Since 2008, The Dark Knight has been praised as one of the greatest comic book movies of all time. This is understandable, as it blurs the line between superhero movie and gritty crime drama flawlessly. It seems that as soon as the movie was released, it overshadowed its predecessor Batman Begins. There are many elements of TDK that have Begins beat. For example, comparing the villains of Begins to Heath Ledger’s Joker performance almost doesn’t seem fair. Ledger’s Joker performance will forever be known as one of the greatest in a comic book movie of all time. However, when looking at the films as a whole, Begins might just barely win out.
After the failure of Batman & Robin in 1997, making another film based on the Caped Crusader seemed like a bad idea. There were several continuations and even a few reboots in the pipeline, but these ultimately fell through. It wasn’t until films such as Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man blew up that DC decided it was time to return to Gotham City. Rather than continue telling stories in the Burton/Schumacher universe, it was decided to start fresh. What better way to start from scratch than by going back to the beginning?
Batman’s Story Begins
Bruce Wayne’s backstory was shown in passing in the previous films, but it was the basic version. Fans saw Bruce’s parents get gunned down countless times, but they had yet to see the steps young Bruce took to become Batman. Batman Begins set out to do just this, and in the process created the best look at Bruce Wayne as a person. That dark night in Bruce’s life changed him for better or worse. He didn’t just decide at that moment to dress up as a bat and fight crime when he got older. In many ways, Bruce himself died that night as well. This is one of the best aspects of Begins. It doesn’t just show Bruce as this flawless crime fighter. It shows a traumatized young man looking to use his fear for the greater good.
The road between hopeless child to vigilante was a long one. In fact, Bruce’s first instinct was to kill the man responsible. This brief moment of weakness helped Bruce realize that becoming the thing he hated wasn’t going to help anyone. He had to become something more, and this journey he goes on is what drives the film. Even when he finally dons the cape and cowl, he is far from the hero fans love. He is still flawed and headstrong, and very much reckless. It isn’t until he has to finally truly face his fears that he begins the full transition into Batman.
Another aspect Begins does a bit better is the relationship between Rachel and Bruce. Rachel’s recasting aside, the relationship between these two seems to be written a bit more naturally in the first film. Viewers really get the feeling that these two have known each other for most of their lives. Rachel sees Bruce as a dear friend, and seeing him self-destruct while she is unable to help him is powerful stuff. When she learns his truth and rejects him, it is because she longs for the Bruce she grew up with, not this new persona he has developed. Rachel is great in TDK as well, but there she is relegated to a more “one who got away” role than a childhood friend.
The Importance of the Villains
As stated before, there is no use in directly comparing Heath Ledger’s Joker to anything in Batman Begins. Calling that Joker performance legendary is an understatement, and is unlikely to ever be forgotten. However, when people think of The Dark Knight, they think of Joker far more than Batman. However, when they think of Begins, they imagine the man himself. By this logic, Begins is more of a Batman movie than Dark Knight is. That isn’t to say the villains are bad in Begins, though; far from it in fact.
Comic accuracy aside, the villains in this film are key in shaping Batman into the crime fighter Gotham needs him to be. Ra’s Al Ghul taught him to blend into his surroundings. To push his strength and intelligence to the limit and then push some more. Above all else, he taught him that not everything is as it seems. Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow helped him realize that fear is not something to keep hidden; it also shouldn’t be used as a weapon, but as a tool. Joker may have proven to be one of his most formidable foes, but the criminals in Begins were the most important to the development of this incarnation of Batman. They may not elicit the same feelings in the viewer that Joker does, but they should be respected from a storytelling perspective.