"Why bats, Master Wayne?"
"Bats frighten me. It's time my enemies shared my dread."
I was not particularly excited for the release of Batman Begins. Yes, I had enjoyed Memento, and to a lesser extent Insomnia (it didn't help that I had seen the superior original version prior to catching Nolan's remake), and I've been a fan of Christian Bale's since American Psycho. But Batman and Robin left such a sour, lingering taste in my mouth that I couldn't muster any enthusiasm for the new film, even if it was a reboot. But the slew of excellent reviews, coupled with strong word of mouth, got my butt in a seat. Walking out of the theater, I said to my girlfriend at the time, "If I was allowed to make a Batman origin film, that would pretty much be it." Nolan completely redefined what Batman was and could be, and I fell in love instantly. The film (along with Unforgiven) is one of the reasons I bought an HD DVD player, back when the format war was in full swing. And indeed, Begins was a potent weapon in the format's arsenal, with the Blu-ray only seeing the light of day now, just in time for the theatrical release of the film's sequel, The Dark Knight.
Batman Begins does something no Batman film has ever bothered with before: Puts the focus on Batman's origin. The film opens with Bruce Wayne as a child, falling into a well and breaking his leg, only to find himself trapped in a den of bats. We then cut forward to Wayne as an adult, here played by Christian Bale, stuck in a prison in the Far East. Wayne has travelled the world, trying to discover what makes criminals tick. However, while he may be a multi-billionaire, Wayne has lost his way. He's given a new path by a mysterious mentor named Ducard (Liam Neeson), who takes Wayne to the home of the League of Shadows, a mysterious brotherhood whose purpose is to weed out injustice, mercilessly and silently. Realizing that the ultimate end of any criminal caught by the League is death, Wayne leaves the League in ruins and returns to Gotham, his home. The training he received has not gone to waste, as Bruce Wayne, aided by his butler Alfred (Michael Caine), and brilliant inventor Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), turns himself into a symbol to fight for justice and turn the tide of corruption that has engulfed the city. His goal is to use fear on those who prey on the fearful, to become a dark avenger of the night. He becomes more than a man. He is Batman.
We all know the basic story of Batman. As a child, Bruce Wayne's parents are murdered in front of him, and he dons a cape and cowl to avenge their death, by protecting Gotham City from criminals. The fact that the tale is so familiar makes Nolan's handling of the material in Begins all the more impressive. Nolan, along with co-writer David Goyer of Blade fame, takes a good deal of time to delve into Bruce Wayne's psyche. He gives Batman something he's never had before in film: Humanity. While Bruce Wayne has appeared in the previous four Batman movies, it was mostly as a way to set up a situation where he has to make a quick exit so he can re-appear as Batman. Nolan never condescends to the character of Wayne the way the previous directors did, making him the focus of the film. Batman is there to give Bruce a purpose, a direction. It's telling that Batman doesn't appear until the film's second act, giving the creation far more weight and resonance than when he appeared on a rooftop in Tim Burton's 1989 Batman (in fact, watching any of the previous Burton or Schumacher films in the wake of Begins makes it painfully clear just how much this cinematic reinvention was needed--even Burton's verdant visual imagination wasn't capable of truly getting to the heart of the Batman legend). Every character in the film has a psychological motivation, which makes the film much more than a simple "Hero fights the villain" story.
Nolan understands that the true power of Batman is in his capability to strike fear. He hides Batman in the shadows, using quick-cut techniques to suggest his fighting prowess, instead of showing us long, drawn out fight sequences. It was a move that was highly criticized, and I still hear people complaining about it, but it does keep the audience guessing as to what the Batman really is as much as the citizens of Gotham. Nolan also smartly takes time to develop Batman's supporting cast. Michael Caine gives us a wonderful Alfred, far more three dimensional and critical of what Wayne is doing with Batman than anything we ever saw out of Michael Gough. And for the first time ever, Jim Gordon (not yet the Commisioner) is actually an active participant in Batman's war on crime. Gary Oldman is refreshingly subdued in the role, almost disappearing behind his bushy moustache and oversized glasses. But it's exactly this inner calm that makes him work as a supporter for Batman: Gordon knows his limits, and understands that Batman can go where he cannot. After so many years of living with corruption, Gordon is ready to start down the path that Batman offers.
