Okay. It's better than Batman&Robin. Quite a bit better. When the psycho pyrotechnics have subsided, the flames have turned to ashes and the Dark Knight drops into the shadows, you may wonder - if there's room for any thought in your head other than, "Wow", - how this was ever known as Batman 5. It's not a sequel. It's not a prequel. It truly is a new beginning. Christopher Nolan has taken the dominant franchise of the '90s and said, "Forget about it. Batman is reborn." And it's a bloody, brutal, beautiful birth.
Batman Begins does for the Caped Crusader what GoldenEye did for Bond. Ironic that Bale, who was so close to becoming the post-Brosnan Broccoli boy, should shoulder a series that lost its way so similarly to 007 in the '80s. For Batman&Robin, read A View To A Kill - bloated, camp disasters where stunt casting and expensively empty set- pieces suffocated the essential appeal: a damaged, dangerous, violent man - a detective, of sorts - solving a cataclysmic case and looking ineffably cool.
So, no more glitz. But no gothic, either. Nolan hasn't defaulted to Burton's original vision - remarkable in 1989, enjoyable but rather empty now behind Jack's sneer and swagger. Rather, he trusts in the inherent allure of Batman's dark heart and lets him loose on our world. Gotham here is a barely tweaked NYC, its suited and re-booted hero imposing but realistic - the logical result of a justice-seeking vigilante with limitless resources. From Wayne Enterprises' prototype body armour spray-painted black to the Bat-winged throwing stars he grinds out himself, Wayne harnesses bleeding edge technology to create an alter ego that's "something elemental. Something terrifying." He seeks and embraces the power to become a nightmare: "To turn fear on those who prey on the fearful."
Tapping into the times, fear is the film's recurrent theme. Bale has spoken of Batman as another American psycho and there is indeed something chilling when Bruce Wayne says, "People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy." It is a statement. It is a threat. Batman is the toughest of superheroes - a rage-fuelled creature of the night, whose heroics often fly close to fascism. Batman is a terrorist. But he's our terrorist.
Frank Miller reinvented Bob Kane's iconic character in Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns. And while Sin City's comics genius isn't credited, Nolan and David S Goyer's script is indebted to Miller's exploration of Batman's bruised psyche and his noir-styled depiction of a Gotham wracked by organised crime more than costumed superfreaks (Tom Wilkinson excels as Mob boss Carmine Falcone). But the most surprising, shocking influence is from avant-garde Batman classic Arkham Asylum, whose terrifying visual style informs Batman Begins' most remarkable sequences - when people inhale the fear-conjuring hallucinogen of the evil Dr Jonathan Crane, aka The Scarecrow (the superb Cillian Murphy). From Scarecrow's sinister sackcloth mask spew forth images that send victims insane. The scene of Batman as an oily, snarling beast is simply unforgettable - proof that Nolan hasn't allowed a blockbuster's budget and expectations to blunt his edge.
The director is less comfortable with the third act's pre-requisite set-pieces, which suffer slightly, unusually, because of the strength of character and story that precede them. Most summer blockbusters expect spectacular action sequences to distract and amuse an audience bored by the `talky bits'. Bale's Batman is so compelling and the supporting cast (Neeson, Morgan Freeman, Rutger Hauer) so emotionally engaging that no effects-laden high-speed smackdown can quite equal the frisson of two people talking. Similarly, an increase in flippancy - making Gary Oldman's world-weary Sergeant Gordon ultimately a touch clownish - feels like a forced concession to blockbuster rules.
Casting Katie Holmes may be a similar concession, but while imagining her as a lawyer is a stretch ("You are, like, soooo totally busted"), she sparks with Bale in a lovey-dovey subplot refreshingly free of Peter Parker/Mary Jane-style whining. And Michael Caine is outstanding as Alfred the butler, providing the emotional spine for Bale's transition from little boy lost to hulking great brute. Emotion, in a comic-book movie? In spades. Nolan's picture will have your tear-ducts tingling and the hair on your neck standing straight. Funny, exhilarating and moving, it's a blockbuster whose brains and brawn are matched by a thumping great heart. The Bat is back with a vengeance.