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Batman Begins: Why Christopher Nolan's origin story is the series' best

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In our definitive ranking of Batman's cinematic outings this week, Digital Spy put Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins at number one. I could lie and say that we agonised over its placement, but in fact the decision was almost unanimous among the staffers who had a say in the list.

Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy is unquestionably the greatest comic book saga on screen, but the expanded scope and sweep of the later instalments comes at a cost. The Dark Knight and its sequel become more about the mask than the man behind it, and for that reason they've stood the test of time marginally less well than the focused and intimate Batman Begins. Strange as it may sound, what makes Nolan's dark, cerebral origin story the best Batman movie of all time is the fact that it really isn't one.

Christian Bale and Katie Holmes in Batman Begins (2005)

© Rex Features / Warner Bros/Everett


It's the only film in which Batman feels entirely like a mask, not a character, leaving Christian Bale's wounded, brooding Bruce Wayne to take centre-stage. Tragic backstories are a dime a dozen in comic book movies, but the early murder of Bruce's parents is genuinely brutal, setting up his development into a damaged, distinctly un-heroic angry young man seeking vengeance on the mugger responsible.

Nolan and David S Goyer's screenplay shrewdly highlights the fact that Bruce Wayne has two masks, not one: the playboy douche is as crucial to maintaining his double life as the bat, and as destructive to his relationships. His apparent rich slacker lifestyle alienates childhood sweetheart Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), while Alfred (Michael Caine) increasingly worries that he's getting lost inside the bat persona.

It's this three-way schism that fuels Bale's simmering, layered performance, which remains one of the best of his career and is never matched in TDK or TDKR. Take the dazzling scene in which Bruce feigns a drunken strop at his party guests; he's doing it to protect them from Ra's al Ghul, but the real venom behind the words is tangible.

Bruce Wayne / Batman portrayed by Christian Bale in an attack on his Gotham Mansion, with Butler Michael Caine in 'Batman Begins'

© Warner Bros.


"All you phonies, you two-faced friends, you sycophantic suck-ups who smile through your teeth at me," he calls out, half-smirking, flashes of Patrick Bateman in his glazed eyes. "Please, leave me in peace. Stop smiling. It's not a joke. The party's over - get out."

This moment leads into an affecting low point for Bruce, who's left for dead and physically and emotionally pulled back from the edge by Alfred ("Why do we fall, sir?"). It's hard to think of another superhero movie that so consistently and repeatedly spotlights its hero's vulnerability, even makes it the driving force behind his alter ego.

Because making a serious, psychologically nuanced film about a man who dresses up like a giant bat is no mean feat. It's a fundamentally ridiculous idea, and Nolan knew that the only way to do it was to really dig down into the mindset - why a bat?

Because Bruce Wayne has a pathological fear of bats after being attacked by a swarm of them as a child, a fear that would indirectly lead to the death of his parents, and only by repurposing that fear as strength can he become Gotham's saviour. It's not coincidental that Bale's Batman voice became a source of parody in the later films - the persona became so exaggerated that it overshadowed the man beneath, whereas here it's a crutch and not much more.

Christian Bale in Batman Begins

© Warner Bros.


And even once Batman makes his triumphant entrance, he's a long way from being an invulnerable badass. Within half an hour he's getting rescued from a rooftop by Alfred (again, the real unsung hero of the film) after a traumatic attack from the Scarecrow. He's out cold for two days, and wakes up red-eyed and shaken, more weakened even than when Bane breaks his back in The Dark Knight Rises.

Most of the beatdowns in Begins are psychological - Cillian Murphy's Dr Jonathan "Scarecrow" Crane literally spreads madness, using a hallucination-inducing gas with which he ultimately plans to infect Gotham's water supply. As a third act threat, this is infinitely more frightening than the standard "let's blow up a metropolis for 20 minutes" device, which was well worn even back in 2005.

Between Murphy's Scarecrow, Tom Wilkinson's depraved mob boss Carmine Falcone and Liam Neeson's mentor-turned-menace Ra's al Ghul, Batman Begins is a master class in how to pull off multiple villains. The mountain-set sections with Bruce taking fear lessons from Ducard and the League of Shadows admittedly drag a tad, but overall the bad guys come and go, creating the sense of a fully inhabited world rather than an overstuffed narrative.

Gary Oldman and Christian Bale in Batman Begins (2005)

© Rex Features / Warner Bros/Everett


And it's through Batman Begins' detailed world-building that Nolan and his team were able to expand The Dark Knight into the kind of sprawling crime drama that drew comparisons to Heat. Without all the groundwork that's laid here - Inspector Gordon's childhood link with Bruce and uneasy working truce with Batman, the divide between Gotham's haves and have nots, the sense of the city as a glossy metropolis rotting from within - the rest of the trilogy wouldn't have half the same power.

All this psychological and socio-political detail could have made for a pretty dour blockbuster, but perhaps the real miracle of the film is how funny it is. From Lucius Fox's (Morgan Freeman) tongue-in-cheek gadget pimping, to Bruce and Alfred's banter, to Bruce casually owning Rutger Hauer's corporate creep, there's a wry lightness of touch that grounds everything in reality, up to and including the Batmobile. There's a lot to be said, too, for a final scene that provides a completely satisfactory ending and a fan-baiting sequel tease - take note screenwriters, you can do both.

A witty, thoughtful, emotionally rich character drama with genuine stakes, grounded action and a hero more interesting than the suit he wears, Batman Begins isn't just the best caped crusader movie - it's in contention for the best comic book movie ever made.

What are your memories of Batman? Do you have a favourite incarnation? Why do you think he's lasted for 75 years? Join in the discussion in the comments section below!

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