The latest chapter in the saga of the Batman, as its title suggest, follows the now ancient comic book tradition of establishing the origins of its protagonist, in this case demonstrating that superheroes are not born, but made.
The sixth feature film based on the caped crusader, Batman Begins covers some of the territory previously explored in various "origins" issues of the comic, but develops the story into the sort of dark and violent saga currently favored among the more ambitious writers and illustrators, who now call their sometimes crude and smeary picture books "graphic novels."
Together with its atmosphere of gloom and menace, the movie employs something of the psychological approach to its central character also popular among the more pretentious comic-book artists, probing the motives and methods of a man driven by trauma, anger, and even fear to fight crime in the great city of Gotham.
Despite its attention to contemporary trends in the masked avenger racket, the picture derives much of its style from a number of very different sorts of books and films. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) journeys to a mountainous region of Asia --- presumably Tibet --- in the manner of the protagonist of The Razor's Edge to learn from some cryptic mentors the esoteric methods of combat and self control that will enable him to become the Batman. The smoky, corrupt Gotham City, where he later plies his nocturnal trade, resembles the Chicago of the old gangster flicks --- an impoverished slum with crooked cops, incompetent judges, its own Al Capone figure, here called Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) --- and references the Great Depression.
In addition to abandoning the stylized gothic Gotham of the Tim Burton versions of the story, the director, Christopher Nolan, also alters a number of other visual elements. No longer a sleek, winged super car, for example, the new Batmobile looks like a combat vehicle: tough, angular and functional. The protagonist's acquisition and development of his equipment follow a natural, authentic pattern of experiment, trial and error, proceeding from crudeness and failure to efficiency and success, so that the famous costume and utility belt (and the hero himself) don't always function with the slick perfection of the earlier movies.
In keeping with the new or at least somewhat changed conception of the character and story, the script treats the material more seriously, avoiding most of the obvious and laborious humor of the previous flicks. The script substitutes a more generalized sense of evil (with more ordinary sorts of bad guys) for such spectacular and extraordinary villains, overplayed by hyperbolic actors, as the Penguin, Mr. Freeze, Two-Face, the Riddler, and Poison Ivy. As a result, instead of a kind of urban nightmare presided over by some invulnerable monster, Gotham City seems more the wasteland of modern times, a sewer full of rats, the soiled battlefield of the giant flying rodent who paradoxically embodies the good in an evil time.
Despite its departures from the franchise tradition, Batman Begins features some of the expected chases, stunts, and fireworks, though again they follow a more restrained pattern, growing out of the acceptable conditions of plot and situation. If it lacks the self-conscious campiness and dramatic irony of its predecessors, the dialogue, in keeping with Bruce Wayne's Asian training, features cryptic philosophical utterances about overcoming rage in order to accomplish good, embracing one's fears, controlling the self, and other bits of useful Zennish wisdom.
Christian Bale's chiseled, handsome countenance and his smug, tightlipped acting style rarely seem appropriate for the allegedly troubled and self-questioning Batman. He looks perfectly acceptable when he simply occupies space or when clothed in his working outfit, but when he speaks he conveys almost no emotion, and certainly his scenes with his childhood sweetheart (Katie Holmes) scarcely suggest anything resembling passion or even affection.
His stiff, impassive manner, however, emphasizes one of the most important and neglected concepts in the character and the whole saga, that Bruce Wayne is the real alter ego, the secret identity, while his true self lies in the person of Batman, first cousin to Dracula, an ambiguous figure who only comes fully alive in cape and tights and mask, the dark angel who will save Gotham City from itself.
Batman Begins (PG-13) is playing at Cinemark Tinseltown, Loews Webster, Pittsford Plaza Cinema, Regal Culver Ridge, Regal Eastview, Regal Greece Ridge, and Regal Henrietta.