It’s not an exaggeration to say that we’re living in a golden age of comic book adaptations. With so many of them being made and released at an unprecedented rate, we’ve come to take them for granted in the pop culture landscape. One of the movies that was fundamental in forming this phenomenon is Batman Begins.
When Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece came out, superhero movies were already quite big. But most potential comic book properties were considered too risky, and therefore, the ones we had were few and far in between. And a lot of the time, they didn’t necessarily live up to expectations. Seeing Captain America and Thor hanging out on the same silver screen was still a nerd pipe dream. And even Batman, one of the most popular superheroes of all time, was in a complicated spot. Batman & Robin was (unfairly) maligned for going back to Batman’s Silver Age sensibilities in an era when the character was starting to be taken seriously by general audiences. If the Caped Crusader was to gain a newfound momentum, he needed a radical approach. Of course, Christopher Nolan was the man for the job, and he revitalized Batman with a vision that, in the long run, would serve as an inspiration for other properties.
Now that Batman is turning 80 years old, it’s worth taking a look at the ways Batman Begins remains a relevant landmark for commercial filmmaking.
The key premise of Batman Begins is to take a deep dive into what makes Batman who he is. We all want to see Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale, giving a career-best performance) wear the cowl to deliver justice. But Nolan understood that before getting to that point, it’s fundamental to take your time to explore every why in the equation. Nolan and writer David S. Goyer found an efficient way to distribute all these aspects in a way that the slower character-focused scenes delivered as much propulsion as the action sequences.
The first act is dedicated to knowing Bruce Wayne as a human being. How the murder of his parents, the corruption in Gotham City, and his depression motivated him to fight crime, and change the lives of others (as well as his own) for the better. We get to see in great detail how he acquired the practical knowledge and philosophical worldview that would shape him as Gotham’s guardian.
The second act is about establishing Batman’s iconography. How he came up with the disguise, the gadgets, the Batmobile, and other elements that make him a pop culture legend. Every piece of imagery is deeply rooted in character and none of it exists in a vacuum. The Bat costume is meant to intimidate criminals, the gadgets are an extension of Batman’s contempt for firearms, and his actions as a detective not only push the plot forward, they’re a way in which he (and we) gets to know his city and himself a little better.
The third act is more plot driven and fast paced, and it’s mostly focused on taking down the villains with full force. However, all the character elements built throughout the film take their ultimate thematic shape, providing a cathartic conclusion. It also shows how the newly formed hero becomes a legend in the eyes of the people he protects.
This formula has proven rather useful for writing origin stories, including some in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Steve Rogers we follow in Captain America: The First Avenger has very similar dynamics to Bruce. The first act is about Steve living in a world that treats him like trash, but still gathering the courage to fight for it anyway. A few defining scenes take place in isolated alleys. There’s a training montage highlighting the importance of achieving physical and mental prowess. Steve has a loyal lifelong friend who lifts him up when things go sour, a romantic interest who wants to change a corrupt system from the inside, and a mentor figure that helps him to discover the best parts of his potential. A good portion of Doctor Strange is about its titular character leaving his life of privilege behind to learn new skills in a remote part of the world. And the way Tony Stark acquires inspiration for his Iron Man armor in his workshop is very reminiscent of how Bruce comes up with ideas for his Batman costume in the Batcave, especially when it comes to picking the colors.
A Grounded Tone to Start Fresh
Even though Batman Begins wears its comic book roots on its sleeve, Nolan directed the movie in such a way that a concept as far fetched as Batman can come off as somewhat realistic, or at least plausible. When Bruce or Commissioner Gordon roam the streets, you feel their stink and danger. Batman’s gear and look are modeled after military special forces, and the Batmobile’s design prioritizes practicality over the flashy look we know from the comics.
Batman Begins treats its titular character with dignity and respect, but that doesn’t mean it sacrifices fun in the process. Nolan infused Batman with an atmosphere that instantly conveyed him, and his world, as subjects of darkness and thrill. However, there’s also a deliciously dry sense of humor, which is critical for portraying Bruce Wayne as a snarky billionaire playboy. And most importantly, an unabashedly earnest heart where everything comes together.
Similar to Batman, James Bond was in a rough spot in the middle of the 2000s. Die Another Day was an overblown parade of badly rendered CGI, sophomoric humor and trite plotting that left people thinking maybe Bond’s best days were already behind him. After witnessing how Batman Begins successfully reintroduced a character who was assumed to be cinematically dead, Martin Campbell (who already had experience reviving Bond in Goldeneye), took the aesthetic and tonal elements that made Batman Begins sing and incorporated them into Daniel Craig’s debut as the British spy.
