Batman Begins

“Batman Begins” is the fifth modern live-action movie to be made about the Caped Crusader, but it’s the first one to show why a criminal would fear him. Played with ferocious intensity by Christian Bale, Batman in this film growls, roars and threatens when he converses with evil-doers, his mouth — the only part of his face visible under his dark, angular cowl — twisted in fury. That his alter ego, billionaire Bruce Wayne, is relatively mild-mannered reminds the audience that Batman probably isn’t going to kill anyone. But the bad guys don’t know that.

Superman is a Boy Scout, Spider-Man is a confused teenager, the X-Men are misunderstood mutants. But Batman is only a man. He doesn’t fight crime because he received super powers and an admonition to use them for good. He does it because he’s pissed off. This is not, one suspects, someone to mess with.

That is the Batman of “Batman Begins,” anyway; I’ve never read the comic book, so I can’t say how faithful it is to the original. Regardless, it’s a fantastic Batman, motivated by the dark emotions of guilt, anger and fear, and the movie provides as much fascinating character study as it does rip-roaring adventure and comic-book excitement. This version, directed by Christopher Nolan (“Memento”) and written by Nolan and David S. Goyer (of the “Blade” movies, “Dark City,” and several other dimly lit adventures), is as dark and stylish as Tim Burton’s 1989 work, but more soulful, not to mention more thrilling.

It’s more functional, too. All prior attempts to tell the story of Batman have glossed over the details: How did he become such a powerful fighter and skilled acrobat? Where did his costume and gadgets come from? Why make himself a symbol, and why a bat? “Batman Begins” takes nothing for granted, showing the full Batman story from the beginning and filling in all the blanks. (The Batcave, it turns out, was once an actual bat cave!)

Though set mostly in the present, with Bruce Wayne enlisting his manservant Alfred (Michael Caine) to help him become the Dark Knight, it is rich with flashbacks. Bruce has seen himself become overwhelmed with rage over his parents’ murder, and the subsequent light treatment of the murderer. He has seen his beloved Gotham — which his philanthropist father helped make great — become rotten with corruption, crime and financial depression. He has left society to wander the far corners of the world, consorting with criminals and learning their mindset, ultimately being recruited by a mysterious stranger (Liam Neeson) to join the League of Shadows, an idealistic group of interdisciplinary fighters who want to redeem Gotham by “purifying” it — which means killing everyone in it, obviously.

Bruce doesn’t cotton to that particular plan, but he does return to Gotham to serve as a one-man justice league. The city is currently in the grip of crime lord Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), who has most of the police force, judges and district attorneys in his pocket and who revels openly in his ownership of Gotham. Batman has two incorruptible allies, though: his lifelong friend Rachel (Katie Holmes), now in the district attorney’s office; and Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman), a cop with a conscience.

Somehow tied to Falcone is Dr. Crane (Cillian Murphy), a psychiatrist who runs the Arkham Asylum and has some nefarious plans of his own. They involve a scarecrow mask and a hallucinogen, and you don’t want to be present when he employs them, that’s all I’m sayin’.

There is, I note with just a tinge of regret, very little night-to-night crime-fighting, the foiling of garden-variety muggers and bank robbers, that sort of thing. Batman’s focus is much more narrow: He wants to bring down Falcone and his network of criminals. In that respect, he is less a superhero than an ad-hoc demolition crew. Once Gotham is back on the right path, maybe he’ll retire.

The film occasionally feels like it has become so intent on darkness that it has forgotten to have fun. The Joker and Riddler are not present; the villains we have are of the more serious variety. But on the plus side, the film has a horrific and apocalyptic finale in which all of the villains’ plans come to fruition and Gotham becomes the scene of large-scale terror and panic, the likes of which we have never seen in a comic-book adaptation. That Batman saves the day goes without saying, but the scenes that precede his victory are riveting.

Bale gets the role just right, portraying a man struggling to find balance between fighting injustice and being a normal human being. He broods but he doesn’t mope — he seethes, rather, and fights with himself over how to save Gotham, aided by Alfred, who dispenses wry Cockney sensibility as only Michael Caine can do.

Speaking of actors who are always likable, Morgan Freeman has a nice turn as Lucius Fox, a Wayne Enterprises product developer who designs nifty weapons and toys in his secluded basement laboratory. This role is nothing more than the Q to Bruce Wayne’s 007, of course, but darned if the Oscar-winner doesn’t make him an appealing, noteworthy figure anyway, lighting up the screen every time he’s on it.

Cillian Murphy, Liam Neeson, Tom Wilkinson — all are fine in their supporting roles as shadowy figures and outright villains. Only one of them gets a proper send-off, though; the other two just sort of wander out of the movie, presumably to return in sequels but nonetheless lacking a resolution for THIS story.

And Katie Holmes: Meh. I’m afraid I’m not as good at pretending to like her as Tom Cruise is. In fact, she’s such a non-entity in this film, so bland and useless and clearly out of her depth, that if it weren’t for her recent tabloid fame, I wouldn’t have even bothered mentioning her.

Nonetheless, this is a movie I can get behind, a scary, exhilarating flurry of conflicting ideals, dark heroes, darker villains and good old-fashioned bang-up action. And Robin is nowhere to be found.

B+ (2 hrs., 20 min.; PG-13, plenty of action violence; nothing graphic or even particularly bloody.)