The villains are a little more broadly drawn than the heroes, but they're no less tantalizing for it. Tom Wilkinson gives us his best gangster as Carmine Falcone, and Cillian Murphy is eerily effective as the demented Scarecrow. It's nice to see Batman face off against enemies who aren't traditional super villains (Scarecrow is one of the larger villains in Batman's rogues gallery, but he's playing second fiddle to a greater evil), because it helps people remember that Batman came about to fight mobsters and thugs, not Jokers, Penguins, and Riddlers. Those come later. In those, and so many other ways, Batman Begins breaks with the accepted conventions of comic book films. In fact, as much as people are saying that The Dark Knight is the movie to transcend the comic book genre, I think that Begins did it, too. Nolan purposefully made as much of the film as "real world" as possible. Batman doesn't have an unending array of bat gadgets to play around with. Through Lucius Fox, he does have a selection of military grade prototype weaponry that he repurposes for use as Batman. Seeing Bruce Wayne reappropriate body armor for his suit and "smart cloth" for his cape adds a layer of realism that sells the premise. Heck, we even see Wayne cutting his own batarangs, used in the same manner as ninja throwing stars, instead of the massive, radio controlled batarangs we've seen before.
There are so many fantastic elements to Batman Begins that I could talk about it for days. Christian Bale is the first actor to give convincing portrayals of both Bruce Wayne and Batman (Keaton did a serviceable job as Batman, Kilmer did an okay job as Wayne, and Clooney did neither well). He has an inner fire that makes you understand why a man would risk life and limb while dressed in a bat suit to fight crime. The use of Chicago and a reliance on practical effects also gives the film a lived-in feel. Gone are the incongrous mish-mashes of architectural styles that Burton and Schumacher hoisted on us. Gone even is the imposing facade of Gotham that was used in the animated series. Instead, we get what feels like a real city, truly under seige from the criminal element. We see the layers of society and how the corruption has infiltrated every level. We see the few good people strving to make a difference, or resigning themselves to silence if they can't. We see all this and finally we understand why we need a Batman as much as Bruce Wayne does. And with Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan has thankfully given us a vision of the character that does him justice.
The Blu-ray Disc:
I remember seeing a mock-up of a Batman Begins Blu-ray case before either format had debuted, which gave me hope that the film would be one of the first on the format. As you can tell, that was not to be. However, WB did release the movie on HD DVD in October of 2006. So why did it take over a year and a half for the film to debut on Blu-ray? For one thing, the HD DVD had a special feature known as the In-Movie Experience, where you could watch the film with a video commentary. This required the hardware to run two video streams simultaneously, something all HD DVD players were able to do from the day the format launched. Blu-ray was not technologically capable of doing this until they solidifed the technical specs of what is called "Profile 1.1" or "Bonus View." In addition, it's clear that the release of the disc was held to tie-in with the theatrical premiere of The Dark Knight.
Warner Bros. presents Batman Begins in its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1, in a VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer. This is the exact same transfer used on the HD DVD, which received high marks at the time of release. Since then, several high profile titles with stunning image quality have come out, and many look back at Begins and have lowered their opinion of the transfer. I am not one of those people. In the time since the release of the HD DVD and the Blu-ray, I upgraded my television from 55" to 65", and I still think that Batman Begins is one of the better looking high def transfers I've seen. The most important part, the blacks and shadow detail, are rock solid. You can see the layers of lighting Nolan used in his compositions. You can make out small details in the bat suit and on the Batmobile that get lost on the DVD. The color reproduction is also excellent, and there's a strong sense of depth. Some people may be disappointed that Warner didn't compress a whole new transfer for Blu-ray, but I'm not one of them.
