In nearly its every frame, Batman Begins is modern-day mythmaking of the grandest scale. And its only substantial failing is that it doesn't mind telling you so itself.
A few times too often in this otherwise splendid summer noir, characters launch unannounced into high-flown soliloquies about the true nature of legends, the pervasiveness of evil, and the darkness that can descend like a shroud over a world-weary human soul. That's wholly appropriate talk coming from Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) an orphaned billionaire whose bottomless resources and tragic past nudge him toward pop fiction's most spectacular show of self-importance or from Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), a distressingly judgmental ninja master who trains Wayne in the fine art of punishment. But when the speaker is a player as mundane as Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), an assistant district attorney and the daughter of a Wayne family housekeeper well, let's just say that now and then, you wish somebody would do something as simple as asking for the time or ordering a sandwich. A grounding influence, if you will.
Its tendency toward pomposity is essentially all there is not to love about this film, which backs up its 50-buck words with an epic sweep and careful, confident storytelling. The aura of an instant classic never dims as the movie takes us from the ice-capped mountains of far-off Asia where we meet Wayne as a bearded world traveler seeking "the means to fight injustice" to the crumbling urban canyons of Gotham City, ground zero for an elaborate criminal conspiracy that will provide the would-be crusader with the first test of his nascent alter ego, Batman. Along the way, we get to see innumerable essential pieces fall into place, including the discovery of a cave that'll make a perfect hideout for Wayne, and his acquisition of a few thousand high-impact cowls. (Extreme-wardrobe orders, it seems, look far less suspicious when they arrive in bulk).
Though the account isn't strictly chronological, it still flows with an affecting emotional coherence, structured as it is around the major events in Wayne's maturation like the murder of his parents, which we see in heart-rending flashback. Kid actor Gus Lewis makes a strong impression as the 8-year-old Bruce, leaving a firm foundation for Bale's haunted-scion act. Most of the credit, though, must go to director/writer Christopher Nolan (whose Memento and Insomnia established him among the most promising directors of his generation) and his co-plotter, David S. Goyer (the Blade films). Together, they've dared explore the Batman mythos and its key players from a full 360 degrees of motivation. (Even Tim Burton's hugely entertaining Bat-flicks managed 270 at their best.) Less a comic book come to life than a filmed graphic novel, Batman Begins shows a keen sense of how its participants might truly react to the bizarre circumstances unfolding around them; note the alternation between amused indulgence and indignant scolding that makes Michael Caine's portrayal of Alfred the butler such a resonant touchstone.
The emphasis, as you may have guessed, is more on character development than mindless action. Bale is wonderful, and not just because he gets to play more layers than any of the movies' preceding Batmen; whether his Wayne is disguising his pain by suspending a dirty cop off the side of a building or frolicking with some bimbettes in a put-on show of playboy hedonism, you never question what's really driving him. The star is ably supported by a peerless ensemble cast that includes Gary Oldman, Tom Wilkinson, Ken Watanabe, Rutger Hauer and Morgan Freeman (as downsized weapons expert Lucius Fox, the Roy Disney of Wayne Enterprises). Nolan has obviously directed these fine actors to never let on for a second that they're in a superhero movie, and the result is a rousing throwback to the days when box-office blockbusters could appeal to, rather than insult, an audience's intelligence.
Plus, it's good and scary and not only because of its hero's nearly rabid adventuring. Actor Cillian Murphy, in his scenes as corrupt psychologist Dr. Jonathan Crane, makes the screen quiver with the danger of serious dementia. (The fact that Crane's adoptive criminal identity, the Scarecrow, relies on a costume no more elaborate than a simple sack over his head somehow makes his presence even kinkier.) As never before, we see how traumatizing Batman's appearances are to his enemies, that "superstitious, cowardly lot" of crooks he descends upon from out of nowhere. The fight scenes are filmed in tight close-up and hyper-edited into near-incomprehensibility; it's a technique that's ordinarily abhorrent, but it works just fine in establishing Batman as a barely limned avenging force and Gotham as a snake pit of random violence.
What's more, there are regular injections of progressivism that elevate the entire affair into the realm of a true statement. Wayne's ancestors, we learn, helped run the Underground Railroad, and his father (Linus Roache) was not only a wealthy physician but a committed philanthropist whose relentless do-gooding gave the entire city hope. His sideways spiritual heir, Batman, is more interested in fighting the corrupt powerful than wearing out his fists on petty thieves: In one of the movie's most astounding passages, the grown-up Bruce admits that he found it impossible to see crime in black and white after witnessing firsthand the acts that poverty and desperation could drive men to commit. That Nolan and Goyer have worked this thoughtful commentary into a big-budget franchise picture is a flat-out miracle. If Batman was your childhood hero, you'll be immensely gratified to discover that he serves you no less well as a thinking, feeling adult.