Shake off those cobwebs. There's a new Batman in town, and he's younger, fiercer and klutzier than before. What do you want from a rookie? The Caped Crusader that Christian Bale plays so potently in Batman Begins is still working out the kinks. He nearly gives himself a wedgie scaling a building in a self-designed Batsuit that weighs a stylish ton. Director Christopher Nolan, who wrote the script with David Goyer, shows us a Batman caught in the act of inventing himself. Nolan is caught, too, in the act of deconstructing the Batman myth while still delivering the dazzle to justify a $150 million budget. It's schizo entertainment. But credit Nolan for trying to do the impossible in a summer epic: take us somewhere we haven't been before.
This stripped-down prequel grounds the story in reality. If Tim Burton lifted the DC Comics franchise to gothic splendor and Joel Schumacher buried it in campy overkill (a Batsuit with nipples), then Nolan — the mind-teasing whiz behind Memento and Insomnia — gets credit for resurrecting Batman as Bruce Wayne, a screwed-up rich kid with no clue about how to avenge the murders of his parents.
Batman Begins answers a long-standing question about Bruce the tycoon playboy — a Paris Hilton with balls as previously played by Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney — by showing us what he was doing before he put on his Bat drag, accessorized with lethal toys and learned to kill like a vigilante.
If you expect Batman to flap his cape the second you sit down with your popcorn, snap out of it. Nolan wants us to know the real Bruce. At age eight, Master Wayne (Gus Lewis) falls into a well filled with bats and freaks out. The bats represent his deepest fear. Bruce later dumps Princeton and his virginal Rachel (Katie Holmes — OK, Tom Cruise, t raving) and heads for the Himalayas to toughen up. He's tossed into prison and is rescued by Ducard (Liam Neeson, with a funny accent), who ninja-trains him. Ducard is a member of the League of Shadows, led by evil genius Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe).
Seven years pass, and Bruce is still Bruce. Back in Gotham, he learns from the family butler, Alfred (Michael Caine purrs with warmth and humor), that he's been declared dead and that the CEO (Rutger Hauer) has taken over Wayne Enterprises. To get it back, Bruce teams up with Lucius Fox (a wily Morgan Freeman), a company scientist who specializes in military body armor (think Batsuit) and designs a car that looks like a tank (think Batmobile). That's when Bruce asks Lucius if the car comes in black. Fans can now feel free to go batty.
The buildup is steadily engrossing. That's because Nolan keeps the emphasis on character, not gadgets. Gotham looks lived in, not art-directed. And Bale, calling on our movie memories of him as a wounded child (Empire of the Sun) and an adult menace (American Psycho), creates a vulnerable hero of flesh, blood and haunted fire. Bruce's blood may be too hot for Rachel, now an assistant DA. She fumes when Bruce frolics with seminaked models. Look, honey, a secret identity takes work.
The Bat earns his wings soon enough. He enlists an honest cop, soon-to-be commissioner Gordon (a goodie Gary Oldman — huh?) to help him rid Gotham of Carmine Falcone (overhammed by Tom Wilkinson), a crime lord with connections to the Waynes' murders. Like any movie with a surfeit of villains, none of them stick. Cillian Murphy comes closest as Dr. Jonathan Crane, a skinny shrink they call Scarecrow when he puts a burlap bag on his head. Each person sees his own worst fears come to life when they gaze at the bag. The low-budget headgear is typical of a movie that succeeds best when it hews to the rule of less is more. Beginner's luck evaporates when Nolan ends with a tricked-out car chase and a doomsday plot about a poisoned water supply. Nolan's too good for Bat business as usual. His secret for making Batman fly is as basic as black: Keep it real.