Whoever said that movie franchise reboots are a bad idea really ought to watch Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, a second take on a cinematic Batman after four increasingly campy movies in the late 80s to mid 90s that reduced the Caped Crusader to some kind of bad joke. By the early 2000s, however, a team of creators managed to distill some of the best takes on the Batman mythology over the preceding 20 years and create the bedrock for what would become a three-part examination of one of the greatest and most complicated superheroes of all time.
In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne loses his parents to a senselessly violent mugging, and grows up yearning to bring justice to an unjust world. He embarks on a long, soul-searching quest in which he confronts his own fears and transforms himself into a warrior of the night, trained by a mysterious group of assassins known as the League of Shadows. After a violent parting of ways, Bruce quits the League and returns to Gotham to bring justice to its crime-ridden streets. He uses his family’s incredible wealth botht o fund his operation and to provide a handy alter ego as a billionaire playboy nobody would ever take seriously. He outfits himself with weapons, armor and vehicles based on neglected military technology designed by his father’s company, Wayne Industries. And he recalls his lifelong terror of bats—having fallen into a huge cave beneath his home and being swarmed by them when he was little. Assuming the identity of what he fears most, Bruce becomes an avenger of the night: The Batman. He quickly disrupts crime on the street, much to the chagrin of Gotham’s corrupt police department, and uncovers a plot by an insane pharmapsychologist known as the Scarecrow, who intends to poison the city’s water supply with a fear toxin that will drive the entire city insane. As Batman battles the Scarecrow, he must recruit allies such as his butler, Alfred (his surrogate father and voice of reason), Lucius Fox (his master of arms), Detective Jim Gordon (Gotham’s lone good cop) assistant DA Rachel Dawes (Bruce’s love interest and conscience). But as even greater evils than the Scarecrow emerge from behind the scenes, Batman’s crucible as a costumed vigilante will prove a trying one, indeed.
Batman is one of those characters whose foundation is so elemental that it can withstand many different interpretations, all of which can work for different audiences. In Batman Begins, we see a take on the darker, more psychologically driven version of Batman that has become the standard ever since Frank Miller’s game-changing 1986 graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns. But this version stands on its own, acknowledging what goes on in the headspace of somebody who decides to dress as a bat to fight crime, but without the nihilism that often goes along with it. This Batman is not just the manifestation of one man’s wounded psyche and existential need for revenge, but he is also an avatar of a city that is almost beyond redemption. This Batman isn’t fighting to cleanse Gotham’s streets; he’s fighting to cleanse its soul.
As a lifelong comic book fan, one of the things I enjoyed most about Batman Begins—and indeed the entire Dark Knight trilogy—is that though I am a big comic reader, I’ve never quite kept up with Batman, so many of the elements drawn upon for Batman Begins—from the villain R’as al Ghul to source material like the Long Halloween—were unfamiliar to me, which provided a vision of Batman that was at once both familiar and new. From the opening frames to the closing credits, I felt like I was really experiencing Batman for the first time again, and the new ground rules for this iteration were all welcome ones, indeed.
There are no small number of fantastic scenes in this movie, from Bruce’s first dramatic entrance into his bat cave, to his learning curve as a vigilante, to the blooming relationships between Bruce, Rachel, Alfred and Lucius. But there is one scene in particular for me that really sells the movie in general, and delivers its moment of truth in particular. Batman has gone to Arkham Asylum, where the Scarecrow and his men are preparing the fear toxin with which they intend to poison the city’s water supply. After Batman defeats a small army of minions, he turns the Scarecrow’s weaponized fear gas on the Scarecrow himself, giving us a glimpse of how the Scarecrow’s diseased mind views the world when his own fears are cranked up to 11. Everything becomes terrifying, but Batman becomes something more: a demon from which no secrets can be kept. Although we’re seeing our hero through the haze of a chemical weapon, we’re also seeing exactly what Batman wants us to imagine: a monster who preys upon other monsters.
The moment of truth comes moments later when Batman must escape the asylum—by now surrounded by the hostile Gotham PD—with Jim Gordon and Rachel Dawes in tow. Batman activates a device that summons a huge flock of bats to the scene. The bats fill the air with primal fear itself, which panic everyone on the scene. Everyone except Batman, who calmly walks out the asylum with his friends without having to throw a single punch. It’s a moment that recalls a portion of Batman’s origin, when as a child he first fell into what would become his Bat Cave, and was terrified by the swarm of bats that engulfed him. Now, he has delivered that same fear to his enemies in a bold and undeniable statement: That which has made me will unmake all of you. Gotham itself has fallen into the cave, and now must behold what it fears: there are no shadows dark enough in which to hide. There is no night long enough in which to escape. Batman’s time has begun, and at last, there will be justice.