Casino Royale takes place in a very recognizable post-9/11 world. The beautiful locales are still there, but the film is not afraid to get dirty and bloody when it’s called for. Similar to the rough around the edges Batman we see in Begins, the damage Bond takes in Casino Royale feels like a tangible threat to the protagonist, so he needs to catch his breath every now and then.
Given the nature of the setting, Casino Royale went even further than Batman Begins when it came to embracing the “realistic” vibe. Unlike most of his previous movies, Bond has no fancy gadgets, and his Aston Martin doesn’t include any weaponry. The way both Christian Bale and Daniel Craig fight marks a drastic departure from the combat seen in their characters’ previous cinematic versions. It’s another trait based on real military tactics that helps the protagonists and their worlds feel authentic.
Batman Begins and Casino Royale are both origin stories that tackle delicate emotional subjects in a way that’s simultaneously uncompromising and digestible for a blockbuster audience. Their two protagonists suffer like hell to save lives and shield their vulnerabilities within a dark persona. And it is in this last factor where the hearts of the movies lie. These men don’t hold themselves back when it comes to inflicting violence and fear, but they’re also desperately trying to make up for something lost in their personal lives. It’s what makes them very human and relatable, despite the inherent power fantasy element that comes in their premises.
Keeping up with the classic 007 tradition, the Daniel Craig era adopted other influences; more specifically, the Bourne trilogy, Batman Begins’ sequel The Dark Knight and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But at the end of the day, Casino Royale taking inspiration from Batman Begins is what set the tone for the following films, paving the way for their subsequent success.
The Fear Factor
Batman Begins’ central theme is fear. Bruce Wayne’s arc is about learning that your fears are not to be defeated, but to be embraced as a part of your life that helps you to persist and become stronger. Ever since, there have been several instances where fear may not be as prominent, thematically speaking, but it’s still a fundamental characteristic in their protagonists’ growth.
A recurring development for Matt Murdock in the Daredevil Netflix series is his crisis of faith. Like Bruce, the way Matt copes with his trauma is by intimidating and inflicting violence on others. And even though he likes it (a little too much, in fact), his vigilante lifestyle is at odds with his Catholic beliefs. Matt lives perpetually afraid of letting his worst instincts take control of his emotions and compromising his work as a lawyer. Just like Bruce had Alfred to vent his weaknesses, Matt counted on the help of Father Lantom to come to terms with his own.
When TOMB RAIDER was rebooted in 2013, Lara’s main motivation was the fear of losing her life or living eternally stranded in the cursed island Yamatai. It’s said fear which molds her into a survivor, improvising guerrilla and stealth tactics to get the upper hand over her enemies, mirroring how Batman’s urban warfare methods are built on his own life’s tragedies.
Other characters previously mentioned are also defined by fear to some capacity. James Bond is terrified when he’s being tortured by Le Chiffre and when the Miami airplane is about to be destroyed. Tony Stark is perpetually haunted by his PTSD after being held prisoner in a cave and being almost trapped in space in The Avengers. Steve Rogers is afraid of ending up alone in a world that has moved on without him. And Stephen Strange is scared by the idea of never being able to perform surgeries again. Other examples within the MCU include Thor not knowing what to do when he eventually becomes King of Asgard, and T’Challa not wanting to expose Wakanda to the outside world in Black Panther.
In all of these cases, fear is an element that unveils the characters’ most prominent vulnerabilities, but also, leads them to evolve into the best possible versions of themselves. Because fear can feel awful in the moment, but once you fully digest its implications, you also realize it’s a defense mechanism to help us endure in a world that constantly looks to wear us down.
Batman Begins wants us to know that it’s okay to be scared. Fear can be a paralyzer, just as it can be the necessary push to get us where we need to be.
To this day, Batman Begins’ genius continues to serve, not only as the golden standard for how to make a Batman movie, but for constructing long journeys of self-discovery in an economic fashion. It’s not afraid to leave urgency and high stakes on pause to make its protagonist just as compelling when he’s meditating on the direction of his life as when he is donning a costume to terrorize those who prey on the innocent.
Begins’ bold direction paid off in spades, inspiring other filmmakers to take chances on characters that weren’t as popular as Batman by following in its narrative footsteps.
Christopher Nolan understood that coloring a movie with details that feel relatable for the audience helps them to become immersed in the conflict of your protagonist and the place they call home. And even so, the over the top elements from the source material can coexist in a successful communion.
Batman Begins is a powerful reminder that even if life is full of despair and bleakness, we can always rely on our inner strength, as well as the trust we put in those close to us, to pick ourselves back up after falling down.