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Batman Begins is a batastrophic success.

Where to Begin?

Except for lack of DTS, the DVD is a batastrophic success
Except for lack of DTS, the DVD is a batastrophic success

When British director Christopher Nolan (Memento) set out to make a new Batman movie he faced countless choices and possibilities. Across the board, the man chose wisely.

Since the Batman and Robin fiasco of 1997, many of Hollywood’s primetime players were linked with a new Batman project. For a myriad of reasons, different takes on Frank Miller’s Year One graphic novel were dropped, as was a Batman/Superman tag team project. At one point, even the Wachowski brothers were set to make a Batflick before they turned their attention to their Matrix sequels.

Bless the bat heavens, then, that Nolan scrapped all the previous cinematic attempts and started fresh, from the beginning, with a story that explains Bruce Wayne, Gotham, and the psychology of villainy in an oh-so-smart story that shuns all the typical comic book movie formulas.

Sure, the catalyst for why Bruce Wayne donned cape and cowl is well known: the cold-blooded murder of his parents in front of his 8-year-old eyes left him with his father’s wealth and Wayne Enterprises, so he was able to afford a vigilante lifestyle.

But why would a billionaire risk it all and adopt such a dangerous hobby? And how did he get to be so street smart? While Bruce Wayne can appreciate the risks of taking a much-beloved, privately-held company like Wayne Enterprises public, even he himself posits in Batman Begins, “a guy who dresses up like a bat clearly has issues.”

Yes. The man has issues, but he also has a backbone.

The Rest Is Easy

Gone from this version of Batman is the campiness of the Adam West TV series that was just under the surface of Tim Burton’s off-kilter camera angles and loony characterizations, and that returned with obnoxious grandiosity in Joel Schumacher’s editions. Also, there are no rock songs to accompany the action or the film’s marketing. No Prince, no Siouxsie and the Banshees, Seal, or U2. Instead, the score, by the dynamic duo of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, finds its voice, much like Bruce Wayne, through the course of the story.

Batman Begins also effectively opens up the bat-world, filming on location more than any of the Burton/Schumacher Batflicks. The dramatic benefit of filming in locations as diverse as Chicago and Iceland, in comparison to the stifled, predominately closed-set feel of the prior movies, cannot be overstated.

Having made those choices, Nolan also found the perfect man to tackle the movie’s globetrotting ambitions as well as the duality of Bruce Wayne in Welshman Christian Bale (The Machinist). Along with Michael Caine (The Quiet American) as Alfred Pennyworth and Gary Oldman (Immortal Beloved) as Sergeant James Gordon, this British invasion of stately Wayne Manor has unleashed a bloody good yarn.

Bruce’s vision quest, the following of his anti-bliss, takes him deep into Eastern mysticism. He learns to confront his fears rather than bury them. And his life’s work becomes, through sheer strength, technology, and the art of deception, the taking back of Gotham from the corrupt and ill to do.

As a tormented youngster, Bruce Wayne would struggle to find his place in the world. Princeton wasn’t cutting it for him. He had to find his own way, feeling responsible for the circumstances that brought forth his parents’ murder, this one guilt-ridden member of the upper crust would go on to study criminals and become one of them, feeling the adrenaline rush of his first theft.

Well, sort of. Is Bruce Wayne a crook if the stolen goods belong to Wayne Enterprises?

We All Fall Down

The Gotham City Dr. Thomas Wayne, Bruce’s father, left behind was suffering through its own Great Depression. With a Cinderella Man nowhere in sight, times were tough and the criminals joined forces to bring the police — and the good people of Gotham — down on their desperate knees.

Buoyed by an airtight story that ties all the Batmythology together in one taut thriller involving the multiple faces of terrorism, Batman Begins is elevated even higher by a stellar cast. As mentioned already, Bale delivers as the deeply conflicted Wayne.

The rest of the cast is just as good. Oldman, as the yet-to-be commissioner Gordon, is the one soul in the justice system Batman finds trustworthy. Oldman’s frumpy take on the character, ripped from Frank Miller’s Year One, is perfect, whether he’s commiserating with the Dark Knight while taking out the trash or plotting their next move in front of the brand new Batsignal.

Liam Neeson (Schindler’s List) breathes life into Henri Ducard, a warrior who may or may not be the best thing ever to happen to Gotham. And, in the steady hands of Morgan Freeman (Million Dollar Baby), Wayne Enterprises’ tech-savvy employee Lucius Fox becomes an equal for Bruce Wayne rather than just another minor character.

Rounding out the main players, Caine turns Alfred into a human being instead of a mere caricature, and Katie Holmes (Dawson’s Creek) turns in a fine performance as Rachel Dawes, one of Bruce’s childhood friends who’s trying to fight for right in Gotham’s viral justice system.

