In the current comic-book movie flood that began in 2000, it's always seemed to me that 2005 ought to be regarded as the highest water-mark, producing three of the smartest, most stylistically compelling and absolutely the darkest films of the genre: in April of that year, we were treated to Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller's noir nightmare Sin City, September had David Cronenberg's brutal meditation on American thuggery in A History of Violence, and right in between the two, Christopher Nolan sprang on an unsuspecting world a nihilist's fantasy dressed up in superhero clothes, Batman Begins.

Taking the contemporary vogue for "grittifying" genre entertainment to an extreme, Begins strikes a terrifically delicate balance: on the one hand, it is the most stripped-down of all the modern superhero movies, visually and narratively, even unto realism; yet at the same time, it does more than any other superhero film save perhaps Richard Donner's Superman to explore the idea that its protagonist is a mythological figure. It's the combination of realism and mythology that makes Begins such a nervy piece of summertime filmmaking. You can't have one without the other. Or rather, you could, but then it would be a superhero movie comme un autre, which it most decidedly is not in its current guise.

Broadly speaking, the film's story is divided into four movements, most easily identified by which villain is involved: in the first, billionaire orphan Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) travels to the mountains of Tibet to confront the ghosts of his past and learn to be a shadow warrior; in the second, he returns to his home, Gotham City, and sets about remaking himself as a symbol in the city's war on organised crime; in the third, Wayne, now Batman, discovers and takes down a massive plot to destroy the city; in the fourth, the most purely action-oriented, he finally gives himself over to the identity he has created and defeats his enemies.

What's not clear from that swell little prΓ©cis is that the process by which Wayne invents and then becomes Batman is essentially tragic. To remove it from the comic book trappings, this is a story about a man who wants to become something else and then does so, and then learns to his shock that the person he used to be no longer exists. This has long been the unexpressed core of the Batman character, never expressed so explicitly as it is here, and thus there has never yet been a Batman story, on page or on-screen, with quite this kind of psychological trauma. If Ingmar Bergman had ever directed a superhero movie, I expect that it would have looked quite a bit like this.

Having that sad, terrible arc for Wayne/Batman to suffer through requires a remarkably strong actor in the central dyadic role, else the whole project would tumble down, and Nolan was blessed to find Bale, an infamously intense young actor whose remarkable performance simply must rank as among the best in superhero cinema, if not in popcorn movies as a whole. After the first phase of Batman features, marred as they were by scripts and actors that were never terribly interested by the relationship between Wayne and Batman, Bale's characterisation in Begins is a miraculous revelation - yes, this is what a Batman movie is supposed to feel like. He doesn't bring the character into the human realm; he brings the character someplace akin to Greek drama, a prince tormented by his demons until he destroys himself to destroy them.

If the story and the central character - writerly and actorly considerations - are what give the film its sense of heroic-tragic myth, it is the visuals that make it a work of grim urban realism, though it's easy to be so impressed by the film's final 90 minutes that one can lose sight of the opening scenes in Tibet, which have a touch of the misty and fantastic about them. As he has in every film save his first, Nolan worked with cinematographer Wally Pfister on Begins, and the result was so flat-out brilliant that even the genre-film ignorant Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences couldn't ignore it. Batman Begins comes in two basic colors: blue and yellow. The blue is all used up in the Tibet sequences, shot to look otherworldly and cold, adding much to the feeling that this is a fable more than a film. But when the film comes back to Gotham, Pfister's camera leaps into full-on Realist action, bathing nearly every moment for the rest of the film - day or night, inside or outside - in a particular shade that replicates the hideous golden glow of sodium vapor lighting. The color of the urban night, in other words, and in Batman Begins we find a perfect example of a very important distinction, between cinematography that is beautiful and cinematography that is effective. Only an absolute film techie geek could possibly think of Begins as "pretty" - indeed, other than Pfister's wonderful use of shadows in the night scenes, it's easy and accurate to claim that the film is just plain ugly. But it is a film about ugly things and ugly places, and for us to be seriously involved in Bruce Wayne's quest to clean up his city, we have to be first impressed with its filthiness.

Pfister's cinematography does that, to a certainty, as does Nathan Crowley's production design. This ain't no Burton Batman, hideous even as it's imaginative. This film's Gotham is a decayed urban hellhole, not nightmarish since it's so entirely real. With city exteriors shot mostly on the streets of Chicago, only marginally re-dressed, there is nothing interesting to distract from this Gotham's lived-in qualities. It doesn't feel like a movie set because it isn't a movie set; true, some graffiti and trash was added to make the city seem a bit dirtier and more dangerous, but these are real sidewalks and alleys, not a Gothic fantasy version of the same.

The realism of the setting and the heightened, Campbell-esque quality of the narrative oughtn't, maybe, work as well together as they do; but Batman Begins is a tremendously effective and moving work of pop art because of this collision. Oddly enough, the only thing that's left high and dry by the film's unique vision is the very thing that we expect to be delighted by when we go to a superhero movie in the first place: the film's action sequences just aren't that good. Is it Nolan's fault for skipping out on a second unit, directing every action sequence himself? I hope not, for I find his audacity in that choice to be altogether charming. But something about the fighting scenes, especially - the de rigueur car chase is done fairly well, actually - falls a bit flat; they've been edited so that it's hard to follow what happens, exactly, and they're awfully short. Nolan and Bale's Batman is apparently a brooder, not a fighter, and that's perfectly fair, but it means that the film is even less of an escapist summer entertainment than it might have been.

Then again, we get escapist summer entertainment ever weekend for four months of every year. Christopher Nolan had the temerity to give us a nihilistic summer tragedy, and a precious rare thing it is for a populist film to be so emotionally wrenching.

Reviews in this series
Batman Begins (Nolan, 2005)
The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2008)
The Dark Knight Rises (Nolan, 2012)