With Age Of Heroes, Tom Breihan picks the most important superhero movie of every year, starting with the genre’s early big-budget moments and moving onto the multiplex-crushing monsters of today.
Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies are as revered as any franchise of summer blockbusters can really be in this day and age. But when people make fun of them, they always seem to settle on one thing in particular: the Batman voice. When he’s in his Batman suit, Christian Bale doesn’t have too many long conversations, but when he does talk, it’s in some hybrid of grumpy-dad growl and death-metal grunt. It’s a deeply silly construction, this guttural constipated snarl. I fucking love it.
2005’s Batman Begins, Nolan’s introduction to the rebooted franchise, was the first Batman movie where a villain wasn’t the most interesting character. There are, of course, plenty of villains. Liam Neeson makes a couple of surprise turns, rocking some insanely impressive facial hair and leading a mob of mysterious, culture-reshaping ninjas. Cillian Murphy gives amazing mad-scientist, preening and gibbering and bugging his eyes out. The way he delivers the phrase “the Bat Man” is great; the way he’s taken out by a secondary character’s taser is less so. Even the actorly eminence Tom Wilkinson gets in a walk-on role as a mobster, sticking around long enough to make one great speech about how “people from your world have so much to lose.”
They’re all interesting characters, and they all have classically impeccable actors playing them. But for once, Batman gets to be the real star of a Batman movie. And that voice is the key to it. Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne has been traumatized and sent down a self-destructive path. He’s ejected himself from society and gone off on the sort of finding-himself quest that has led him to gratuitously beat up fellow inmates at a Chinese prison camp. When he finally figures out some direction in life, he wants to stop being whatever he is and start being a forbidding and shadowy symbol. Using that voice isn’t his version of Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent bumbling around all over the place. He’s not doing that voice so that people won’t recognize him as Bruce Wayne. He’s doing that voice so that people won’t recognize him as a human being.
As a disguise, though, it works. My favorite scene from Batman Begins comes late in the movie, when Bruce Wayne is throwing himself a birthday party and realizes that it’s been infiltrated by his old clan of conspiratorial ninjas. So he goes into billionaire-asshole mode, drunkenly kicking all of his guests out and insulting them in the process. In that moment, Bale taps into some of the same oily rich-dipshit charisma that he’d conveyed so memorably in Mary Harron’s American Psycho five years earlier. He acts the way most actual rich guys act. He displays petty grudges, demands to be the center of attention, and sneers at anyone with less money than himself. He’s a perfect dickhead. He does this to save everyone from the lurking ninjas, but he also helps solidify the idea that he couldn’t be Batman. Because he’s a rich asshole, and when’s the last time a rich asshole showed any interest in being anything other than a rich asshole?
Batman Begins was a movie with a mission. In the new era of profitable comic book blockbusters, Warner Bros. needed to erase the stink of the Joel Schumacher Batman movies, camp explosions that became instant cultural punchlines from the moment—in the lead-up to Batman & Robin’s release date—that the announcement about the Bat-nipples came out. Batman Begins exists to set up other movies, too. But even if we’d never gotten The Dark Knight out of it, even if the movie had lost tons of money and sent Warner scrambling to imagine another reboot, Batman Begins would still stand as a pretty amazing example of superhero-movie craft.
Nolan was an inspired choice for this whole enterprise. He’d made his impact with the relentlessly clever Memento. With Insomnia, he’d proved that he could work with movie stars. With all of his films, he’d shown a visual flair and a fascination with the nuts and bolts of story. Batman Begins was his leveling-up moment, his big leap into the blockbuster arena.
And Warner must’ve had a whole lot of faith in him. Batman Begins is not a movie that skimps on anything. The producers built a pretty decent chunk of Gotham City on soundstages in London. They designed the Tumbler, a monstrous new version of the Batmobile, and they built four working and street-ready versions of it, including one with a literal jet engine inside it. They designed a whole new martial arts system for Bruce Wayne to practice. And they filled the cast out with Oscar-caliber actors, with people like Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine and Gary Oldman all taking on relatively minor roles. Ken Watanabe is barely in it. Rutger Hauer gets what amounts to an extended cameo. Even the weird-looking little kid who Katie Holmes saves, while not remotely famous at the time, would go on to play Joffrey on Game Of Thrones.
