Dark roots: New Batman leaves fun behind

How do you like your Batman?

That's important to consider if you're in doubt about seeing Batman Begins, the new movie that's essentially a prequel to the quartet made between 1989-97.

Those obsessive fans of the original comic books, most of whom weren't born when they debuted in 1939, will cheer director and co-writer (with David S. Goyer) Christopher Nolan (Memento, Insomnia) for returning the story to its dark roots. Generations raised on the 1966-68 camp TV series or the recent movies that existed as showcases for over-the-top performances by guest villains will have a different reaction: Nolan's taken the fun out of Batman.

In place of a single villain there's such a plethora you'll be thoroughly confused by the time Mr. Big is revealed in the last third of the picture. In place of simple Good vs. Evil there's a lot of philosobabble ("To conquer fear you must become fear") about such things as the difference between justice and revenge, most of which is negated when we learn what a twisted definition of justice the speaker has.

Christian Bale, having regained the weight he lost for The Machinist, makes an excellent Bruce Wayne. He's one of several Brits in the strong cast, most of whom– except Michael Caine– play Americans.

Flashbacks establish young Bruce's fear of bats and how it led to his parents being murdered in an alley by a mugger. His father (Linus Roache) was one of a long line of do-gooders dating back at least to the Civil War era, when the Underground Railroad ran under Wayne Manor.

The Waynes also have a financial empire headquartered in the tallest building in Chi– er, Gotham. Wracked by anger and guilt, young Bruce goes away, returning 14 years later when his parents' killer is up for parole. Bruce intends to kill him but is beaten to it by someone working for crime boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson, channeling Rod Steiger). Falcone also pays a respected psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), to get his men off on an insanity defense.

So Bruce leaves town again after checking in with Alfred (Caine) the butler and Rachel (Katie Holmes), the housekeeper's daughter and Bruce's best childhood friend, the Waynes being so liberal. This time he mingles with the criminal element, winding up in a prison camp in Bhutan. There he meets Ducard (Liam Neeson), who arranges his release and puts him through a training program like Uma Thurman's in Kill Bill, but with more ninjas.

Back in Gotham, where he's been declared legally dead, Bruce fashions the Batman persona to mete justice to criminals the police can't– or won't– touch. Wayne Enterprises is being run by Richard Earle (Rutger Hauer), who's about to take the company public. He agrees to let Bruce have a dead-end job in the Applied Sciences department under Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), who does research and development on items the company will never produce but which will be very useful to Batman.

If Fox's function reminds you of Q in the Bond films, that won't be the only non-Batman flashback you get from Batman Begins. As Bale, wearing a cowl and a scowl, rises and falls hundreds of feet in seconds on a retractable wire you'll think of Spider-Man, as you will when he hangs upside down (but not for kissing), has a climactic fight on a speeding elevated train, and reveals his dual identity to the woman he loves.

Bale's blue-black, comic book superhero hair is styled like Anthony Perkins', so you've got Psycho meets American Psycho. Now that's scary!

What little fun there is in Batman Begins comes, as in Revenge of the Sith, from knowing where things are headed: that experimental car will become the Batmobile, Sgt. Gordon (Gary Oldman, excitingly understated) will become Commissioner Gordon, etc.

Bruce has a complex moral code. "I will not become an executioner," he vows, but if he has to kill he'd rather kill a good person for the right reason than a bad person for the wrong reason. In one of the big action scenes the entire Gotham police force (to whom Batman is not a hero) is chasing the Batmobile, and if no one is killed it's a miracle.

When it's all over I defy you to explain the villain's logic in targeting Gotham, and why we're supposed to cheer when death and destruction are confined to the ghetto, given the prevailing social liberalism theretofore.

A lot of the technical work is as expert as you'd expect from Nolan, even though he's never worked on this scale before, but some of the chaotic fight scenes are disappointing. At first it seems genius when Batman strikes and the quicker-than-the-eye action reflects the confused point of view of his victims, but when the same approach is used in flat-out fights it's bad filmmaking. That fight on the train, for example, looks like two dark shapes moving rapidly toward and away from each other accompanied by thunking noises, but we never get a clear shot of one man landing a punch on the other. (So it's not Cinderella Man, even though it's about a hero rising during depressed times.)

Speaking of noise, there are no pop tunes this time around. The loud score, attributed to both Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, is best described as industrial orchestral.

Some major critics are going bats over Batman Begins, but I can't go along. It's got a lot of virtues but coherence, consistency, and fun aren't among them.