Batman Begins (12A)

Return of the Byronic sulker
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The Independent Culture

Superhero comics' enduring fixation with origin stories suits Hollywood down to the ground. Turning the clock back to a myth's beginning is a handy way for the studios to rebrand a tarnished product. With Batman Begins, it's back to basics for the Caped Crusader: no Robin, no wisecracking carnival-costumed villains, and no rubber nipples. You almost expect to find all details of Joel Schumacher's flip, campy Batman and Robin discreetly erased from every database.

With the franchise now entrusted to British-born Christopher Nolan, Batman Begins reworks the DC Comics hero for a more adult audience.

Like Tim Burton in his two Batman films, Nolan gives us a brooding vigilante laden with traumas, phobias, unresolved dramas. In other words, the story, credited to David S Goyer (who shares screenplay credit with Nolan), suggests there was much script conference talk about Batman being on a journey, struggling with his demons, having an arc. We first meet anguished rich boy Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) looking for trouble in a Tibetan jail, before being rescued by mysterious wisdom-spouting smoothie Ducard (Liam Neeson), who sends him on an initiatory quest to an isolated mountain monastery. There, while flashbacks reveal the roots of his psychic woes, Wayne undergoes Jedi-style combat training with Ducard's phalanx of masked swordsmen, representatives of a secret league of Asian moralists who periodically wipe out cities that they feel have become too corrupt - a sort of ninja al-Qa'ida.

For the first hour of this gruellingly long film, Nolan does something that you'll feel is either stunningly audacious or grounds for getting your money back - he gives us no Batman at all. Then, even when he's back from his extended adventure break, Wayne still has to invent his new identity from scratch - find the costume, gather the weaponry and adapt the Batmobile, a deconstructed geometric monster truck. It feels increasingly like a long haul, and it might have been more honest to call it Batman Will Begin Shortly. And once the pointy ears finally loom into sight, we're off on another tangled tangent involving a stolen gizmo, a plot to spike Gotham's water supply, and an eminent shrink (haughtily pouting Cillian Murphy, who looks barely old enough to have sat his first year's psychology exams) who puts a mouldy sack on his head to become ghoulish villain the Scarecrow.

Bizarrely overloaded, Batman Begins feels like one damn thing after another. There are too many mentor figures: Neeson, Morgan Freeman's wry armourer, Michael Caine as Alfred the butler (dispensing dry one-liners in an accent bizarrely reminiscent of Lady Penelope's faithful retainer Parker), and Gary Oldman as - well, really nothing much more than a nice cop with a moustache. Similarly, there are too many villains: others include Tom Wilkinson's mafioso, and shady executive Rutger Hauer. Among the several plots and sub-plots shoe-horned in, the most desultory shows Wayne pretending to be an airhead playboy to fool people - especially his childhood sweetheart, Katie Holmes - but this thread doesn't go much further than a scene of him splashing about with two models in a hotel fishpond.

Dark is one thing, solemnity is another, and Batman Begins even outdoes the poker-faced tendencies of Bryan Singer's self-important, but visually lively X-Men films. There's none of the distinctive dream-like crackle of Burton's Batman episodes, and certainly not a jot of the insight, conciseness, excitement and, above all, the impassioned faith in comic-book logic that made Sam Raimi's two Spider-Man films so bracing.

If anyone is to be blamed for the now-overworked idea that screen superheroes must be dark and conflicted, it's arguably writer-artist Frank Miller, who reinvented Batman in his 1986 graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, giving the cue to the Byronic sulker of Burton's films. As it happens, Miller's current adaptation, with Robert Rodriguez, of his own Sin City is far blacker than Batman Begins, but is in a whole other league, comprehensively rethinking the language of pen-and-ink images in screen terms. Nolan doesn't set himself that sort of challenge - and indeed there's no reason why a comics-inspired film has to look like a comic. But Batman Begins, for all its confidence and ambition, comes across as a leaden mish-mash of diverse genres (Asian action, caper thriller, dystopian futurism) that never fully does justice to any of them.

The film is very much a vehicle, too, for Christian Bale, who after going skeletal in The Machinist, has bulked up again to take the blows: Bale himself has become cinema's own tormented hero - Ordeal Boy - but his screen persona here is rebarbartively neurotic and simply not very enjoyable to spend time with. For Christopher Nolan's auteurist fans, however, Bale's Batman is of a piece with his other anguished heroes, like the amnesiac in the brilliant Memento, Pacino's weary cop in Insomnia. But you really wonder whether, when Nolan made his brilliantly inventive no-budget debut Following in 1998, Batman Begins was the kind of bloated super-production he dreamed of directing one day? Or is "Christopher Nolan" simply a masked front for a secret identity busy making pithy, intelligent psycho-thrillers elsewhere?

'Batman Begins' opens on Thursday