Comic book adaptations were already getting boring. After Hollywood went through the handful of characters we all know, comic book fanboy directors (encouraged by studio suits with the scent of huge profits) started scraping the bottom of the barrel for any psycho in a leather costume to make a film about. Honestly, how many people had ever heard of Spawn, Daredevil or Hellboy?
What’s worse, the formation or birth of a comic book superhero is a very stock standard story in western culture; life changing event or supernatural/alien/otherworldly origin) creates being with powers, powers are tested and encouraged by wise old mentor, powers are tested against lead villain, hero goes off into the night/sunset/space to take their place in the lore we all know. So not only were many comic book films bad to start with, they were all looking the same. And don’t even mention Catwoman, which even star Halle Berry admitted to it being a ‘piece of shit’.
There were two previously no-go areas. Superman had been done very well in 1978; some of the reason the new version (only now being completed at Sydney’s Fox Studios) spent so long in development hell with so many stars and directors attached was because it would always be so hard to top Richard Donner’s spectacle (at the time, it sported the most expensive opening title sequence in history).
And the other was Batman. Warner Brothers unceremoniously dumped Tim Burton after Batman Returns frightenend the kids too much (and failed to decimate box office records like the 1989 original had done), and bought in the replacement of Joel Schumacher — a very bad move in hindsight. What had started as a dark, understated, moody adventure/drama ended up a Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gra parade in a Moulin Rogue sequel on crystal meth. The direction, action and script was so gaudy and campy the only thing most critics found interesting were the huge nipples on George Clooney’s costume (the costumes themselves became so silvery and futuristic-looking they ended up looking like an invasion of alien drag-queens).
We can only assume two things changed the minds of those in charge when a new Batman film was pitched. One was Sam Raimi, who went against the grain to make Spider Man one of the best big budget action films (let alone comic book adaptations) of the new millennium by taking time to tell the story in human terms using relationships, drama, and that most elusive of Hollywood qualities — a story. The other was getting a director like Christopher Nolan, who came from Memento and Insomnia with an impeccable dramatic pedigree — one we all hoped would treat the Batman mythology with the same respect for both story and cinematic possibility that Raimi did Peter Parker.
Nolan has done so, and then some. Batman Begins joins the original Spider Man as the most original, engaging and satisfying comic book movie ever. Nolan takes time to show us the development of Bruce Wayne (Bale) into the titular hero. After seeing his parents die at the hands of street thug Joe Chill, Wayne grows up in the shadow of their death and after Chill’s murder at the hearing where he’s seeking early release (a murder Wayne himself intended to carry out), the demons he’s been carrying can never be exorcised and he takes to the wind to discover his destiny.
He finds it in Ducard (Neeson), who offers to bring Wayne before the legendary overlord of a secret assassin’s cabal; Ra’s Al Ghul (Watanabe) and train him in the fighting arts from across eastern religion and philosophy. Letting us in on the details of Batman’s birth effectively draws an emotional investment from the audience in how he came about, and with a minimum of trash and bash in the first half hour, your brain is kept wide awake.
Of course, it also keeps the first glimpses of the batcave, batmobile, iconic suit and weaponry tantalisingly out of reach until you understand what they really mean. So when we get to watch Wayne set up his operation with the help of butler Alfred (Caine) and Lucius Fox (Freeman), the low level keeper of Wayne Industries’ top secret weapons division, the action adventure promise gets paid off big time.
It’s stuffed with subplots that breathe further life into the mythology — from the slimy Dr Crane (Murphy) and his violent crime nuthouse to original Batman comics crime boss Falcone (Wilkinson), Gotham City’s last old school gangster before the more theatrical villains like The Joker and The Riddler took over. Sergeant (future Commissioner) Gordon is Batman’s first ally on the side of the law — played by Gary Oldman, and the new future Mrs Tom Cruise, love interest Katie Holmes is a lot more than female eye candy, in a role that’s integral to the story.
Hot scriptwriter of the moment David S Goyer and director Nolan have both tried hard to do the right thing, and it shows. The quality’s evident in every respect whether you like the drama, the action or both. The visual effects are kept on a tight leash — a lesson plenty of more seasoned directors could learn, and if you only see one more comic book adaptation in your life, this has to be it.