When it comes to Batman movies, there are divided camps as to which is the best of the film adaptations. Most believe The Dark Knight to be the superior film, thanks to a story fraught with moral ambiguity and riveting action, not to mention an Oscar-winning performance by Heath Ledger as The Joker. Tim Burton’s original Batman has its fans, with its signature Burton visuals, iconic Danny Elfman score, and epic Joker performance from Jack Nicholson. But bet your bottom Batarangs, an argument can be made that Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan’s first installment from his Bat trilogy, is the best Batman film to date. (Hey, it’s not like we said Batman & Robin was the best.) Before you catch Batman Begins on IFC this month, take a look at some reasons why Nolan’s 2005 film is still the ultimate Bat-flick.
1. It’s a Batman movie that is actually about Batman
After the disaster that was the aforementioned Batman & Robin, the franchise was in need of a full-blown makeover. Nolan and company chose to reboot the whole system, starting from the ground up with an entirely fresh take on Gotham’s hero and his origin. This allowed the focus in a Batman movie to be on…wait for it…The Bat-Man himself. Nolan and coscreenwriter David S. Goyer would go to meticulous depths to create a Gotham City grounded in reality while still having room for comic book-friendly stuff like a creepy psychiatrist who dresses like a scarecrow.
For the first time in a Batman film, Bruce Wayne also got as much screentime as his caped counterpart. Bruce’s journey from rich kid to crimefighter for once is the focus of the movie, allowing a level of character depth that previous big screen Waynes lacked. (Bruce isn’t merely the bland playboy from the Val Kilmer/George Clooney years.) The depths that Batman Begins goes to in explaining what Bruce’s life was like as an orphan, where his fears came from, how he tried to throw his life away, how he transformed himself, how he became the manifestation of all his sadness and fears and anger and a force for good is comic book storytelling at its finest. For the first time in a Batman movie viewers are emotionally invested in Bruce Wayne.
2. It’s an origin story closer to the comics
Finally we can all forget the whole “Joker killed Bruce Wayne’s parents” thing from Tim Burton’s Batman. Nolan and Goyer’s screenplay hews closely to Bruce’s comic book origins, depicting Thomas and Martha Wayne’s death at the hands of street thug Joe Chill. And while the Wayne family attends an opera on that fateful night instead of a screening of The Mark of Zorro, the change actually works plotwise (Bruce is scared by the bat-like creatures onstage) and adds an interesting wrinkle to Batman’s famous origins.
3. Christian Bale Is The Best Bruce Wayne/Batman (Despite the Voice)
A revamped Batman franchise was only going to go as far as the new Caped Crusader could carry it. And apparently where he carried it to was the gym. Christian Bale got seriously ripped for his turn as The Caped Crusader, working out every day, and gaining nearly 60 pounds of muscle and mass. This physical transformation, when paired with Bale’s tremendous Oscar-nominated acting chops, made for a Bruce Wayne turned Dark Knight like we’d never seen before. Damaged, vulnerable, handsome, sensitive, ferocious and vengeful, he brought an intensity to Bruce both under and out of the cowl. Even if everyone wasn’t on board with Bale’s in-need-of-a-lozenge Bat growl, it has become an iconic part of the Batman cinematic universe. Fun game: try ordering drive-thru in a Bale Bat-voice. It’s never not fun!
4. Liam Neeson + Mentor Role x Sword = WIN
Before he began giving half of Europe’s henchmen a karate chop to the throat in the Taken series, Liam Neeson put on display a certain set of skills — skills that make him ideal to play a sword-wielding mentor and father figure. As Henri Ducard/Ra’s Al Ghul, Neeson took the quote-filled master who finds a young reclamation project and makes him a legend to the next level. He’s got the voice. He’s got the presence. He’s got the moves. And above all, he’s got the quotes. He’s the human equivalent to every inspirational poster, handbook and mantra ever written.
5. It Has an Amazing Cast Stocked with Great Actors
Nowadays, it’s standard for comic book movies to be filled with incredible actors. But this wasn’t always the case. Batman Begins started the trend of casting acting legends in supporting roles, something that still happens today. (How else do you explain Holly Hunter’s role in Batman V. Superman?)
