I'll say this for Batman Begins: It's full of bats. I only wish it had a few more in its belfry. Directed by Christopher Nolan, who did such memorable things with memory in Memento, this latest installment in the Warner Brothers franchise is a decidedly somber affair. The approach makes sense, I suppose. The series, thanks to Joel Schumacher's inept direction, had come dangerously close to camp. But I almost found myself longing for Mr. Freeze's deadly puns as Nolan pursues the dark night of the Dark Knight's soul. The movie takes itself way too seriously, a move that may appeal to those who prefer graphic novels over comic books. Then again, maybe not.
Christian Bale, who isn't what you'd call a bubbly actor, takes over as the Caped Crusader, and although he looks great in this season's line of bat attire (it's all about the lips), he doesn't bring much to the role beyond the cowl and the scowl. And as Bruce Wayne, he utterly fails to impersonate a billionaire playboy. That Bruce Wayne supposedly fails at the same task (he'd much rather be brooding somewhere) hardly seems like an excuse. If Batman takes no pleasure in his job, how are we supposed to? Oh, there are moments, as when Wayne first sets his eyes on the new Batmobile, an all-terrain -- and I mean all terrain -- vehicle that looks like it belongs in the Iraqi desert, and asks whether it comes in black. But you keep wondering whether Batman's tights aren't a little too tight. He seems to be having trouble breathing.
An origin story, Batman Begins purports to tell the tale of how Bruce Wayne became Batman, and the early scenes generate some pathos as a young boy turns into an orphan before his very own eyes. Then it's off to Tibet, where the stillgrieving young man almost gets himself inducted into the mysterious League of Shadows, courtesy of Liam Neeson's Ducart, who gives him the full learn-to-trust-your-feelings treatment. Or is it the full learn-not-to-trust-your- feelings treatment? I forget. But it doesn't really matter, because the head of Wayne Enterprises is soon back in Gotham City, putting the finishing touches on the Batcave, which turns out to be an actual bat cave. And bats turn out to be the one thing that can send a chill up Batman's spine, that and the possibility that he might be asked to crack a smile.
Fear is the theme of Batman Begins, especially fear of fear itself, and it's hard not to read a post-9/11 message into the pandemonium that's caused when the movie's villains give Gotham City a good scare. Myself, I was less scared than bored. Nolan has taken the Goth out of Gotham -- the freaky-deaky element that Tim Burton brought to the series. And he's eliminated all traces of camp. But he hasn't really replaced them with anything, certainly not colorful villains. Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow is both a little creep and a little creepy, a psychiatrist who tries to drive Batman mad. But doesn't he realize that Batman's already mad? The last thing this guy needs is another reason to get all bent out of shape. As for the movie, it could definitely use a shot of crazy juice. Come back, Mr. Freeze, you Ice Ice Booby. All is forgiven.