In "Batman Begins," one of Hollywood's of-the-moment directors, Christopher Nolan, takes on the creation myth of one of America's most enduring pop icons, the DC Comics hero who first appeared in 1939 and who has been inspiring countless interpretations ever since.
The most well-known "Batman" iteration, of course, is the goofy television series that in the 1960s introduced an entire generation to the campy joys of Roy Lichtenstein-like graphics and crypto-homoeroticism. Nolan has dispensed with all that meta-hilarity, instead delivering a ponderous, deeply unironic psychological portrait with such a pervasive sense of gravitas that it borders on self-importance.
For purists who have never been happy with any "Batman" movie, not even Tim Burton's darkly fanciful 1989 version starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson, Nolan's dense, solemnly respectful take on the superhero's origins may well prove to be definitive, as it introduces filmgoers for the first time to such characters as police lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman), Wayne Enterprises staff scientist Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and psychiatrist Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), all of whom were in "Batman" creator Bob Kane's original stories.
Combining Kane's comics with a few of their own speculations, Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer have come up with a detailed, if often convoluted, explanation for how the orphaned billionaire Bruce Wayne went on to become a legend dressed in a bat suit. Nolan, who made the intricately structured "Memento" as well as the glacially paced thriller "Insomnia," takes nearly an entire hour just on Bruce's early life -- his witnessing of his parents' double murder; his self-exile into a life of crime; his training in martial arts at the hand of a mysterious mentor named Ducard (Liam Neeson); and, finally, his return to the corrupt cesspool of Gotham City.
As Burton touched on in his "Batman," Wayne's motivation to fight crime has psychological roots, but here he's not only guilty over surviving his father but is suffering deep-seated fears of, what else, bats (for good measure, Nolan has Bruce and his family attending a performance of "Die Fledermaus" the night they are killed).
"You fear your own power. You fear your anger," Ducard tells Wayne while he trains him to be a ninjalike warrior. "To conquer fear, you must become fear."
The young man on the other end of this Dr. Phil-like spiel is played by Christian Bale, whose combination of reserve and physical strength is perfectly suited for a diffident superhero with a sense of noblesse oblige that's taken on an Old Testament fury.
What's more, he has what every Batman needs most, a great mouth -- essential for a role in which an actor is hiding the rest of his face behind a cowl much of the time.
Bale, who resembles a young Cliff Robertson, is terrific both as the conflicted Bruce Wayne -- who takes on the persona of a rich playboy to mask his identity -- and the be-caped Batman, who has always had an unmistakable erotic frisson about him. (He also manages to convey periodic flashes of deadpan humor, which are sadly engulfed by a near-constant barrage of noise, frenetic action and overdesigned spectacle.)
In fact, not just Bale but nearly the entire cast of "Batman Begins" is first-rate, including Michael Caine, who delivers some welcome comic relief as Bruce Wayne's faithful factotum Alfred; Tom Wilkinson as a notorious crime boss named Falconi; and the aforementioned Freeman and Oldman. (Katie Holmes, as Bruce Wayne's childhood sweetheart, is forgettable in a role that is more an afterthought than a fully rounded character.)
But as good as the performances are, and as dutiful as Nolan has been in preserving the Kane legacy in "Batman Begins," there's something joyless about the enterprise, which recalls "Robo-Cop" and "Blade Runner" in its somber tone but possesses neither the wit of the former nor the narrative sophistication of the latter. As at least two families led their youngsters out of a recent screening -- both times during one of the movie's endless and surprisingly brutal fight scenes -- it became clear that this movie is not only inappropriate for children, it might even prove too long and morose a haul for teens.
That raises the question of who, precisely, "Batman Begins" is for. Geeks and gearheads? Grown-ups attracted to the Caped Crusader's fetishistic assortment of sharp, shiny objects?
Clearly, only adults will be able to sit through a sprawling story that involves endless fight and chase sequences, arcane explanations of a panic-inducing hallucinogen threatening Gotham and a climactic scene featuring zombies straight out of a George Romero B-movie.
After nearly 21/2 hours of psychologizing, punching and brooding, it's clear that "Batman Begins" all right; the question is whether it will ever end.
Batman Begins (141 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for intense action violence, disturbing images and mature themes.