The Complicated Legacy of Batman Begins

Ten years after Christopher Nolan reinvented the superhero movie, studios are trying to emulate its darker mood without seizing on what really makes it special.

Warner Bros.

Ten years ago, the idea of Batman actually scaring people was far-fetched. So when Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins was released in 2005, one of its biggest achievements was revitalizing the Caped Crusader as a dark icon of intimidation: snarling at Gotham’s underbelly while using fear (a major theme in the movie) to fight crime. Gone was the cartoonish, nipple-suited hero of the 90s; here, instead, was a tortured, flawed champion whose emotional depth grounded his exploits in a more realistic and recognizable universe. It was a revolution.

But pop culture's memory is short, and the sight of Ben Affleck growling through his Batsuit in the trailer for Batman v Superman earlier this year provoked waves of online derision. Here was the real-world grit and psychological complexity of Nolan’s Batman, only dialed to a thousand. If once Batman had been too silly, now he was too serious. And this is the complicated legacy of Batman Begins: Nolan’s film allowed that superhero franchises could exist with one foot in the real world, and inspired legions of imitators to do the same. Some, like the James Bond franchise rebooted around Daniel Craig, followed that thread beautifully. But others seemed to assume that it was a cynical sense of bleakness that made Batman Begins special. The reality, as it turns out, is much more complex, and much more indebted to Nolan’s distinctive vision.

Warner Brothers is currently preparing a huge slate of similar comic-book adaptations along Nolanesque lines, but trying to emulate Batman Begins' success just by adopting its darker mood won’t work. So much of what makes the movie unique is Nolan himself, and his meticulous attention to detail. His Gotham is a relatable urban landscape (shot in New York and Chicago) with lurid flourishes like the run-down “Narrows” district, an island in the center of town bustling with the city’s poorest citizens. His Batman can grapple and glide around the city, but every gadget is parsed out to the audience and given real-world practicality. His Batmobile isn’t an improbable, gadget-laden sports car but a brutish tank originally designed for the military.

Batman Begins was able to justify such detail because it didn’t have to worry about the future—Warner Bros.’s intention wasn’t to plan out a series of sequels and spinoffs, but to re-invest audiences in a brand that had gone awry, giving Nolan the chance to re-create the character from the ground up. It takes an hour of runtime before Bruce Wayne puts on the suit and declares himself Batman, and in that hour, Nolan has him train with ninjas, deal with the trauma of his parents’ death, and cautiously explore a Gotham overrun by organized crime.

When Nolan was hired in 2003 to create a new Batman film, it was six years after the failure of Batman & Robin (the fourth entry in a franchise started by Tim Burton's 1989 Batman), and Nolan didn’t yet have an established reputation, let alone global acclaim as a wide-screen IMAX camera-toting dream-weaver. His biggest film at that point was the mid-sized cop drama Insomnia, and his indie reputation rested square on the shoulders of the brilliant, twisty neo-noir film Memento. Warner Bros. picking Nolan to revitalize Batman was hailed as a risky gambit, and it succeeded largely because the director was granted free rein to create a world free of franchise possibilities or other heroes lurking on the sidelines. His Batman was a bizarre apparition in a recognizably human world of cops and gangsters who’d never contended with a masked hero before. As simple as that sounds, there may never be a superhero film created along those lines again.

Nolan subtly signaled these decisions to dedicated comic-book fans throughout the film, most notably in his slight alteration of Bruce Wayne's creation myth. Batman is still a scion of Gotham's wealthiest family who witnesses his parents' murder; but while the comics often portrayed the Waynes leaving a screening of a Zorro film, Nolan wanted his Bruce to be completely new to the idea of masked vigilantism. "We wanted nothing that would undermine the idea that Bruce came up with this crazy plan of putting on a mask all by himself," he told The Los Angeles Times in 2008. "That allowed us to treat it on our own terms. So we replaced the Zorro idea with the bats to cement that idea of fear and symbolism."

