Is it a man? Is it a bat? No, it's Christian Bale playing a psychotically aggressive backpacker who's taken a disastrous wrong turn into a Bhutanese prison. You could consider it either brave or foolhardy that for more than an hour of this much-hyped comeback movie the main attraction is nowhere to be seen. Oh, there's a load of fighting, and swarms of bats, and philosophical cobblers about "the great journey inwards", but you may have checked your watch by the time this fabled superhero is satisfied with the moulding of his breastplate, the aerodynamics of his cape, the protective strength of his jockstrap, and emerges - finally - as Batman.
That the series has managed to reboot at all is a small miracle. Those who precisely remember the stink emanating from Joel Schumacher's atrocious Batman and Robin (1997) could have been forgiven for assuming the franchise was dead and buried. Its star George Clooney must have thought so; he seemed to spend the next five years apologising for it. Then again, film studios are not generally known for their sense of shame, and Warner Bros would probably have regarded Schumacher's folly as a blip rather than an occasion for sackcloth and ashes. Eight years on they've had the bright idea of hiring the young British-born director Christopher Nolan, whose career hit the ground running with his low-budget tease Following and the brilliant amnesiac puzzler Memento, then fell to a jog-trot through the Al Pacino thriller Insomnia. Here at least is a film-maker who has greater ambitions than clouting his audience with an expensive toy advert.
Nolan's avowed intention is to bring a "heightened realism" to the comic-book heroics, and to investigate the psychology behind this anguished, neurotic crimefighter-in-waiting. The film's long first act charts the sentimental education of rich kid-turned-violent jailbird Bruce Wayne (Bale), whisked off to a Tibetan monastery where a bearded sage, Ducard (Liam Neeson), instructs him in the path of The League of Shadows, an outfit that prizes nifty swordsmanship, black ninja threads and "Grasshopper"-style philosophising ("To conquer fear you must become fear"). This is the League's way of uncovering their pupil's deepest neurosis, though, as a repeated flashback informs us, it's clear that the young Bruce was traumatised after falling down a hole and being monstered by a swarm of bats. Couldn't Ducard simply have asked him about that and saved everyone a lot of trouble?
Another flashback reveals the closeness of the son to his billionaire philanthropist father, and the horror of seeing him murdered alongside his mother. Nolan and his co-writer David S Goyer make good this loss, however; in fact you can barely move for the throng of heavyweight father-figures they've packed in here. First off there's Neeson and his boss Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) dispensing their Eastern pearls of wisdom; then, once the plot shifts to Gotham, we are acquainted in short order with Michael Caine as family guardian and butler Alfred, Morgan Freeman as a boffin who's been patenting endless Bat-gizmos and gadgets, and Gary Oldman, cast against type as one of the city's few incorruptible cops. How much fathering does this kid need? They might just as well have called the film A Few Good Mentors. The casting of the villains, always a key area in a superhero movie, is rather hit-and-miss. Tom Wilkinson is misused as a mob boss, and Rutger Hauer has had his day as a gimlet-eyed force of evil. On the plus side, the sinister stillness of Cillian Murphy's gaze is almost as disquieting as the weird cloth hood he dons as his creepy alter ego The Scarecrow. And as a stumblebum cop-on-the-take, Mark Boone Jr (he was the motel clerk in Memento) furnishes a pleasing dose of grime.
Nolan, after that slow start, picks up the pace in the middle section, and if the film remains some way short of gripping it is at least visually arresting. "New York on steroids" was the aim, and Nathan Crowley's production design blends elements of Manhattan, Chicago and Tokyo to conjure Gotham as a city of dreadful night; Wally Pfister's photography renders it glistening, rain-lashed and as glamorously sleazy as the metropolis of Blade Runner. There's also a degree of psychological seriousness, for which we may partly thank Sam Raimi - his Spider-Man movies have dared to imagine an audience that enjoys books as well as comics - and partly ascribe to Nolan's characteristic interest in the elusiveness of memory and identity. Batman may not have to solve the kind of labyrinthine enigma that tormented Guy Pearce in Memento, but his doubleness, as spoilt playboy and secret crimebuster, hints at least at the possibility of spiritual conflict. Bale gives a respectable performance in the title role, if hardly a charismatic one. I admired him a great deal as the hunger artist in the bleak psycho-horror The Machinist, but now that he's bulked up again one detects the humourless self-regard of a prizefighter; try a Bat joke on him and he's likely to beat the crap out of you.
Batman Begins is a well-upholstered entertainment, and passes the time more agreeably than any of the other Batman flicks, Tim Burton's included. Nolan has worked hard to bring the franchise back from the abyss of self-parody. All the same, I do wonder if the talent behind Following and Memento isn't being squandered on the formulaic thrills of an unworthy genre. Car chases, gunfights, explosions - they're all here, and all will leave you in a state of exquisite indifference. Hiring Nolan to direct a blockbuster feels a little like hiring Raymond Chandler to compose a Hallmark card. You know it will be competently done, but you also know that opportunities are being missed.