There is no definitive Batman.
Bob Kane's character, created way back in the late 1930s, has been through the hands of innumerable creative talents for his adventures in comic books, on TV and in feature films. Some of these focus on the caped crime fighter's capacity as a detective, some on his activities as a violent vigilante, while others just fixated on his codpiece.
Remember Batman Forever (the one with Jim Carrey as The Riddler) and Batman & Robin) (the one with Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr Freeze)? It was these camp incarnations that killed off Warner Brothers' once lucrative superhero franchise in 1997. Having started strongly with Tim Burton's dark fairytale vision of Batman, the superhero became a soft-drink peddling, Day-Glo nightmare in the hands of director Joel Schumacher. Subsequent to these official Warners films, there was an unofficial live action short - 2003's Batman: Dead End - which for many fans was the finest cinematic evocation of the character yet.
With this history in mind, the big challenge for Warners (owners of DC Comics, the home of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman etc) was to put some credibility back into Batman, satisfying both fans and the wider audience for summer blockbusters. In the years following Batman & Robin, there were several aborted reinventions; first Kevin Smith (Clerks) then Wolfgang Peterson (The Perfect Storm) were attached to Superman Vs Batman; abrasive arthouse talent Darren Aronofsky (Requiem For A Dream) was lined-up to adapt Frank Miller's and David Mazzuchelli's essential 1987 graphic novel 'Batman: Year One', a sober prequel to the former's 1986 landmark title 'Batman: The Dark Knight Returns'. Warners were clearly taking the character very seriously. The considerable thought and attention of this production history pays off in Batman Begins.
The action starts in an east Asian prison, where Bruce Wayne (Bale) is "exploring the criminal fraternity" according to a dapper, mysterious figure (Neeson) who appears and offers him a way out. He says he can give Wayne a chance to "devote yourself to an ideal". This suits Wayne, who "seeks a means to fight injustice, to turn fear upon those who prey on the fearful." Why is he so driven? Because, as we're shown in flashbacks, his childhood was destroyed by the slaying of his philanthropic parents (Roach and Stewart) by a random mugger in a Gotham City back alley.
Neeson's character, who calls himself Ducard, mentors Wayne, a man driven by anger but also naive and undisciplined. Ducard is involved with the League Of Shadows, a kind of Templar / Illuminati organisation that has worked as "a check against human corruption for thousands of years". Neeson gets a bit Jedi while recruiting Wayne, telling him, "Your anger gives you great power, but if you let it, it will destroy you". The training strengthens Wayne, hones his skills and philosophies. "To conquer fear you must become fear," Ducard tells him. And what is our hero most afraid of? Bats, after an encounter with them in childhood left him terrified and troubled by recurrent nightmares.
When Wayne finally returns to Gotham, to his family home and avuncular butler Alfred (Caine), he finds the city in a terrible state. According to Rachel (Holmes), a childhood friend of Wayne's who's now assistant district attorney, "this city is rotting", because of gang lord Falcone (an oddly cast Wilkinson) who "keeps the bad people rich and the good people scared".
With his new-found sense of purpose, Wayne vows to transform the city. But he won't be able to do it alone. One of the more considered elements of the film is how Wayne could realistically (well, realistically-ish) become Batman. Here, he amasses his arsenal, costume, kit and vehicle through his connections with his father's company, Wayne Enterprises. A former friend of his father, Lucius Fox (Freeman), has been buried in the Applied Sciences Division by the corporate-minded CEO Richard Earle (Hauer). It's through Fox that Wayne acquires his remarkable body armour, surveillance equipment and kit for enabling him to negotiate the alleys and rooftops of Gotham. Wayne also makes a connection with detective Jim Gordon (Oldman), one of the only straight cops in the Gotham police.
Like Richard Donner's Superman and Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, Batman Begins has two distinct halves. We get the story of the hero's origins, then his first big adventure. It's a slightly awkward blend, breaking the classical three act structure, and Nolan doesn't pull it off entirely gracefully. Indeed, things get a bit silly in the second half with novelty bad guys (Cillian Murphy's Dr Jonathan Crane aka The Scarecrow), and a plot involving a stolen microwave emitter and "weaponised hallucinogens". Indeed, any film that includes the line "It's gonna blow!" needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. But the second half also involves some great action - notably a car chase that involves the monstrous Batmobile driving across rooftops - and striking images - such as Batman perceived as a demonic figure with glowing red eyes by those who've succumbed to the aforementioned drug.
Here Batman is a figure of horror, designed to strike fear. One perennially interesting strain of the Batman mythology is the tension between Bruce Wayne and the dark Batman. Effectively, the real Bruce Wayne is the one who is subsumed into the "monster" he creates, while the playboy the public sees is a ruse, a feint.
At the core of Batman is a moral dilemma, and questions about the distinctions between justice and revenge. Wayne is motivated entirely by anger, but his thirst for vengeance is expressed by a desire to uphold the law, despite him bending it with his nocturnal activities. Here, Alfred is explicitly Wayne's moral compass, who keeps Bale's character a step away from being another American Psycho. Our hero also stays on the ethically straight-and-narrow through his association with the benign Fox, and both Rachel and Gordon, figures within the legal structure who remain uncorrupted. The fact that this interesting characterisation is framed within a suitably broody, handsome and dynamic film makes it all the better.