In Batman Begins, Bruce flees an opera that features dancers masquerading as bats, which frighten him. The concept of Batman as a symbol of fear is shot through the whole movie—Nolan (who scripted the film with David S. Goyer) works hard to have the audience understand why Wayne might be drawn to the bizarre idea of dressing as a giant bat to intimidate Gotham's criminals, drawing inspiration from the theatrics of the ninjas who train him and the creatures that haunt the caves below his family mansion. Most comic-book films assume the audience will roll with the hero donning a colorful uniform because it's such recognizable imagery, but Batman Begins wants the first appearance of the Batsuit to feel genuinely shocking to both Gotham’s criminals and the audience.

Not all of this thinking originated with Nolan. A Batman film centered around intimidation had been in the works years before he came on board: Before the 1997 release of Batman & Robin, its director Joel Schumacher was already at work on the next entry, tentatively titled Batman Triumphant, which featured the fearmongering Scarecrow as the villain. That element bounced through several undeveloped Batman concepts before making it into the Begins script. Cillian Murphy plays Nolan's take on Jonathan Crane, a psychiatrist who poisons his patients with a fear toxin and controls them through the monstrous avatar of "Scarecrow." While the primary villains in the film are the League of Shadows, evil vigilantes led by Ra's Al Ghul (Liam Neeson), Crane's fear toxin is their weapon of choice, and a simple and effective way for Nolan to demonstrate Batman's terrifying status among the gangsters he's trying to wipe out.

Bale's performance goes a long way towards making this super-serious, super-scary Batman relatable. He doesn't deploy the cartoonishly gravelly voice he adopted for 2008 sequel The Dark Knight, which inspired a thousand parody videos, but nor does he lean into the idea that Bruce Wayne might just be a lunatic, which is the angle Michael Keaton (very successfully) worked in his two Tim Burton-directed Batman films. Bale's Bruce is barely clinging to his humanity, and is still haunted and driven by the death of his parents. But he's not liberated when he puts on the suit—above all, he's giving a performance, typified by his brutal interrogation of the corrupt Detective Flass, where Batman roars questions in his face while dangling him upside down by his feet. For Nolan's Batman, this is a means to an end, rather than a pure state of being. That theme recurs through his two sequels—The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises—which end in Batman’s retirement, seen as a necessary step for Bruce Wayne to live a normal, human life.

After the completion of his Dark Knight trilogy, Nolan was asked to help set the tone for a new slate of Warner Bros. films inspired by the DC Comics universe. That decision makes sense, but it feels somewhat curious when you consider that Nolan's Batman ended his journey with The Dark Knight Rises and very definitively will never return to the big screen. After Marvel Studios' first film— Iron Man (released in 2008)—ended with a post-credits teaser mentioning Nick Fury and the Avengers, the interconnected universe became en vogue, and once Nolan's films ran their course, Warner Bros. needed a new slew of heroes to keep up. Nolan and his Batman Begins co-scripter Goyer wrote the story to Man of Steel, a Superman reboot planned as a franchise-starter, then hired Zack Snyder to direct. Snyder is now firmly at the helm of the series Man of Steel launched, but Nolan is an executive producer on its sequel Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice and reportedly had a hand in the hiring of Ben Affleck as the big screen's newest Batman.

It's hard to say how much of Batman Begins' aesthetic has carried over to these new films, since they’re so dominated by Snyder's heightened, muddy visual palette (Nolan has always favored a crisper look). But in selling its coming franchise, Warner Bros. is bragging about the same artistic idealism that got Nolan hired in the first place. "The filmmakers who are tackling these properties are making great movies about superheroes; they aren't making superhero movies," the Warner Bros. president, Greg Silverman, told The Hollywood Reporter.

It's a nice sentiment (and a jab at the visual sameness of the Marvel franchise), but it might only work when the intention is just to make a one-off film. Even Nolan's The Dark Knight, which was a sequel to Batman Begins, was made with no specific future in mind (by all reports, the director had to be heavily coaxed back to even make a third entry). Zack Snyder's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is cursed with that unwieldy title because it has to bring Batman into Superman's world and lay the groundwork for the Justice League by introducing several other heroes, including Wonder Woman and Aquaman. In comparison, Batman Begins has one simple task: get the audience on board with its main character. It's a triumph the superhero films of 2015 are seeking to repeat, but with Nolan's success, the narrative autonomy of his original pitch has been forgotten.