NOTE: If you plan to see this movie but have not, you probably should wait to read this review.
This past weekend I finally saw Batman Begins. I agree with many who say that it was the best of the Batman motion pictures so far. I am perhaps not as enthralled with it as some, but not because of the character development and plot. It is admirably and infinitely more character driven than any in the series and Christian Bale portrays a superhero whose struggle with his flaws and doubts is wrenching, but whose will is as steely as his challenges are enormous.
Unfortunately, the culture in which this movie appears, rather than the film itself, represents its primary pitfall. We live in such a reality-based entertainment culture now; it's a culture in which a superhero who struggles with very human flaws seems more mundane than extraordinary; and the more mundane the better for the audience, because American culture is desensitized to the chasm between super powers and human flaws that ruptures the life of a superhero. So, when a superhero shows shortcomings, rather than being awed by the heroic struggle, our culture finds satisfaction in self-identification with or separation from flaws we either have or see in those around us. Accordingly, Batman Begins begins our therapy, rather than instigating our transformation.
The failure to transform is not the movie's fault. The film is neither an ode to capitalism nor a liberal imprecatory psalm as some of the various online prisms try to filter it. On the contrary, it actually concerns the perennial problem of the perseverance of the heroic human will. More exactly it came across to me as a morality play about striking a balance between the collective will of the herd (characterized as the suffering masses of Gotham), the blatant will-to-power of criminal masterminds who prey on the herd mentality (and who are a personal obsession of Bruce Wayne, given his family tragedy) and the subtle and stealthy will-to-power of the League of Shadows, which apparently disposes of the criminal predators along with the herds upon which they prey.
Bruce/Batman finds that balance in the compassionate teachings of his father kept alive after the latter's death through the mentoring of the family butler, Alfred (played remarkably well by Michael Caine), who is the only one who never gives up on Bruce. My impression was that Bruce/Batman would have self-destructed in the pinch between Gotham, crime, and the League had it not been for Alfred. The triumph of the heroic human will is not simply a matter of the rugged individual; it happens through trust in, reliance upon, and care received from others. If Alfred is not Bruce's conscience, at the very least he is the very condition of Bruce's will-to-justice; that is, the will to instill the same fear in those wills-driven-to-power that they drive into the heart of the herd, but without falling into the Shadow.
The reviews I've read and heard seem to miss the priority Batman Begins gives to the will in favor of playing up either Batman's humanity in terms of his flaws or certain tones to make a political point (and I'm not saying Batman Begins is apolitical; social responsibility for instance is a political point). Both of these lines of logic are more cathartic than transformative for the audience. As a cathartic tool, Batman Begins is not particularly outstanding. Relative to popular culture, I would not consider it nearly as significant as Batman (1989), which seemed to me to introduce long-lost gothic, perhaps even film noir, qualities into a mainstream superhero film. After so many white-washed Superman episodes before the original Batman, Michael Keaton's "Caped Crusader" was a breath of dark air.
However, when I get beyond cathartic expectations, I believe that Christian Bale's Batman is vastly better than the original. As a statement about the heroic will, it is transformative for those who have eyes to see the potential transformation, for those who have eyes to see in the dark.