At first, it seems surprising that this would be one of the few actual successes during Hollywood's worst box office summer on record. First of all, there hasn't been much interest in the Batman character after Joel Schumacher's horrible Batman Forever and Batman and Robin frittered away the goodwill that Tim Burton's first two Batman movies earned. (In retrospect, Burton's films weren't that good either.) Then you have Christian Bale in the lead - hardly an A-list star. And while director Christopher Nolan won a large cult following for Memento, his ho-hum Insomnia remake did little to strengthen his reputation.
So why is Batman Begins a hit, in a summer filled with offerings so latently uncompelling that even hearing about them makes Joe Moviegoer want to stay home? (Herbie Fully Loaded, anyone?) The answer, I think, lies in good old fashioned storytelling craft, which drives Batman Begins and makes it by far the best film in the franchise. Nolan and his cowriter David S. Goyer simply know how to write for cinema: the dialogue is spare, the visuals tell the story, character is key.
And, the unremarkable Katie Holmes aside, you can't beat that supporting cast (Michael Caine adding much warmth and humor as Bruce Wayne's faithful butler Alfred; Gary Oldman playing a good guy for once; Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Tom Wilkinson and the eerie Cillian Murphy all turning in flawless performances). As for Bale, he may not have starred in any blockbusters before, but he's been a leading man for years, so he has the chops to carry a feature. His Bruce Wayne is properly tormented, his Batman truly angry. And who doesn't like a superhero origin story? They're always more interesting than watching an established hero fighting yet another array of flamboyant villains.
Nolan, of course, deserves credit for his visual approach as well: his sweaty, claustrophobic camera style fits the story, and rather than aping Burton's and Schumacher's phony-looking sets, his gritty, open-air Gotham is kind of a Manhattan with flourishes, which grounds the storyline in reality like no other superhero movie has since 1978's Superman. It creates a real sense of geography, population, and stakes. A lesson can be learned here by comparing Batman Begins' strong use of locations to George Lucas's soulless computer-generated backgrounds for Star Wars Episode III: Not only do you get more of a feel for a place when you know that the glass, steel, and stone you see is all real, but you realize why actors truly give better performances when they get to work in actual environments instead of just a big green room.
All in all, despite a slightly disappointing explosion-filled denouement (a let-down perhaps only because the first two acts are so utterly original), Batman Begins is a fine achievement in dramatic filmmaking, and well worth seeing even for those who still haven't stopped cringing after witnessing the horror that was Batman and Robin.