Batman Begins
(Pre-review feature written May 10, 2005 by James Dawson; my review of the movie follows this short article)

I am so sick and tired of hearing a certain erroneous bit of "Batman Begins" pre-publicity nonsense that has been repeated endlessly in the media that I had to set the record straight.

Despite what frequently has been said in interviews with the creators of "Batman Begins," the movie absolutely will NOT mark the first time that anyone has covered the period between the murder of Bruce Wayne's parents and Wayne's first adventure as the costumed crimefighter.

Understand first of all that I don't claim to be any sort of fanatic expert on the character. I have bought Batman comics on-and-off during my four decades as a comics geek, but there have been hundreds (possibly thousands) of Batman yarns I've missed. For all I know, dozens of "lost years" stories may have appeared in Batman's 66-year history -- but one example is enough to make the point:

A three-issue storyline called "Blind Justice" appears in issues 598-600 of Detective Comics, published way back in 1989. Bruce Wayne is framed as a traitor. Government agents who have looked deep into his background say, "We're going to need a convincing explanation of what you were doing all those years you spent overseas." It turns out that Wayne was training with a martial-arts master named Chu Chin Li for part of that time, which Wayne explains by saying, "You know how it is. College kids, eastern mysticism...people go through silly phases." The pre-Batman Wayne then traveled to Korea, Thailand and the Philippines before training with a badass Yakuza named Tsunetomo. Later, he trained in Paris and elsewhere for six weeks as an apprentice detective to an Interpol-associated troubleshooter named Henri Ducard. All before he put on the cape and cowl.

It's bad enough that Warner Bros., a sister company of "Batman" publisher DC Comics, lets media writers continue believing that "Batman Begins" will chronicle a time period that no writer has touched.

Know what's even worse? The writer of those comics I mentioned is one Sam Hamm...who is perhaps best known as the co-screenwriter of (you're gonna love this, folks) Tim Burton's 1989 "Batman" movie, where he also got a "story by" credit. And whaddaya know? Hamm got a co-story credit on Burton's "Batman Returns" sequel, too.

People sure have short memories in Hollywood, huh?

...and here is the movie review:

Batman Begins

(Reviewed June 2, 2005, by James Dawson)

Like the new "Star Wars" episode, the fact that this "Batman" is better than its two most recent predecessors doesn't mean that it is good. It only means it's not total crap.

Two-thirds crap, maybe. But not total.

The first hour (of nearly two-and-a-half) is infuriatingly, tediously unnecessary, not to mention inappropriate. This is the "how Bruce Wayne became Batman" bit that is intended to reboot the franchise, clearing away all of the tongue-in-cheek Tim Burton weirdness and the flamboyant Joel Schumacher camp with what is supposed to be more real-world grit.

Unfortunately, the Bat-backstory supplied here is a misbegotten mess of martial-arts mumbo-jumbo mysticism that seems very much at odds with the concept of a vigilante detective who was motivated to hate crime for the simple reason that a criminal killed his parents.

Instead, what we get in "Batman Begins" is a scruffy, disillusioned, college-age Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) who goes underground as a thieving (!) bum, ends up in an Asian prison where he pummels fellow inmates as therapy, and later learns chop-socky and sword-clangy at a mountaintop finishing school for ninjas. This goes on so endlessly long that even the most patient and genteel moviegoer will be motivated to yell at the screen, "Put on the damned costume, already!"

When Wayne finally returns to Gotham City, he acquires the Bat-outfit and Bat-goodies to make a stab at cleaning up that corrupt and crime-ridden urban hellhole. His support team consists of his butler Alfred (well played by Michael Caine) and Wayne Enterprises armaments specialist Lucius Fox (the always enjoyable Morgan Freeman). Batman's only ally on the police force is Sgt. (not yet Commissioner) Gordon, played with surprising restraint by Gary Oldman. Rachel Dawes, Wayne's childhood friend who is now on the city prosecutor's staff, is the horrendously miscast Katie Holmes. She simply doesn't have the chops to hang with the other members of this crowd -- who may be slumming, but who are considerably better at pretending they don't know it.

Christian Bale is adequate as Bruce Wayne/Batman, which is more than could be said for Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer or George Clooney. He's certainly the best actor of that lot, which helps him do a better job of pulling off the darkly troubled stud persona. His exposed jaw doesn't look very menacing when he's in the suit -- it looks oddly flabby, actually -- but just about anyone would have trouble looking cool in a cowl.

Cillian Murphy is the surprising standout, acting-wise, as a criminal psychiatrist in both senses of the term. He manages to look like an Abercrombie & Fitch model, yet one who seems very coldly creepy. Not that those are mutually exclusive qualities.

Even with all of that casting firepower, "Batman Begins" has a very hard time overcoming a leaden script (by director Christopher Nolan and co-screenwriter David S. Goyer) that is so fundamentally uninteresting its action beats seem grafted on from a different movie. Yes, there is a great car chase involving the very bizarre-looking, Humvee-from-another-dimension new Batmobile. (Don't bother wondering how this monstrosity made it into the city without anybody taking note, in order to be there at the right time for Batman to make a hasty getaway.) And there's a speeding monorail scene that looks very derivative but much cheesier than a runaway subway car scene in "Spider-Man 2." And some of the hallucinogenic-fear effects look good when the villain known as the Scarecrow is scaring the bejesus out of his victims.

But when your basic subject matter is inherently ridiculous -- a vigilante billionaire in a batsuit who refuses to use guns that would end every conflict much, much sooner -- your movie either has to be a lot more violently psychotic, a lot more intriguingly stylish or a lot more enjoyably goofy.

But one thing it can't be is boring.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

To see my reviews of Christopher Nolan's
other two Batman movies, use the links below:

"The Dark Knight" (2008)
"The Dark Knight Rises" (2012)