When a movie's opening sequences are as strong as these, two opposed thoughts usually go through viewers' heads: "This is terrific -- please let it stay this good" and "This is terrific -- there's no way it's going to stay this good."
Well, Bat-fans, you can rejoice. This dynamic movie goes way beyond staying as good as its opening -- flashes between a young Bruce Wayne in Gotham City being terrified by bats and emotionally scarred by seeing the murder of his parents, and a young adult Bruce Wayne in Tibet being brutally trained to combat evil by the mysterious Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) and the far more mysterious Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) -- it just keeps getting better.
The title is notable in a couple of ways. It does indeed go right to the beginning of the Batman mythology. Then the story is told of how the grieving young rich boy became the protector and maybe even savior of the now-crumbling, crime-ridden city his father helped to build. But it also reinvents the Batman movie franchise. Of the four that preceded this one, the first Tim Burton-directed one remains the strongest. But this one is going to make even big-time fans forget all of them. This one gets the story, and the telling of it, right. It's safe to say this is the film where Batman truly begins.
It was a wise decision to cast Christian Bale to play the angry, angst-ridden anti-hero (after names such as Guy Pearce, David Duchovny, and Cillian Murphy were bandied about). He's buff, he's got 'tude, he's got the face. Nobody has a better scowl under the cowl. Bale is an actor who gives it his all -- especially in the vicious fight scenes and in one memorable sequence in which he frightens a bad guy into confession simply by screaming at him (OK, and by hanging him upside down).
But Bale is far from alone in latching onto his part. The film is an example of near-perfect casting, of all the actors knowing exactly what's expected of them -- and then giving it a little more. Though Cillian Murphy (28 Days Later) was passed over for the lead, his performance as Dr. Jonathan Crane (aka the Scarecrow) first conveys someone slightly shady, then turns him into someone horrific -- who's evil just for the sake of being evil.
Another highlight: It's very difficult, right to the end, to keep track of which bad guy is going to be worse for our hero because there are so many of them working on so many different levels of badness. Yet this doesn't at all resemble those earlier Batman films in which the super-villain (or villains as it turned out) were the focus of the story. This one is clearly about Batman himself -- how he deals with feeling responsible for the deaths of his parents, how he overcomes his personal fears to make himself stronger, how he forges strong relationships with people who can help him.
So it's back again to the casting. Kudos to whomever picked Michael Caine to play Alfred -- at times as solemnly as Bale plays his part, but with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. The same goes for casting Gary Oldman as Sgt. (later Lt.) Gordon (Batman fans, of course, know that he will eventually become Commissioner Gordon) -- and still more for casting Morgan Freeman as the Q-like Lucius Fox, who provides Bruce Wayne with the armor and weapons and amazing automobile (never referred to as the Batmobile) that he will use to fight crime.
Everything about this film works. It's exciting, dark, slightly funny and very scary. (The Scarecrow's m.o. is fear -- induced via a psychotropic hallucinogen, no less -- which may prove too intense for viewers under age 10.) Even though it's firmly settled in fantasy territory, Batman Begins conveys a sense of (heightened) reality. Dazzling but dirty Gotham City, with its multi-leveled monorail, might easily exist. Batman, with no super-powers but plenty of government-developed military technology and oodles of training under his utility belt, could definitely accomplish what he's shown doing. Even the vile plot to kill off part of the population isn't that much of a stretch.
Many, many kudos to visionary filmmaker Christopher Nolan (Memento) for putting all of this together. He lets you know from the opening frames that he's (literally) not going to pull any punches, and he has a firm grip on every image and sound that flies by in 140 fast-paced minutes. By engineering a great ending that "hints," through someone's calling card, that there's more to come -- indeed, Bale has signed for two sequels -- Nolan reinforces yet another meaning of the film's title. This really is just the beginning.