Batman Begins was one of the first HD DVD's to have lossless audio, in the form of Dolby True HD. Lossless audio has now become the norm for high def releases, but that doesn't make this Dolby True HD 5.1 track any less stunning or enjoyable. I still use the Batmobile chase as demo material when I have guests over. The aggressive nature of the track really grabs hold and doesn't let go. When Batman fires up the boost on the Tumbler, you feel it. Even better is the sequence where Batman takes down Falcone's men at the docks. You can hear every footfall, every sharp intake of breath, every punch that Batman lands. Dialogue is perfectly balanced, never getting buried or lost in the mix. Also included is a lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack.
All of the extras from the HD DVD have been ported to the Blu-ray, with one new addition. All of them are in standard defintion, except for the added extra.
- The Dark Knight IMAX Prologue: When I Am Legend was released in December, those who saw it in IMAX got the chance to see seven minutes of footage from The Dark Knight. This footage (labeled a prologue, but in fact is the opening of the new picture) has been replicated here in 1080p high definition (and in 1.77:1, making me wonder if this is how we will see the IMAX portions of The Dark Knight on home video), just in case you weren't already excited enough for The Dark Knight.
- In-Movie Experience: These picture-in-picture interactive commentaries are becoming more common on Blu-ray, making this early attempt from Warner feel insubstantial. On the one hand, you get new interviews with all the major members of the cast and crew, along with behind the scenes footage, stills, and comic panels not included in the other special features. On the other, the comments aren't nearly as frequent as I would like, and some of what is said is reiterated in the other extras. Still, it's a nice bonus to have. Note that your Blu-ray player must be Profile 1.1 or 2.0 capable to view this extra.
- Additional Footage: Not deleted scenes, but rather a series of short featurettes. The first has screenwriter David S. Goyer discussing what it was like to work on the film. The second is a very cool CGI/live action comparison of a shot where Batman lands on the floor of Arkham Asylum. And the third is about the Tumbler, and some of the stunt test work done to get that piece of equipment working correctly.
- The Journey Begins: A look at the pre-production phase of the film. Footage of Goyer and Nolan collaborating on the script, Christian Bale talking about preparing for the role, and more good stuff can be found here.
- Gotham City Rises: Gotham City looks like an actual city in Batman Begins, but that doesn't mean the filmmakers put no thought into the production design. Here we get to see how they made their choices, looking at Gotham, Wayne Manor, the Batcave, and more.
- Cape and Cowl: The famous Batman cowl get its time in the spotlight here, as does his high-flying cape. Nolan talks about how he wanted flexibility with the suit and the production team had to come up with some unique solutions for making the cape.
- The Tumbler: Batman's behemoth Batmobile (called the Tumbler in the film) is the subject of this featurette. Nolan demanded that the vehicle actually work, and the team assigned to it succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.
- Path to Discovery: According to this feature, shooting in Iceland is cold. And harrowing.
- Saving Gotham City: A look at how as many effects shots as possible were achieved while using as few digital effects as possible.
- Genesis of the Bat: Batman Begins had some very clear comic book influences, specifically The Long Halloween (the character of Carmine Falcone comes from here, look for a much larger influence in The Dark Knight), and, of course, Batman: Year One. This featurette takes a look at those and other influential Batman comics.
- Tankman Begins: You know who's not funny? Jimmy Fallon. Sadly, he did a Batman spoof for the MTV Movie Awards, and now it's on this disc. Where's Natalie Portman rapping when you need her?
- Confidential Files: A series of dockets about the world of Batman.
- Stills Gallery.
Batman Begins is everything I could ever want in a Batman origin story. More than that, it's a damn fine film, with an assured director leading a superb cast in telling an essential tale. It wasn't until Nolan and company showed us what we've been missing that we realized it was missing in the first place. While this Blu-ray only adds one new special feature above and beyond what was on the HD DVD, the image and sound quality are still top notch, and there's really no better way to prepare yourselves for the release of The Dark Knight. If you already own the HD DVD, there's not much to warrant an upgrade, but for anyone else, it's not even a question. You must own Batman Begins. Highly Recommended.
Note: The images in this review do no reflect the image quality of the Blu-ray disc.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.