DC Comics has kept its superheroes locked in a fortress of solitude for almost a decade, forcing the likes of Superman and Batman to warm the bench while longtime rival Marvel Comics' Spider-Man and the Hulk and the X-Men and Blade galloped up and down the playing field. Not counting Catwoman, which is being most charitable, the Time Warner subsidiary returns after an eight-year layoff with its fifth Batman movie and heralds its new era by swiping from Marvel its nifty opening-credits logo: the flipping of comic-book pages, that rapid-fire flashing of iconic pulp-fiction images intended to remind the audience of its substantial tradition and history. But with Batman Begins, directed by Memento's Christopher Nolan and written by David Goyer, DC has failed to appropriate from Marvel's best cinematic offerings -- the second X-Men and Spider-Man movies, particularly -- any sense of heart or humor lurking beneath the latex costumes. Batman, now played by blank slate Christian Bale, may have been resurrected from the goofball graveyard in which Joel Schumacher buried the Dark Knight in 1997, but he doesn't quite live again.
This new iteration is, in fact, often as much a drag as the cape Bruce Wayne lugs behind him when he dons the cowl to prowl Gotham City during its perpetual night; the movie acts so groggy, you feel the need to nudge it into action. Yes, absolutely, it's an improvement over Schumacher's two Batman movies, which were smeared in the brilliant pastels of camp. Goyer, writer of the Blade trilogy and a contributor to DC's JSA series starring its Golden Age heroes, is too much a fanboy to allow his beloved Bats to be treated so lightly. But he goes too far in the other direction, investing Batman Begins with such reverence, it borders on a different kind of silly -- a tedious self-seriousness. He loves the Caped Crusader, almost to death.
And what, precisely, is Nolan doing here? The movies bears the imprimatur not of the visionary who made Memento, or even his remake of Insomnia, but of a worker bee in the employ of Jerry Bruckheimer, who would surely adore the fiery, monotonous finale that blasts whatever little sense Batman Begins has into charred ruins. The nutty genius of Tim Burton -- and comic-book writers and artists Frank Miller, Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale, Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams, all of whom are huge influences on this movie -- is sorely missed. Long gone are the visual swoops and emotional swirls of Burton's Batman movies, especially Batman Returns -- the dizzying feats of someone who adored and related to the freak inside the suit. Nolan, who pretends he's more interested in creating a "real-world" hero swinging through a rotten everyday Big City, actually treats Batman not as a man, but as an "incorruptible, everlasting" symbol -- a thing to be feared and worshiped from afar, which is perhaps why he feels as though he's keeping Batman at such a distance.
Perhaps Nolan and Goyer's was a no-win proposition from the get-go: Theirs is an origin story, just one more retelling of how little Bruce became the big, bad Bat, and thus they eat up a good hunk of this 140-minute movie showing us the alleyway shooting of Thomas and Martha Wayne (Linus Roache and Sara Stewart), young Bruce's training in the Himalayas with vigilante mentors Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) and Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe); and his discovery of a cave beneath stately Wayne Manor. Goyer has altered the origin slightly -- he now lays some of the blame for the Waynes' deaths at Bruce's tiny feet -- and what Burton dealt with in flashback, Nolan revels in, to the point where you get the sense he'd prefer to keep the costume in the closet for good. It's not action he's interested in, but the internal conflicts of the guilt-ridden child who becomes the all-consumed adult, which is why the dour first half of Batman Begins contains so much talk, talk, talk -- the long goodbye of innocence that leads to the decision to don a Halloween costume.
It feels as though there's more dialogue in Batman Begins than in its four predecessors combined, which would be forgivable if its characters spoke with each other, as they do in Sam Raimi's heroic Spider-Man 2, rather than at each other. But instead they deliver dreary and redundant fortune-cookie aphorisms about guilt, fear, justice and vengeance that sound deep ("To conquer fear you must become fear") but never climb out of the shallow end. Only when Michael Caine, as trusty butler Alfred, and Morgan Freeman, as Bruce's weapons outfitter Lucius Fox, appear does the movie at all feel warm to the touch. They're old pros at keeping a straight face as the scenery, and the rest of the movie, collapses around them. Gary Oldman, too, as young Lieutenant Jim Gordon, is perfectly cast; he looks as though he was lifted from the pages of Frank Miller's Batman: Year One comic.
Yet if the first half is overbaked, the second is undercooked -- a bunch of comic-book whizbang dealing with Ra's Al Ghul and the villain Scarecrow's (Cillian Murphy, looking far prettier than the comic's 60-year-old version) plan to poison Gotham City's water supply in order to scare the city to death. What Nolan gets right -- messy, genuine-feeling fight sequences in which Batman is descended upon by countless thugs he must fend off like bothersome insects -- he undoes by collapsing the final act into a strident, sloppy thud. But even if there were a great movie here, it would have been undermined by two lead actors who are barely even there, asked to deliver lines they can't handle: Bale, playing the Batman with clipped wings, and Katie Holmes as an assistant district attorney who doesn't have the gravitas to pass as an intern. Come back, Alicia Silverstone; all is forgiven.