For die-hard Batman aficionados, "Batman Begins" will be a near-religious experience -- the Batman film that never was, but always should have been. This is, for all intents and purposes, the closest that any adapted incarnation of the Caped Crusader myth has come to the late Bob Kane's original creation since its inception in 1939. That isn't to say that those other versions -- the 1949 serial, the camp '60s television series, the Burton/Schumacher films and countless animated series -- won't continue to have their admirers. Nor is it meant to imply that the new film doesn't have the unmistakable fingerprints of director Nolan ("Memento") and his co-writer, David S. Goyer ("Blade," "Dark City"), all over it. But the underlying vision, the deepest, darkest psychological underpinnings of the tale and its oppressively anguished protagonist, are pure Kane, so to speak.
Burton, for his part, set the tempo for the previous run of films when he elected to leave Batman in the shadows, both literally and figuratively, while casting a spotlight on Jack Nicholson's Joker. Subsequent films continued this approach, sidestepping questions of Bruce Wayne's psychology to provide audiences a veritable showcase for ever-increasing numbers of offbeat villains and the celebrities signed to play them.
As its title suggests, "Batman Begins" represents both a course-reversal and a rebirth as Nolan delivers the first-ever Batman film in which Batman, rather than his nemeses, commands center stage. Taking audiences all the way back to the beginning, Nolan opens with a haggard and defiant Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) causing trouble in a remote Chinese labor camp. There, after years of anonymously wandering the world in search of personal redemption, he is discovered by a mysterious figure named Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), who secures his release and offers him membership in an ancient brotherhood of vigilantes, provided that he can make his way to their mountain retreat and endure the rigors of their training. What Wayne most needs, of course, is not so much expertise in the martial arts as to come to grips with the anger and guilt that has racked him ever since, as a young boy, he witnessed his parents murdered in cold blood. Using flashbacks to relate that and other seminal incidents from Wayne's childhood, Nolan gives viewers a powerful backdrop with which to better understand the adult Wayne's almost debilitating angst. And while Wayne and his would-be colleagues do not eventually part on good terms, he emerges from the experience markedly changed -- physically empowered and mentally focused, though no less obsessive in his determination to rid the world of evil. But no longer will he run from his past -- Gotham City, the once great metropolis that his philanthropic father helped build, has deteriorated into a cesspool of underworld activity. If he is to begin his campaign against the forces of darkness, and with it his quest to rescue himself from his own past, he will have to do so by returning home.
There's no question that "Batman Begins" takes enormous risks with this particular approach -- bucking convention and defying the paradigm by which comic book adaptations are expected to abide, Nolan spends a solid hour on Wayne's transition from guilt-ridden runaway youth to terrifying crime-fighter, denying audiences a satisfactory glimpse of the Batman almost until the film's half-way mark. It's a commanding, dramatic preamble brought into full power by a fierce performance from Bale that audiences might easily read for a tease if not for the fact that the story it tells is so singularly engrossing. If there are analogies to be drawn, they are literary ones -- "Lord Jim" and "The Razor's Edge" rather than "Spider-Man" or "X-Men" -- underscoring the welcome European seriousness with which the British-born Nolan and his mostly Irish/English cast have refashioned this uniquely American icon.
In the film's second half, Nolan dedicates himself to paying off the promises of the first while answering age-old questions about the Batman and his origins. Here he reveals, in extensive and credible detail, how and why Wayne assumes his fearsome alter-ego and its familiar accouterments. Assorted figures from Wayne's past return to play a part, too -- his lifelong friend and faithful family butler, Alfred (Michael Caine), childhood friend Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) and a certain police office, Sgt. Gordon (Gary Oldman), seemingly several years and at least one movie away from becoming Commissioner. New to the team, but no less vital, is a brilliant inventor named Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), plucked from obscurity in the research basement of Wayne Enterprises to bring to life all the technical and scientific wizardry that a Wayne fortune can buy.
As to the precise nature of the evil infecting Gotham, Nolan is more evasive and circumspect. Seeds are planted for the future emergence of at least one super-villain from the original comic -- Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) -- but at no point does Nolan allow the audience to view Batman's struggle as some kind of grudge-match. The real fight here, and perhaps the only one that matters, is Wayne's battle to conquer his own weakness and fear. It's the very essence of what Batman has always been, and why he, more than any other comic book superhero, speaks so strongly to what it means to be human. Starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Katie Holmes, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson and Rutger Hauer. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Written by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer. Produced by Charles Rovan, Emma Thomas and Larry J. Franco. A Warner Bros. release. Action/Drama. Rated PG-13 for intense action violence, disturbing images and some thematic elements. Running time: 141 min