Batman Begins at 15: Why Christopher Nolan’s Bat-flick remains the best superhero origin movie ever made
You know the story by now. A father, mother and young son leave a Zorro performance and are confronted with a criminal in Crime Alley. The parents die, the son survives. The origins of Batman - alongside the spider bites, gamma experiments and exploding planets - is one of the many superhero starting points that were announced ad nauseum both on the pages and in the panels of comics and on the big screen. But it was best done.
Batman Begins, the first of Christopher Nolan's Bat trilogy, is often overshadowed by the incomparable sequel The Dark Knight and the crowded The Dark Knight Rises. But the director, in dealing with Batman's first rodeo, laid down a blueprint for how comic-book originals should play - one that wasn't followed in the MCU, DCEU, or mega-explosion of superhero films that existed .
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For many, stories of origin have become so tired that they have entered pastiche territory. Spider-Man: In the Spider-Verse, the overview of how Peter Parker got his strength is falsified, while other films (like Spider-Man: Homecoming) completely avoid him. However, it is still important at this moment when a man or woman becomes more than flesh and blood. Without alpha there is no omega.
However, Nolan wisely dialed back in Crime Alley that night. Watch Batman start again and you will be surprised at how long it takes the young master Wayne to look back on the worst night of his life. You see 80 seconds up. This is not a time to examine old wounds. To paraphrase Thomas Wayne's own words: The fall has happened, it's done and it's time to get up again.
It speaks for an inherent understanding of the character. While some - for example, The Incredible Hulk - describe any accident or misfortune that triggers a crime-fighting career as inevitable, Batman Begins has several extended training sequences before Bruce Wayne begins to take revenge in Gotham. After all, Bruce spends the vast majority of the first half of the film in prison and then undergoes a brutal program under the watchful eye of Liam Neeson's Ra's Al-Ghul. There he learns and hears.
So becoming a Batman is a slow process, and this gradual tilt cannot be wiped away by hand in a montage or two. In Batman Begins Bruce keeps failing: he can't save his parents, he can't take revenge on their murderer, he can't defend himself against the mob bosses. He can't even defeat Scarecrow when they first compete against each other.
This culminates in his "unveiling" as Batman in a fight at Gotham's shipyard in which Carmine Falcone and his men are dispatched during a drug bankruptcy. The scene is only cathartic because Nolan had previously applied the brakes to limit the action. Even then, it's still reserved and intimate. Before the Arkham trilogy games even glittered in the eyes of game developer Rocksteady, the silent shutdowns of nameless idiots reflect the first moment of a superhero far better than all CGI-laden punches with an O.T.T. Villain could ever hope to be.
(Photo credit: Warner Bros.)
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Nolan's approach, however, can best be summed up in Lieutenant Gordon's words in the film's final scene. In a proto-post credits scene, Gordon teases Joker's presence in Gotham City after the clown Prince of Crime left a visiting card in a crime scene and blamed Batman indirectly. Why? Escalation.
“We start to wear semi-automatic machines, they buy automatic machines. We're starting to wear Kevlar, they're buying armor piercings, ”says Gordon Batman on the roof of the GCPD. "And?" Batman answers. "And you're wearing a mask," says Gordon. "Jump off the roofs. Now take this guy. Armed robbery, double murder, has a penchant for the theater like you. Leaves a business card ... "
For many, it's a trail of bread crumbs that lead to Heath Leger's legendary joker performance. However, take a closer look and it speaks to Nolan's mantra: You haven't seen anything yet.
Many first-hand comic films have fallen into the trap of making headlines in a hero's first film. There's logic behind it - fail here and you may not get another chance. Captain America: The First Avenger immediately used Red Skull, Doctor Strange had Dormammu. Thor even introduced Loki at lightning speed, which contradicted Marvel's later, more forward-looking approach.
Nolan held things back and allowed Bruce Wayne, the man, to breathe before becoming Batman, the myth. You can't have one without the other, and Nolan understands that the road to Batman is as important as Batman, which goes from head to toe with its endless villain gallery.
In fact, Batman Begins' greatest strength is that The Dark Knight would not have been successful without them. After all, the classic from 2008 was not a film that came out of nowhere. Joker's anarchic tendency doesn't work without Scarecrow scratching the surface of Batman's fears. Bruce, who has the love of his life killed, is not so effective without seeing what caused him to cause this separation at all. It is this word again, escalation, that turns out to be so powerful. If Batman Begins had increased the stake further, The Dark Knight might not have felt that special.
Why did Batman Begins work so well? For many reasons, but mostly because it wasn't just an origin story for Batman, it was also the first part of a trilogy. It sounds so simple, so reducing, almost like condescending. But it is true.
Apart from the infinity saga made by Kevin Feige in 23 films, how many sequels and three sources really connect with what started? Thor quickly became nervous after two lukewarm films and Iron Man, perhaps the only contender for the Batman Begins throne, got off the rails with two completely different entries. The MCU generally scatters so many sheets across so many different films and mini franchises that every real character development is sometimes split into half a decade and tonally different phases, not real sequels.
DC's own stable of superheroes is slowly beginning to take control of more moderate standalone stories that leave room for follow-up action. No one has been as successful as Nolan's reduced attempt in 2005, which teased the audience and, above all, made them want a little more.
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