What I've learned from a lifetime of going to films based on comic book characters is that if you're going to make your movie work it had better be either funny or ironic. After all, you're not starting with a human being, are you? No; you're starting with a comic book. And we're not talking about Art Spiegelman's "Maus," either. Comic book heroes and heroines are unrealistic by definition, and any attempt to make them believable is bound to end in sorrow.
"Batman Begins" is unfortunately a comic book film that tries to have it all and succeeds at nothing. It begins with the standard opening that most of us can probably recite by heart: Young Bruce Wayne watches his parents being shot to death during a mugging that went wrong. The city is evidently in the hands of slimy evildoers, and as Bruce grows up to be played by Christian Bale he vows to restore Gotham City to its rightful place as a moral center. He goes on a quest - in this case meeting Liam Neeson who tells him that enlightenment can be found by carrying a blue flower to the top of the highest mountain. Ooh, it's hard, but he does it and returns seven years later to find - well, what does he find? He finds that the city is in the hands of slimy evildoers.
Let me spare you the hour of exposition that ensues as Bruce, gradually acquiring the gear and appurtenances of Batman, and with the help of faithful retainer Michael Caine and brilliant inventor Morgan Freeman, uncovers layer upon layer of evil. Only Katie Holmes, as an incorruptible Assistant D.A., and Gary Oldman, as an incorruptible cop, stand between Gotham City and total anarchy.
Is this funny so far? Unfortunately, "Batman Begins" takes itself so seriously that there's not even one intentional moment of wit in the entire film. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised: it was directed by Christopher Nolan, who made his bones by directing "Memento," the backwards-reeling mystery that ended up as no mystery at all; and the strange Midsummer-night Al Pacino venture called "Insomnia." No jokes there either. So here in "Batman Begins" we are apparently supposed to take the story seriously. But why, we ask, are we supposed to do that? It's a comic book, dude, and it's about a superhero. So if it's not going to be a fantasy that we can relate to, something that touches our hidden child, why in the world should we believe in it?
As I watched the multiplicity of explosions, the Batmobile car chase - which looked very much like the white Bronco chase of O.J. Simpson - I consoled myself with memories of the one really worthwhile Batman film, the one called "Batman," with Michael Keaton as our twin heroes Bruce Wayne and Batman, and Jack Nicholson as the Joker. That at least was funny.