Batman Begins

Starring: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes. Directed by: Christopher Nolan.
Running Time: 134 mins.
Rated: Rated: M.
Created by artist Bob Kane, few superheroes have exerted as much power over the imagination as Batman, who burst from the pages of DC comics during the Depression to wage a one-man war against criminals bent on turning Gotham City into their own private fiefdom.

Not much is known about Batman's origins. In the past it was sufficient that he was the alter ego of millionaire industrialist, Bruce Wayne, who with the help of trusted retainers in the bat caves beneath his ancestral home 'Wayne Manor', used his vast wealth and technological know-how to turn himself into a superhero.

Several Batman movies were made throughout the 1990s, with varied success. But none of them provided the rich psychological depth that serious Batman's fans have always known lies at the heart of this mystifying character.

In Batman Begins, Nolan (Insomnia, Memento) and Goyer (Blake series) have tried to correct this shortfall of knowledge and reclaim some of the comic book's original 'noir' spirit. They have done this by grounding Bruce Wayne's Batman persona and his crusade against crime, in two traumatic childhood experiences: Wayne's fall into a bat-infested cave beneath the family home when he was eight-years-old; and the rage and guilt that haunts him as a result of having seen his father and mother gunned down in the street.

However, the attempt to bring psychological realism and gravitas to the story has been coupled with concerns that the movie be marketed as a turbocharged blockbuster packed with gadgetry and noise. This has resulted in Batman Begins falling between the stools. It is neither satisfactory as a fast-paced action adventure or something deeper.

Marred by pretensions, Batman Begins is at times laughably ponderous. Bruce Wayne's father (played woodenly by Linus Roache) is treated hagiographically as a 'philanthropist-doctor' (wealthy but good), and this sets the tone for Batman too (Christian Bale).

His Herculean task is to overcome all fear and self-doubt in order to redeem both himself and the world.

But while such 'godliness' is a prerequisite for superheroes, it somehow jars that in the world of Gotham City redemption comes only through the power of money.

Just as worrying is the inference that as ordinary people we are impotent to act against evil, and must place our trust in other agencies: superheroes, or in lieu of a shortage, strong governments who will act for us.

The creators of Batman Begins could argue that they are in fact encouraging the empowerment of ordinary individuals: that Batman is an alter ego for us all. But where this leaves women such as Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), who in dire extremis needs rescuing like everyone else, is perhaps another not unrelated question.

Bale (Empire of the Sun, The Portrait of a Lady, American Psycho) seems oddly out of his depth as Batman. Although the legendary bat-suit is more flexible and realistic than in previous films (the bat-helmet resembles the head of a doberman-pinscher perfectly), there is an inability to convey the 'inner' Bruce Wayne/Batman that suggests Clive Owen (King Arthur) might have been a better choice.

Liam Neeson is likewise po-faced as Wayne's mentor Ducard, who rescues Wayne from a Bhutan prison and teaches him mastery of the martial arts. It is left to the charisma of big name stars Michael Caine (Wayne's butler Alfred), Morgan Freeman (Batman's answer to James Bond's Q) and Rutger Hauer (a corrupt CEO), to rescue the film and provide the fun.

Jan Epstein is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Film Office.

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