Batman Beguiles

I don’t know if it’s fair to say that Batman Begins is better than it had any right to be, but it’s certainly better than it had any need to be.

I mean, it’s a summer actioner, right? Start with a mixture of fight sequences and car chases, leaven with formulaic macho dialogue, season with explosions as needed, bake briefly — halfway is fine — and you’re done. Motivation, character development, and similar frills are a waste of energy and effort.

Except that Christopher Nolan seems not to have gotten the memo.

And thank God for that, because his apparent ignorance of the way these things are supposed to be done has led him to create a movie that doesn’t for a moment assume that it can get by on its good looks alone. The dialogue, co-written by Nolan, crackles with intelligence and wit, and the actors attack it with both relish and considerable skill. But it’s the expert fit and finish of the story overall that really dazzle.

Thomas Wayne gets maybe five minutes of screen time — but under Nolan’s sure hand, that’s all he needs to establish himself as the cornerstone of his young son’s world. You have absolutely no difficulty understanding how the murder of such a man could shatter that world, and provide motivation enough to fuel a lifelong crusade.

Michael Caine has done his share of absolutely awful movies, but he nearly makes amends for all of them with his performance here. It may or may not be worthy of a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, but a nomination certainly wouldn’t go amiss. His Alfred the Butler is Bruce Wayne’s mooring to the rest of humanity, a source of warmth and humor for a man who sometimes seems at risk of forgetting his own.

Even the movie’s villains are a cut — make that two — above average. There’s none of the usual “observe as I revel in the delicious purity of my own evil” scenery-chewing nonsense. Tom Wilkinson is perfectly credible as the cynical, pragmatic crime boss, while Cillian Murphy is creepily detached as the man of science whose curiosity has completely eclipsed his decency.

This is, when all is said and done, that most hallowed and satisfying of comic-book forms: the origin story. That being the case, it almost can’t help but keep you waiting a while before giving you your first glimpse of Batman unleashing himself upon Gotham’s underworld in his full glory. But that’s just fine. Actually, it’s better than fine. It’s grand. Because while you were waiting, you watched Bruce Wayne forge himself into a living weapon — edged with fury, tempered with mercy — and are thus in a position to understand on just how many levels his opponents are hopelessly outmatched. When he finally attacks, he’s actually frightening, and you feel just the tiniest stir of pity for his prey.

Thomas Wayne wouldn’t want it any other way. Bless Chris Nolan for understanding that, and for using that understanding to make one hell of a movie.

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