Asledgehammer-subtle reworking of Batman's "origin" story, Batman Begins is industrial strength, from the props to the sound. It'll clear the wax out of your ears, but it won't deliver anything piquant to your brain. At a solemn 140 minutes, it tests your tailbone more often than it tickles your funny bone.
Director Christopher Nolan, the accomplished yet sober-sided young director who caused an (undeserved) sensation with his jigsaw-puzzle cult thriller Memento (2001), adopts a new motto for his pre-sold blockbuster: "We will leave no viewer behind."
From the moment Bruce Wayne as a child falls into a dry well filled with bats, Nolan betrays a heavy foot as he lays down each step in the creation of this self-made superhero. Tim Burton's Batman (1989) was all pop-poetic suggestion, including Danny Elfman's sexy-ominous score. Although it juggles with chronology, Batman Begins is obvious from the get-go - and almost no fun.
Once again, young Wayne sees his parents murdered in a Gotham City alleyway. But this time, the moviemakers load the event with social and philosophic weight - dead weight. Wayne's father is a do-gooder who leaves his mammoth business interests to the officers of Wayne Enterprises and concentrates on saving a depressed Gotham City through philanthropic projects, like a clean, efficient public train system. His death traumatizes Bruce and catalyzes a crisis of conscience both in his son and in his city. When Bruce grows into a strapping young man (Christian Bale), the key question of his life becomes whether vengeance ever equals justice.
What ensues is one of those hero's journeys so beloved of post-Star Wars Hollywood. It lands Wayne in the Asian underworld, a Bhutanese prison and then in the Himalayan headquarters of Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) and his right-hand man, Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), leaders of a vigilante group called the League of Shadows. There Wayne perfects his martial-artistry and embraces his primal fears in order to overcome them. He also absorbs the lesson that a myth is more powerful than a man. Then, like every Joseph Campbell hero, he returns home to share the fruits of his wisdom. He prepares to rid Gotham of evil and corruption and to do it justly, not viciously - single-handedly, if need be.
Of course, that need doesn't arise. As Wayne envisions Batman's look, m.o. and arsenal, he acquires the usual allies, including Alfred the butler (Michael Caine) and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), here still a police lieutenant. There's also genius engineer Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), who comes up with armor, weaponry and wheels (a military Batmobile), and a brand-new character, Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), the daughter of the Wayne family's housekeeper - and Bruce's childhood sweetheart, who grows into a crusading assistant D.A. and the hero's conscience.
After strong performances in Wonder Boys and Pieces of April, Holmes proves to be virtually weightless in this movie; her powerhouse slaps are powder-puffs that win bad laughs. But it isn't merely Holmes' fault that this film has none of the '89 Batman's romantic lift. The screenwriter for that film, Sam Hamm, got at the weird disconnections of a playboy putting on a cowl without getting too literal about it. (He also had the wit to parallel the evolution of Batman and his arch-villain, The Joker.) And he portrayed Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) as a real love interest, not a gender-switched, highfalutin' Jiminy Cricket.
Holmes' Dawes isn't just the girl-next-door: She's the girl downstairs. And when Bale's Batman whizzes her away from danger, ratcheting from rooftop to rooftop in his mini-tank of a Batmobile, she's just a damsel in distress; there's none of the erotic electricity of Michael Keaton's tense, hyper-aware Batman zooming through an enchanted forest with Basinger's dazed and dazzled Vale.
Caine and Freeman earn their paychecks with their polish; the glint they put on their lines can pass for humor. But when the story kicks in not even their glitter can camouflage its Lego-block construction. There's not enough size to Wayne's antagonists, such as the rapacious head of Wayne Enterprises (Rutger Hauer at his most unctuous), a crime boss named Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) and a slimy psychologist, Dr. Jonathan Crane (the perhaps too-creepy Cillian Murphy), who becomes a super-villain named the Scarecrow, donning a burlap hood and spraying mind-altering gas in a victim's face.
Is it a feat that the parts do fit together? Not when you can see the filmmakers sweat to make them dovetail; not when the plodding craftsmanship comes at the expense of exuberance and spontaneity. Nolan fails to bring grace or sweep to the action; he stages and edits it too tightly. It's punchy, all right, but not pleasurable.
This movie will give core fans what they want: It rids the series of the camp that tainted Joel Schumacher's garish, inept Batman and Robin and Batman Forever. But it wastes Bale, a potentially great Batman. He's wonderful at creating a daft Bruce Wayne persona, sashaying into a swank hotel restaurant with a bimbo on each arm. But as Batman he makes the mistake of assuming a raspy voice that sounds electronically altered and metallic, as if Wayne had installed Darth Vader's larynx.
The filmmakers fail to dramatize Batman's one innate super-power - his intelligence. Generations of kids who played with chemistry sets thought of Batman mixing vials and testing new compounds in his laboratory. In Batman Begins, Wayne simply exploits Fox's mechanical, chemical and general intellectual expertise, made credible only because Morgan Freeman plays him. Wayne's man in Wayne Enterprises, Fox becomes the private-sector equivalent of James Bond's gadget-master Q. For all its idealistic, anti-corporate talk, this movie gives us a Batman for the Age of Trump.
Starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Time 140 minutes
Sun Score ** (2 stars)