Batman Begins discards the previous four films in the series and recasts the Caped Crusader as a fearsome avenging angel. That's good news, because the series, which had gotten off to a rousing start under Tim Burton, had gradually dissolved into self-parody by 1997's Batman & Robin. As the title implies, Batman Begins tells the story anew, when Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) flees Western civilization following the murder of his parents. He is taken in by a mysterious instructor named Ducard (Liam Neeson in another mentor role) and urged to become a ninja in the League of Shadows, but he instead returns to his native Gotham City resolved to end the mob rule that is strangling it. But are there forces even more sinister at hand?
Co-written by the team of David S. Goyer (a veteran comic book writer) and director Christopher Nolan (Memento), Batman Begins is a welcome return to the grim and gritty version of the Dark Knight, owing a great debt to the graphic novels that preceded it. It doesn't have the razzle dazzle, or the mass appeal, of Spider-Man 2 (though the Batmobile is cool), and retelling the origin means it starts slowly, like most "first" superhero movies. But it's certainly the best Bat-film since Burton's original, and one of the best superhero movies of its time. Bale cuts a good figure as Batman, intense and dangerous but with some of the lightheartedness Michael Keaton brought to the character. Michael Caine provides much of the film's humor as the family butler, Alfred, and as the love interest, Katie Holmes (Dawson's Creek) is surprisingly believable in her first adult role. Also featuring Gary Oldman as the young police officer Jim Gordon, Morgan Freeman as a Q-like gadgets expert, and Cillian Murphy as the vile Jonathan Crane. --David Horiuchi
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Stills from Batman Begins (click for larger images)