For his big Batman reimagining, Nolan wanted to ground the character, and his whole world, in something that at least vaguely resembled plausible reality. And he put so much care into what he was building. Visually, the movie is rich as hell. In the early scene where Christian Bale climbs a mountain to meet his ninja clan, we get helicopter shots of snowy mountain vistas, banners randomly flapping behind Bale, and flowers that look too blue to be real. Nolan finds ways to turn Thomas Wayne, a hopeless dupe in almost every retelling of the Batman myth, into a decent human being. (Nolan takes pains to make Bruce into the descendent of a long line of good rich people, to the point where Alfred casually mentions that the Batcave was a stop on the Underground Railroad.) He draws lines between economic depression (which, it turns out, was caused by ninjas) and high crime rates, and he resists the urge to turn Bruce’s parents’ killer into a mindless psychopath.
Bruce doesn’t become Batman until an hour into the movie, and by that time, Nolan has already drawn up a rich world of corrupt politicians, corrupt corporate lackeys, corrupt cops, lordly crime bosses, and hopelessly trapped regular people. And so there’s a tremendous charge in that first transformation scene, with Batman only appearing in flashes, and with goons disappearing into shadows. It’s a slasher-movie scene, except the slasher is our hero.
I have this distinct memory of leaving the theater with a friend after watching Batman Begins, both of our minds blown, raving about what we’d just seen. Superhero movies were just entering their boom period, but all of them, even the best ones, had been knowingly silly. No other filmmaker had ever really considered the idea that you could tell a story like this without winking at least a little bit. But Nolan didn’t wink. He took the character and the world around him seriously, treating an American myth with a gravity that had never really been on screen before. My friend and I were so dumbfounded that I’m pretty sure we used the word “believable” to describe what we’d just seen.
Now, Batman Begins is not a believable movie. There is no way to tell a plausible story about a billionaire who, driven by a desire to make the world a better place, dresses up like a scary rodent and beats up mobsters. And Batman Begins is, at times, deeply silly. History, we learn, has been driven entirely by ninja interventions. Batman somehow summons a swarm of bats, from his cave, to help him fight off a deranged rogue psychiatrist’s goons. A giant rolling assault vehicle escapes a horde of police cars and helicopters mostly by turning off its lights. And the central evil plan is convoluted and absurd enough to leave Lex Luthor muttering to himself. The bad guys want to use a weapons-grade microwave to evaporate an entire city’s water supply, thus activating the weaponized-hallucinogen fear gas that they’ve been pumping into it, and turning the entire population into a wild and violent mob. There are easier ways to destroy a city, you know?
Batman Begins is also a movie full of movie bullshit, characters who don’t remain remotely consistent. After spending who knows how long in the thrall of a ninja cult, Bruce Wayne refuses to kill a murderous farmer, so he sets off an explosion that must kill a whole lot of people, presumably including that same murderous farmer. Bruce’s butler, Alfred, inherits the entire Wayne estate, happily telling Bruce that maybe he can borrow the Rolls. The next time we see Alfred, he’s carrying a tray. Upon repeat viewings, little things like that really jump out.
And while this doesn’t have anything to do with the plausibility, I have to mention the action scenes. Nolan sets the scenes up in clear and compelling ways. He brings in fight choreographers and sends his stars to study martial arts. He has a whole lot of ninjas in there. And yet the fight scenes are all indistinguishable blurs, full of shaky camerawork and choppy editing. This was the style at the time, and Nolan’s action scenes have gotten gradually better over the years, to the point where the aerial-dogfight scenes in last year’s Dunkirk are the best of their kind I’ve ever seen. But the Batman Begins fights are pure amateur hour. It drove me fucking nuts. How could this guy be so good at every aspect of action-movie filmmaking except for the actual action?
