In the November 1939 issue of Detective Comics, six months after creator Bob Kane first introduced The Batman, Kane and uncredited collaborator Gardner Fox attached a two-page prologue to the otherwise unmemorable adventure "The Batman Wars Against The Dirigible Of Doom." Subtitled "The Legend Of The Batman—Who He Is And How He Came To Be!" the intro reveals Batman's previously untold origin story, taking him from a happy rich kid to a grim creature of the night in what must be the 12 most emotionally wrenching panels of comics' golden age. In Batman Begins, which reboots the Batman film franchise eight years after the disastrous Batman & Robin, director Christopher Nolan (Memento), co-writer David S. Goyer, and star Christian Bale draw liberally from different periods of Batman's history, but their film most resembles those two pages: It treats Bruce Wayne's transformation into, as that story put it, a "weird figure of the dark" as a logical response to the darkness around him.
Batman Begins builds its hero element by element, between scenes of tensely choreographed blockbuster action. It opens with Bale's Bruce Wayne as a young exile, released from a Chinese prison and into the company of a hard-edged mentor (Liam Neeson) in the employ of the League Of Shadows, a Draconian bunch of justice-enforcers led by the mysterious Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). Trained in martial arts and the criminal mind, but unwilling to subscribe to the League's ruthless code, Bale returns to Gotham City to find that it's taken a turn for the worse since his departure. Crime fills the street and corruption allows it to thrive. But Bale has a plan to set things aright, a plan that involves hitting the streets in a cape and a cowl.
When he does, he keeps mostly to the shadows, terrifying his enemies when drawing them in with him. When Bale does step into the light as Batman, the film lets him look vulnerable, like a man in a costume. This works too, and Bale's tricky, darkly charismatic performance considers all the elements in the equation. He suggests the man, the hero, and some unplumbed depths below both. For every moment the film spends working on a mythic scale, it spends two on the human level, grounding Bale in his relationships with a surrogate family that includes his childhood-sweetheart-turned-crusading attorney (Katie Holmes), a Wayne Enterprises scientist (Morgan Freeman), incorruptible policeman James Gordon (Gary Oldman), and Alfred the butler (Michael Caine). All are given space to breathe as characters and all take advantage of the opportunity, though none better than Caine, who combines dry wit with paternal concern.
Superheroic theatrics hardly get left out of the equation, of course, but the film lets them grow out of the psychological and social issues it establishes from the start. In Batman Begins, crime is an act of the desperate and the greedy, who are seldom one and the same. Evil can be stopped only when good people take a stand. Of course, that's a gross oversimplification of the how the real world works, but it still has real-world relevance. And that's ultimately why superheroes still matter. Characters like Batman didn't come to be from nothing. They were born from the hopes and—especially in Batman's case—fears of the society around them, and they're kept aloft only so long as they continue to reflect those hopes and fears. A rousing, reverent, often brilliant re-creation of a seminal comics character, Batman Begins proves Batman is at home in the 21st century as he was in the 20th.