now, with Nolan's Batman Begins, we have that retelling, and it ranks up there with the two Spider-Man movies as one of the finest superhero films of all time.

It's not for everyone, of course. Those looking for non-stop action, for instance, are bound to be disappointed for at least the first hour, in which Nolan focuses on how Batman came to be. As the film begins, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has locked himself in a Chinese prison in order to gain insight into the criminal mind. There he is approached by Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), a member of the League of Shadows, an organization led by the strange-bearded Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe, wasted). When Wayne rejects the League's Nietzchean worldview, he flees back to Gotham City.

Bale underplays Wayne to great effect; this is a man who has internalized all of his emotions, and Bale's slow burn fits the character perfectly. When Wayne finally becomes Batman, he affects a deep growl and becomes imposing and vicious, and Bale proves no less effective here. It may be damning Bale with faint praise to call him the best Batman of the series, but it's certainly true.

Of course, it's not all dark character study. Batman Begins trots out several villains, who, among Ducard and Al Ghul, range from Carmine Falconi (Tom Wilkinson), Gotham's crime lord, to Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), a psychiatrist who calls himself the Scarecrow and hatches a plot to destroy Gotham. Thankfully, these actors play everything as straight as is possible, never once winking at the camera. Murphy, with his piercing, unblinking eyes, is especially chilling.

Other supporting characters include D.A. Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes, doing what she can with a stock role), inventor Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman, classy as ever) and soon-to-be-Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman, playing a good guy for once and doing it well). The real standout, however, is Michael Caine as good old Alfred. He gives the character real warmth and wit, and it is not hard to buy him as Wayne's father figure.

When the action starts, it doesn't happen as you would expect. Nolan shoots in quick, disorienting shots, giving us only brief glimpses of Batman. It is a technique that could have been irritating but is instead effective, putting us in the shoes of the Dark Knight's ambushed targets. The film's special effects are spectacular but don't draw attention to themselves; they are integrated into the action, and many scenes are played out using stunt men (remember that, when real people, rather than computer characters, used to do stunts?).

Nolan has expressed a desire to turn this into a trilogy, and the final scene of Batman Begins clearly establishes a sequel. Many superhero series have gone stale into their subsequent installments, and that may happen here; but if Nolan can keep his vision intact despite the prying fingers of the studio system, such a fate seems unlikely. Either way, I'll be looking forward to whatever else this franchise has in store.

© 2005 Matt Noller, not that anyone would ever want to steal this