But even with those quibbles, Batman Begins was a total eye-opener, a whole new vision of what a superhero movie could even be. Nolan has always had a way with mythic images, and some of the individual shots from Batman Begins will be with me forever: the taser harmlessly sparking off of Batman’s armor, or the bit where a helicopter camera swoops around Batman as he perches like a gargoyle on a Gotham spire. Nolan knew that just a little bit of veracity could go a long way. He knew that he could make Gotham look, more or less, like a real city, rather than a German-expressionist fantasyland. He knew he could cover plot holes with a few quick lines about Bruce Wayne using shell companies to buy his Batsuit’s components. And he knew that, with just a little bit of elbow grease, he could send moviegoers—grown adults who should really know better—out of the theater talking about how his Batman movie was realistic. That was a new thing.
Other notable 2005 superhero movies: Christopher Nolan might’ve made launching a new superhero franchise look like an easy thing, but it’s apparently not that easy. Consider Tim Story’s first Fantastic Four movie, in which Marvel’s beloved interstellar-adventurer family comes to life in an incoherent flurry of bad jokes and worse CGI. The movie gave Chris Evans, then playing Johnny Storm, an early chance to flex his charm. But other than that, it’s a worthless, intelligence-insulting mess—exactly the sort of movie that, in its pure shittiness, underscores just how miraculous Batman Begins really was.
It’s kind of a mess, but Francis Lawrence’s Constantine, based on a character that Alan Moore created, does a much better job at building a whole world and giving its hero some gravitas. As John Constantine, Keanu Reeves, in that weird career valley between the Matrix movies and John Wick, plays a sort of supernatural detective, hoping to cancel his own damnation by helping to keep the forces of Hell from overtaking Earth. It’s got the same overambitious plotting and bad CGI that plague so many of these movies, but it’s also got a great cast, including Tilda Swinton as a wayward angel and Shia LaBeouf as a Shia LaBeouf-esque loudmouth. (Also, Gavin Rossdale from Bush is in there? As a sexy demon?) And it takes its whole absurdity seriously. Constantine might also be the last big American studio movie to intentionally make smoking look cool. The cigarettes might be killing the main character, but he still gets to look cool while smoking them. (That same year, another Alan Moore story, the vaguely superhero-adjacent V For Vendetta, became a pretty okay movie.)
For whatever reason, someone really thought that the bullshit-ass Ben Affleck Daredevil movie deserved a spinoff, and so we got Elektra. The movie isn’t nearly as bad as its reputation, and it’s sure as hell better than Daredevil. Elektra has some cool visual moments in with all the incoherent plotting, action, and CGI. But it does have the central problem of casting Jennifer Garner, a person who radiates niceness with every ounce of her being, as a cold-blooded ninja warrior. There are some problems you just can’t overcome.
While superhero movies were becoming their own quasi-adult (or at least teenage) genre, 2005 did see the release of a few superhero movies for kids, like Sky High, the comedy about a school for teenage superheroes, or The Adventures Of Sharkboy And Lavagirl, Robert Rodriguez’s green-screen party about a kid whose superhero fantasies become reality. The Sci-Fi channel turned Man-Thing, Marvel’s tragic and silent swamp-monster hero, into a widely hated low-budget movie. Edward Furlong took over as the Crow in The Crow: Wicked Prayer, fighting David Boreanaz and Tara Reid and Tito Ortiz and Dennis Hopper in the character’s final straight-to-video movie. And Jamie Kennedy assumed the mantle of Jim Carrey in Son Of The Mask, a movie that I simply do not remember existing at all. Meanwhile, the non-superhero comics Sin City and A History Of Violence both became movies that were, in their own very different ways, iconic. I named my action-movie column after the latter, even though it wasn’t really an action movie.
Next time: Bryan Singer tries to revive Richard Donner’s franchise with Superman Returns, and it goes badly in interesting ways.