Thankfully, the badness of the bad guys in Batman Begins doesn’t rely on the wattage of the “special guest star” villains that ultimately destroyed the 1990s incarnation. Here, Tom Wilkinson and Cillian Murphy, who co-starred in Girl With a Pearl Earring, play it straight. Wilkinson’s Carmine Falcone is a classic, tough-tawkin’ crime lord while Murphy’s take on Dr. Jonathan Crane, a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum who harbors his own hidden agenda as the Scarecrow, is appropriately reserved and creepy.

Get Up, Stand Up

With its focus on the internal machinations of Bruce Wayne, this is the most un-comic book of all the comic book movies. Batman Begins plays more like a sensational thriller than an in-your-face summer special effects extravaganza. Here, the effects are put to use in service of the story and to help create a magnificent Gotham, which has the look and feel of Chicago by way of New York, London, and Shanghai.

The consequences of the characters’ actions, from the philanthropic efforts of the elder Wayne to the brash-but-benevolent adventures of his son, come full circle in surprising, but logical, ways.

As an added bonus, the production’s attention to detail is fantastic. The newly constructed, sleek elevated trains of Bruce’s childhood have, 20 years later, turned into a creaky, graffiti-riddled symbol of lost glory and innocence. Even the Batsignal is a sketchy, eerie image in the night sky, grounded in reality, but still able to conjure up a sense of iconic grandeur.

Amidst all the character development and action sequences, the film’s simple underlying theme of falling, failing, but getting back up again plays well in this grim fairy tale. Even though he falls hard and often, Batman is, undeniably, in the best shape of his historic career and more than ready to take on the new millennium.

DVD Extras

The technique of sending out multiple editions for the same movie is a silly practice and has been railed against ad nauseam. This goes double when Warner Bros. sets a $2 suggested retail price difference between the standard movie-only editions (one for widescreen and one for full frame) and the 2-disc deluxe edition (following the packaging concept of Warner’s Constantine, this edition comes complete with a paperback book featuring three Batman comics that inspired the movie). A couple of the major e-tailers, at least initially, are selling all three versions of Batman Begins at the same low, low price.

In the deluxe edition, Disc One includes the movie and trailer as well as the opening sketch from this year’s MTV Movie Awards. Entitled Tankman Begins, it proves the producers of Batman Begins do indeed have a sense of humor. But, even so, hopefully it will be the only time Batman, Jimmy Fallon, Andy Dick, and Napoleon Dynamite appear in the same sentence.

Both Discs One and Two include the same borderline worthless DVD-ROM content: A demo of the Batman Begins mobile phone game demo and the typical batch of Internet links.

DVD Extras, Disc Two

Disc Two takes a unique spin on things with the menus incorporated into comic book frames (in either English or French) depicting Batman’s first encounter with Scarecrow. While it does make for a more fully immersive and interactive presentation, navigating can be a bit cumbersome; while it’s easy to get to Point C, there’s not always a direct route back to Point B. In a case of obscure placement, a consolidated menu for most of the content is located on the final page of the comic book screens.

As for the content itself, the cumulative effect is a well-crafted look at the making of the movie, incorporating bits of Bat history while more or less glossing over the Burton/Schumacher epoch.

Perhaps the best moment is a simple bit of humor that comes during an interview with Bale. The man went down to a skeletal 120 pounds for filming The Machinist and skyrocketed up to 220 pounds in order to bulk up for Bruce Wayne. Unfortunately, much of it was the wrong kind of bulk and he would, as Bale recalls, get teased about whether he was making Fatman or Batman. The various featurettes cover all aspects of the production, starting with interviews with Nolan and collaborator David S. Goyer recollecting their script hashing sessions at a local diner (and, to maintain secrecy, eventually Warner execs would have to read the screenplay in Nolan’s garage).

Segments detailing the creation of the Bat costume, the Tumbler, stunts, set design, and Bruce Wayne’s previously untold history all serve their purpose: giving one a greater appreciation of the effort that went into reinventing the Batman. As a testament to the movie’s craftsmanship, unlike most blockbusters, it’s actually surprising to see just what is and is not real as the secrets behind the special effects are revealed.

Data sheets on Batman’s hardware as well as profiles of his allies and enemies are included amidst the comic book’s text. There’s also a section of poster art, including some very nifty, but unused, concepts.

On the minus side, there is no running commentary or DTS soundtrack, all the more unfortunate in light of the new 2-disc editions of the Burton/Schumacher Batflicks, which do have those features. Nolan doesn’t particularly like doing commentaries, but a Bale/Goyer commentary or other similar options should’ve been explored. As for the DTS track, there’s no excuse for its absence.

Picture and Sound

The picture is crisply presented in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio, enhanced for 16:9 TVs. It’s a gorgeous transfer and the sound is full, rich 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround (available in English and French). Once again, it’s a shame there’s no DTS track on board.

Subtitles are available in English, French, and Spanish.