To give this new Batman series depth and roots, Christopher Nolan assembled an all-star cast, quite possibly the best to date seen in a comic book movie. Michael Caine, Tom Wilkinson, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman? That sounds like a list of recent Academy Award nominees, not the supporting cast in a Batman movie. These actors took a heroic action movie and brought it to life, infusing it with soul, style and substance throughout. Add in a throwback action favorite like Rutger Hauer, and a then rising star like Cillian Murphy, and you had a super hero team of acting talent in Gotham.
6. Batman’s “Wonderful Toys” Actually Make Sense
Ever wonder where Batman got the suit, or how he came up with his weapons, tools and gadgets? You can’t exactly just swing by the local Target and shop the Super Hero Department. In keeping with their grounded and dynamically realistic approach, Nolan and his team gave this Bruce Wayne his own Q (the famous James Bond gadget maker) in the form of Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). Fox was a techie buried deep within the recesses of Wayne Enterprises who, when discovered by a Bruce Wayne looking to enhance and outfit his bat-inspired hero, gave life to everything Batman wore, carried, threw and rode. And the science behind it all was explained, showing us that it is possible to be Batman, provided you have vast amounts of wealth and Morgan Freeman at your disposal.
7. Holy Batmobile!
All our preconceived Batmobile notions were torn apart like the rooftops the new Bat Tumbler raced across. Gone was Adam West’s iconic open top two seater or the sleek roadster from the ’90s Bat films. The new Batmobile was part Humvee, part tank, and all awesome. When it first races out of the darkness, ripping up the streets of Gotham, its engine enhanced by a lion’s roar, audiences were like, “BRB. Might have just soiled my pants.” The Tumbler’s militaristic style was aggressive and practical, and matched this new version of Batman perfectly. Plus, it actually works! It took months to build a working model of the Tumbler, and it was a huge hit with fans. Even noted car enthusiast Jay Leno took it for a spin.
8. Even Katie Holmes Can’t Ruin It
Maybe we’re in the minority here, but we didn’t hate Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes. Most fans were not enamored with her performance, some thinking her acting was not up to snuff of the likes of Bale, Neeson and Caine. Tall order to run with those big dogs — hence the switch Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel for The Dark Knight. But for the role of Bruce Wayne’s childhood-turned-adult love interest, the call was for someone with experience playing a childhood love interest, someone who had experience on, say, Dawson’s Creek? Someone whose doe eyes recall the innocence lost, giving us a glimpse into the inner conflict Bruce/Batman feels. For that Holmes seemed perfect. Don’t like it? Hey, don’t cry about it.
9. For Once, Two Villains Isn’t Overkill
Finally a comic book flick proved having dual villains CAN work in a comic book movie. The two villains competing then working in cooperation against our hero angle had been worked before, especially in the Batman franchise, but to far less successful effect. Most fans would agree either Catwoman or The Penguin would have been enough for the moody and grimly atmospheric Batman Returns, and both Joel Schumacher entries featured double villain overkill, with the over-the-top Riddler and Two-Face combo in Batman Forever, and the hilariously pun-tastic Poison Ivy/Mr. Freeze dastardly duo of Batman & Robin.
But The Scarecrow/ Ra’s al Ghul combo was great, mostly because they actually both made sense to the plot and each had plenty of character development. (As great as The Dark Knight is, most fans would agree Joker outshines Two-Face.) When you add villains you up the risk/reward factor because we can wander dangerously into taking away from our hero and drifting into an overstuffed plot. Like how sometimes you just want a burger and don’t want it served on a donut, right? Well, Batman Begins gave us burgers and donuts in equal measure, and who doesn’t love that combo?
10. In The End, It’s A Father/Son Story
Even though people go bananas for the minefield of moral quandaries that drove the narrative in The Dark Knight, there were an awful lot of feels dished out with the often overlooked father/son storyline in Batman Begins. The scenes with young Bruce and his father are poignant and touching, giving an unexpected emotional depth to the movie early on. Thomas Wayne was a dad, a friend, moral compass and mentor for Bruce, all the things Bruce would eventually seek in his international journey of rediscovery. (And later find in Alfred.)
By controlling his sadness, re-routing his anger and manipulating his fear, Bruce was able to improve on and complete his father’s work, as well as be the man his father would hope he’d become…albeit one who wears a cape and a costume. Bruce gains closure on his loss, his life as an orphan and his place as the main Wayne in Gotham by movie’s end. Bruce lost his hero, but eventually becomes one to a entire city, a storyline that plays out through Nolan’s Batman trilogy. From his very first outing, Christopher Nolan’s Batman is the hero Gotham (and fans) deserve.