Batman Begins

Batman caped in grimness

Starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, and Morgan Freeman. Rated PG. For showtimes, please see page 64

Joel Schumacher is a good, eclectic filmmaker who defined his limitations with Batman. I have no memory of his Batman Forever, and I have indelible loathing for the ultracampy Batman and Robin (a reaction that was sufficiently commonplace to mothball the series for eight years).

Sparing no expense, DC Comics and the Brothers Warner are easing the caped crusader back to the big screen. The geek community was outspoken in its second-guessing of Schumacher, and they were obviously heard. Now the buzzword is realism. No more nipples on this batsuit! Indeed, there is no Batman at all for the first half of the film, just Bruce Wayne's evolution from orphaned rich kid to masked vigilante. David Goyer's script combines elements of Frank Miller's wonderful Year One book (a young Bruce Wayne returning to Gotham from martial-arts training in the Far East; Lieut. James Gordon, not yet commissioner, despairing at the corruption on the force) with an origin story involving Ra's Al Ghul, the oddly principled villain.

Filling out the black rubber is Christian Bale, who memorably essayed crazed buffness in American Psycho. The we-know-best fan base pushed for his casting and has been positively giddy about the hiring of director Christopher Nolan, whose Memento will always give him an undeniable cachet of Seriousness. The other roles are filled with top talent: Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Liam Neeson, Ken Watanabe, Michael Caine. Batman Begins should be great.

Instead, it's”¦good. Not terrible. And not even okay, which is a polite synonym for terrible. I admired big chunks of the movie and appreciated the rest. Batman Begins is expansive, intense, and, allowing for the inherent nuttiness of the genre, rather credible. Even the girlfriend character, an ill fit for the all-business obsessive who is Bruce/Bats, is pulled off by the pulchritudinous Katie Holmes. Cillian Murphy is a little too young and pouty to be effective as the nefarious Scarecrow, but the real obstacle, for me, is the movie's relentlessly grim tone. There are no iconic "wow" moments, like when Tim Burton framed the Batjet against the moon. Nolan's Batman is scarier and meaner but also more prosaic. As with Ang Lee's The Hulk, you get a comic-book movie that's had pretty much all of the joy stripped out of it. True, the filmmakers were asked to invest these properties with drama, tension, and horror, and they've done so. But regardless of their psychological torments, you (or the small child inside) should still want to be these characters-to join in their thrilling adventures, not do group therapy with them.

On the other hand, this screen Batman is very much alive. He's a strong character, interpreted by an intense actor. He has many interesting toys and decades of story lines to plunder for future episodes. If this is how it begins, the real fun will surely follow.