Billionaire down-and-out Bruce Wayne (Bale), traumatised since the murder of his parents, is recruited by The League Of Shadows, ninja assassins devoted to eradicating society's ills. Rejecting their methods, he returns to Gotham and embarks on a one-man war against crime.
As the title suggests, this sets out to be radically different from the series inaugurated by Tim Burton's Batman in 1989 and trashed by Joel Schumacher's Batman & Robin in 1997. Indeed, director Christopher Nolan gets even further than Burton from the camp of the 1960s TV show, to the point where you wonder how cartoonish Bat-foes like the Penguin could ever appear in Nolan's rusty, economically desperate Gotham City.
Whereas Burton sketched an Art Deco hell and shoved Michael Keaton on screen in a Bat-suit in the first minutes, Nolan puts off the moment when Christian Bale dons the mask for almost an hour. Influenced by the look and feel of the X-Men films, Batman Begins spends a lot of time in a world only just removed from reality before getting to the superheroics.The first act finds Wayne in a Chinese prison and a Himalayan monastery, transforming from bearded brawler to black-clad ninja as he flashes back to a lifetime of trauma that - in this version - began even before his parents' deaths, as he falls down a well and is terrorised by the bats which later inspire his night persona. Burton had Wayne's mom and pop killed by the hoodlum who would become The Joker, but Nolan reverts to earlier comics and makes the murderer a panicky no-one named Joe Chill, blurring the set-up so young Bruce and even Wayne Sr. (Linus Roache) must take some blame for the killings.
The Nolan who made Memento and Insomnia is at home with extreme psychological states - this might complete a Three Colours Of Neurosis trilogy by following memory loss and sleeplessness with phobia. It's certainly a smart move to cast the former Patrick Bateman as a Batman who always seems about to crack up. Bale even makes the old playboy-idiot act work, suggesting - as Michael Caine's dry Alfred notes - a man who needs to pretend to have fun because he might accidentally enjoy himself.
Batman maintains a secret identity, but he's recruiting an army for a war - forming alliances with Gordon (Oldman), the only honest cop in Gotham, and Wayne Enterprises' R&D man Lucius Fox (Freeman), while treating childhood sweetheart/Assistant D. A. Rachel Dawes (Holmes) as much as an informant as love interest (she takes the role played in comics by Harvey Dent, who becomes the disfigured villain Two-Face, suggesting a possible career-changing stretch for Holmes if this thread carries through).
With a city that looks less fantastical than Burton's, Nolan hits the streets and slums of Gotham to show a horrific escalation of evil that demands Batman's presence even as Gordon suggests he might make it worse; old-fashioned Mob guys (Tom Wilkinson) are edged out by masked freaks (Cillian Murphy, starily creepy even before he pulls on his Scarecrow hood) and a fanatical force run by the bastard sons of Fu Manchu and Osama bin Laden. Unlike Burton, Nolan doesn't skimp on action either, with brutal fights, vehicle chases and, in one great sequence, a mass escape from Arkham Asylum of serial killers and maniacs doped up with the Scarecrow's fear serum.
In terms of big-screen comic-adaptation triumphs, it's recently been Marvel who've been ahead (X-Men, Blade, Spider-Man); but, by learning several tricks from Marvel franchises, Batman Begins undoubtedly gets rival comics house DC back in the game.
Significantly grittier than previous Bat-beginnings, this finds new things to do with, and say about, a character who's been around since 1938. In a year when the franchise watchword is "dark", this delivers the full noir with a side order of dementia.