One might suspect that there would be a lot of superhero movies on a list of extraordinary adventures. But superheroes are a strange lot, preferring to stay in one place most of the time and fight petty criminals.
Occasionally you’ll get a supervillain who has some dastardly world-domination plot, but even these are usually run out of the basement of some abandoned building in the superhero’s home town, and involve the theft of nuclear warheads which are conveniently being transported via the nearest forest road.
Even if the superhero has great abilities for travel and high resistance to danger, they don’t use it much. Superman can fly into space and back, but only to retrieve lost nuclear warheads or stop time. The Flash can run at near lightspeed, but only finds it useful to beat the rush hour in the local business district.
There are no historic artifacts in superhero stories (nuclear warheads don’t count), no epic battle scenes (it’s usually just a brawl between a couple of invincible people, and Hulk vs. the entire U.S. Army does not count), and the costumes, while exotic in one sense of the word, lack the worn-in look of classical adventure fare.
Don’t get me wrong. I love good Superhero movies, and there are several that are pretty awesome. But few embody the spirit of adventure like Batman Begins.
Let’s face it: Batman is a character that is famous for doing all of those things I just mentioned. He stays in Gotham, butts heads with the local criminals, and dresses in black latex. But when Christopher Nolan took over the franchise, he brought Batman to the world.
Here is a hero on a search for meaning. This goes beyond the typical armchair psychology of superhero stories. Bruce Wayne travels to the ends of the earth in order to know and understand suffering. In the remote mountains of Asia, he is trained in the art of survival, in the martial arts, and finally in the mystic practices of the ninja.
Ra’s Al Ghul is the secret man/organization that takes Bruce under his/its wing and teaches him that periodically civilization must be broken down to its primitive roots or suffer the consequences of indulgent humanity. This is a far cry from a crazy nutjob like Lex Luther or the Joker, because their evil is incomprehensible. But Batman, while troubled by their methods, kind of sees their point. It does not hurt that Ra’s Al Ghul is fronted by Liam Neeson, who has already appeared in at least one of the stories on our list, and may yet appear in more.
In the second half of the movie, Bruce returns home, secretly infiltrates his own corporation, constructs a massive underground lair with the help of his spry, remarkably fit 70-year-old butler, and sets about dismantling a web of corruption in the city.
It is amazing to me that Nolan was allowed to make a Batman movie in which Batman does not appear for nearly an hour. This isn’t like Jaws, where maybe the rubber suit didn’t look real enough. This was a full-on resurrection of a franchise (after the disaster of Batman and Robin) and Nolan’s solution was to keep the rubber suit off the screen.
The first half of Batman Begins – the hero’s journey into the Abyss, his taking up the mantle of goodness, his befriending of strategic allies – is for my money as good as it gets in superhero movies. Even the Dark Knight, which may be a superior film overall (though not as adventurous) does not have a sequence as good as this.
The end of the movie does veer back into conventional superhero territory with an exciting train chase into the heart of Gotham, but we can forgive them, since it’s a law that every superhero movie must have at least one extended CGI sequence. But it doesn’t dilute the power of the story. When Ra’s Al Ghul shows up at the end, having targeted Gotham as the civilization to bring down next, it proves that sometimes shadowy villains are more menacing than a killer clown or a guy that dresses like a penguin.
The performances are solid across the board. There is the aforementioned Liam Neeson. Christian Bale is by far the best Batman. Michael Caine simply is Alfred (hey, Michael Caine on our list again!), and it’s hard to go wrong with both Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman in your movie. But where Batman Begins really excels is the script, which manages to externalize a man’s inner demons and tell a compelling adventure story that spans continents. All that and Batman-shaped throwing stars.
Next up, #87