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'Batman Begins' Traces a Franchise's Beginnings


Dust off the Batsuit; there's a new Batman. Actually, there's also a new Batsuit, worn by actor Christian Bale, as he goes where Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney have all gone before, not to mention Adam West. The new prequel "Batman Begins" opens today. It's directed by Christopher Nolan, who made his reputation with the movie "Memento," which told its story backward. For this movie, critic Bob Mondello says Nolan definitely starts at the beginning, the very beginning.

BOB MONDELLO reporting:

We've only known Bruce Wayne, the millionaire playboy and Gotham City crime fighter, as a fully formed Batguy. In all the other "Batman" movies, he had the Batmobile and the Batsuit and all the Batgear. In this one, we find out how he got there, by way of an Asian prison apparently, where he has been fighting crime in a very low-tech way.

(Soundbite of "Batman Begins"; prison door opening and closing)

Mr. LIAM NEESON: (As Ducard) Are you so desperate to fight criminals that you lock yourself in to take them on one at a time?

Mr. CHRISTIAN BALE: (As Bruce Wayne) Actually, there were several.

Mr. NEESON: I counted six, Mr. Wayne.

Mr. BALE: How do you know my name?

Mr. NEESON: The world is too small for someone like Bruce Wayne to disappear, no matter how deep he chooses to sink.

Mr. BALE: Who are you?

Mr. NEESON: My name is merely Ducard, but I speak for...

MONDELLO: Ducard offers Wayne ninja training high in the Himalayas, and also tells him he needs to overcome fear by becoming fear, or maybe becoming feared. In either case, it doesn't sound like very good advice, and the next thing you know, they're having a colorfully explosive falling-out and Wayne is back in Gotham City with his butler Alfred hatching a plan.

(Soundbite of "Batman Begins")

Mr. MICHAEL CAINE: (As Alfred) Are you coming back to Gotham for long, sir?

Mr. BALE: As long as it takes. I'm going to show the people of Gotham their city doesn't belong to the criminals and the corrupt.

MONDELLO: Happily, the family business has a weapons unit in the basement run by a friend of his father's.

(Soundbite of "Batman Begins")

Mr. MORGAN FREEMAN: (As Lucius Fox) She was built as a bridging vehicle.

(Soundbite of engine roaring)

Mr. FREEMAN: During combat, two of these would jump over a river towing cables.

(Soundbite of engine roaring)

Mr. FREEMAN: And over here on the throttle--shift that open and throttle up, this will boost you into a rampless jump. Look out!

(Soundbite of engine roaring; vehicle accelerating)

MONDELLO: Director Christopher Nolan is determined to breathe life back into a franchise that started out stylish and only slightly silly and ended up silly and only slightly stylish. He's been saying in interviews he wanted the prequel to be real, so he and screenwriter David S. Goyer have given their hero carefully considered reasons to mistrust authority figures, fear dark caves and adore a childhood sweetheart from afar. They've cast Christian Bale--who could probably invest SpongeBob SquarePants with a believable back story--and rather than having him battle a cartoonish supervillain with high-tech toys, pit this troubled, terribly human guy against an unsympathetic psychiatrist, a fatherly terrorist and a corrupt police department. Overcome his fears, indeed.

(Soundbite of "Batman Begins")

Unidentified Man: Turn off your engine! Step away from the car!

(Soundbite of engine revving; turning off)

MONDELLO: All of this meshes nicely with the new psychoanalytical trend for movies about the superskilled. Critics who have recently found themselves talking earnestly about the Hulk's anger management issues and how family oriented Spider-Man has become barely have to shift gears to address Bruce Wayne's Oedipus complex. And if the explosions and chases in "Batman Begins" eventually become as loud and as dumb as the genre demands, Nolan at least grounds things at the beginning and keeps them gritty. You can quibble about his placing the camera so close to action that you can't always tell who's throwing the punches, but credit him with doing exactly what he said he'd do; he has made the most plausible, most psychologically motivated and most real movie yet about a guy who runs around town in a Batsuit. I'm Bob Mondello.

(Soundbite of music from "Batman Begins")

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.