Call me a crazy contrarian, but I say Memento director Christopher Nolan's new Batman movie is very nearly as good as Tim Burton's legendary 1989 Batman and better than his 1992 Batman Returns. Even Burton fanatics who hate Batman Begins (which opens Wednesday, June 8, at Pacific Place and other theaters) will grant it's an infinite improvement over the middle two vapid, increasingly ghastly non-Burton travesties it follows. Co-writer David S. Goyer (Dark City) jolts the necrotic Bat- franchise back to life in Batman Begins. As the batty man and his dadlike valet, American Psycho's Christian Bale and Michael Caine duo well, too. The key: a knotty, logical plot that takes comics seriously.
But Burton purists will sneer and snipe something like this: "You four-eyed philistine! Can't you see that needle-nosed Christian Bale is no match for iron-jawed Michael Keaton as the Caped Crusader? And that villain! Cillian Murphy as a Hannibal Lecter wanna-be called the Scarecrow—you dare to compare that pipsqueak with Jack Nicholson's Joker? And Gotham City looks like Anton Furst's 1989 version, only without any of the neo-deco nightmare gravitas."
They have a point, but only up to a point. Yes, we do feel we already know our way around this Gotham, and it does resemble Furst's—just as Furst's was derivative of Metropolis, Blade Runner, film noir, and DC Comics. The point of Burton's movie was to subvert comic-book-movie convention, so the startling new look was needed. This new film respects Batman tradition with its visual continuity. Its real franchise departure is the plotting—never a strength of Burton's.
Nolan and Goyer are more concerned with story than spectacle, so their spectacles—less frequent than Burton's—have more sustained impact. The Scarecrow doesn't loom as large as the Joker precisely so that one character doesn't upstage everyone else (sorry, Jack). Peering prissily through mad-scientist specs with ice-blue eyes, Murphy (28 Days Later) is quite effectively creepy; then he dons his Scarecrow mask and sows civic havoc with "weaponized" hallucinatory powder—sarin meets LSD.
Better still, Bale is the finest actor ever to wear the Bat-suit. (Keaton's performance amounted to faux heroic poses, a clenched jaw, and a few muttered lines; George Clooney has a champion chin, but he is to Batman as Timothy Dalton is to Bond.) Bale places Bruce Wayne in diverse psychological predicaments during his journey from rich kid to Batman, rounding out the role. As the young scion of the Wayne industrial empire, he flees Gotham after witnessing a mugger murder his parents. He falls in with criminals in the Far East, lands in jail, and gets sprung by a Zen master/martial artist named Ducard (Liam Neeson, who comes off like Master Po on Kung Fu or a much taller Yoda).
Only after tapping into the occult powers of Ducard's vigilante group, the League of Shadows, does Wayne return to save his hometown from mob boss Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), the MBA who's seized control of Wayne Enterprises (Rutger Hauer), and—somehow mixed up with the scum at the top of Gotham— the Scarecrow.
Bale is by turns callow, terrified, yearning, downtrodden, bold, and triumphant, but always convincing and absorbing. When required to squire two supermodels inclined to interrupt stuffy society charity fetes by hopping nude into fountains, this Bruce Wayne seems to find it fun. Prior Bruce Waynes have always had to pose as flighty playboys—glumly and under protest. (No more champagne for me, girls, it's a Bat-night.)
Batman Begins restores what past movies have lost, the hero's humble essence: He's a regular man, not a superman. His only powers involve gizmos, smarts, infinite wealth, and good character. The Burton Batman—perhaps like his creator—seemed to disdain the world in favor of his darkly imagined self-reinvention. Nolan's Batman has a more realistic and concrete moral ambition. And mortality. This Batman can soar between skyscrapers on ingenious inflatable bat wings, but he can also fall and die, trampled in an alley by Scarecrow-crazed zombies.
Nolan's plot about the weaponized- LSD dudes is too complex to sum up. But incredibly for an action film, it's credible—a clockwork that actually works. There's logic behind every lovely chase and explosion. Michael Caine is the best Bat-butler Alfred ever, sparklingly witty, palpably paternal. In his too-brief scenes, Morgan Freeman doles out the Bat-accoutrements (including a roadsterized Humvee Batmobile) like Q in the Bond movies. As the future Commissioner Gordon, Gary Oldman is almost unrecognizable behind his mustache, but there's no hiding his talent.
Not everything works perfectly, however. Katie Holmes' alluringly asymmetric doe eyes don't redeem her superfluous role as Bruce's sexless affectionate childhood sweetheart–turned–assistant DA. And though his droning-galoot persona was perfect for Schindler and Kinsey, Neeson just comes off like a drone here—especially with the excessive and tedious Zen exposition. The fight scenes are also shot too tight and fluttery for my taste—they remind me of Richard Gere's soft-shoe in Chicago. (Don't show his feet! Don't show his feet!)
Though I like the film, I'm afraid that Burton's cartoon tableaux will have more staying power than Nolan's marvelously coherent integrity. In the sort of contest we used to argue about at Ridgecrest Elementary, Burton's Batman could probably lick Nolan's Batman Begins. But in a fight between Nolan's Batman and Burton's, I know who'd kick whose cape-draped ass.