A retrospective essay
An Honest Look at the Film That Reinvented the Superhero Genre
When Batman Begins came to home media in October of 2005, my mother insisted on renting the VHS instead of the DVD. My household still very much had a VCR attached to every TV at that time, if you could believe it. I’ll never forget having to turn the volume up all the way to hear dialogue and almost all the way back down when the action happened. At ten years old I didn’t understand what sound mixing was, but I blamed it on our dinosaur VCR and just knew watching it on DVD would have been the right move. I will never forget my mom drifting in and out of sleep the whole time, asking me what was happening every time she woke up. Usually I’d get annoyed by this, but that time I couldn’t blame her. I too, was absolutely bored out of my mind. Flash forward to 2020 where I willingly streamed Christopher’s fourth born on Hulu and came to find it had the same issues with the sound mixing, but was now able to see Nolan’s first outing with the caped crusader with a fresh take.
In the last decade, we have seen a surge of superhero origin stories from both DC and Marvel studios including Iron Man, Wonder Woman, Superman, Captain Marvel, Hulk, etc. While these films are often lighthearted, they are still rooted in a grim reality to some extent. In earlier superhero films of the 90s/00s, like Batman, Batman Returns, and Batman and Robin, they are more on the kiddy comical side of the spectrum, even with the tales of woe attached to them. I’m not sure if anyone was prepared for Chris Nolan’s 2005 release of Batman Begins. It was dark, dramatic, gritty, and slow paced, making it unlike any superhero film before it. It set a different tone than superhero movies before it, and created a new formula for the likes of Marvel and even Nolan himself to improve on over time. Not to mention it had one of the most memorable scores of all time. Despite my foggy memory of that year, I clearly recall conversations at family parties and at school where folks seemed generally underwhelmed by Begins. With two very high grossing sequels, it’s not easy to watch this movie in 2020 and see it as anything other than a relic of it’s time. For as groundbreaking as it may have been in terms of tone, Batman Begins still can’t shake its early 2000s growing pains. However, because of this film we got the award winning and critically acclaimed sequel The Dark Knight and the final installment The Dark Knight Rises.
What sets Batman Begins apart from the other versions before it, is that we only know Batman’s past to a limited extent, which is his parent’s demise outside of the opera house (*queue the flying pearl necklace*). It’s the very sad start to the Batman tale that we have seen countless times through the years. Batman Begins was the first time we got a real glimpse into Bruce Wayne’s childhood, including his relationship with longtime friend Rachel Dawes. Nolan made the creative choice of framing much of Bruce’s fears around bats. This, along with Gotham’s growing crime rates on top of the need to avenge his parents death as a means to becoming Batman. It's a full fledged drama, something that the films before it lacked, with the occasional joke either through the dialogue or direction. Watching the film through a more contemporary perspective, you’ll notice a moment in the middle of the film where Alfred is putting a sleeping Rachel in his car and has her positioned in an unintentionally perverted way as Wayne manor employees watch from a distance, only slightly concerned. We know he is helping her after she had been drugged, but the workers don’t. It’s one of those scenes that makes the film feel extremely outdated and reminds us it truly is a product of its time. In the 2000s, we were used to that raunchy humor wherever it showed up and no one thought of it as anything. If a joke like that were to be made now, midst Me Too, I don’t think it would fly. It’s not to say Nolan isn’t funny, that was just the sort of thing that would get laughs from audiences, as sad as it is to admit.
The most notable thing from this re-watch is Lucius Fox’s treatment at Wayne Enterprises. He is completely the brains behind Batman’s physical capabilities and he gets literally no thanks, ever. Not to mention he is the only black employee that works in the basement, away from everyone else. Later on when he is fired, Bruce works his rich man magic and hires him back with a better position. Understanding what I do now about film, it comes off as a white savior dynamic. It’s really nice of Bruce to save his job, but no way would Bruce let go of the smartest guy he’s ever met that easily when it directly benefits him. We can argue all day that Bruce is being a good guy here, but when you have someone who your heroic alter ego can’t physically function without, you’re going to do everything you can to make sure they don’t leave. Throughout the next two films, it’s the same thing. Bruce even admits at one point in TDKR that he needs Fox because Batman isn’t “powerful” without his help, or rather, his expertise. Without Alfred, Bruce is nothing. Without Fox, Batman is nothing.
Batman Begins is in no way a perfect film, no matter how much people want to argue, but it was Nolan’s first film that really put a patent on his directing style of witty dramatics and cutting edge pacing. It put him on the map and gained much respect from the industry and most importantly audiences. It was groundbreaking for its time, but certainly not ahead of its time.