How did Bruce Wayne become Batman? That question is answered, in meticulous detail, in Christopher ("Memento") Nolan's moody, broody "Batman Begins," a mostly successful attempt to resuscitate a series soiled by silliness, sloppiness and Joel Schumacher. This prequel has a smattering of funny quips ("Does it come in black?" asks Batman, presented with his tanklike Batmobile), but they seem out of place in this dark, rage-driven drama.
This masked avenger, played by Christian Bale, makes no attempt to ingratiate. His early childhood (he's played as an 8-year-old by Gus Lewis) is defined by great wealth and a terror of bats. By the time the buff, unsmiling Bale steps in, Wayne has hardened into a ball of anger and guilt, traumatized by the murder of his parents and his failure to avenge them.
He sets off on a spiritual quest that ends on a Himalayan mountaintop; recruited by a mysterious mentor (Liam Neeson), he's trained in advanced martial arts by The League of Shadows, a team of vigilantes who want to purify the world through violence. But just when I feared the movie might sink in a quicksand of portentous mumbo jumbo (or the molten lava of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard's throbbing score), Wayne comes down from the mountaintop ready to take on the miscreants who've corrupted Gotham.
Once Batman suits up and swings into action, the movie takes dark flight. We get to watch Wayne, with the help of inventor Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and ever-loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine), invent his caped alter ego, piece by fetishistic piece. (Of all superheroes, Batman has the coolest stuff.) Nolan and co-writer David S. Goyer take a big risk in treating Batman's inner turmoil so seriously; the psychological realism and the science-fiction villainy don't always mesh seamlessly. But unlike so many superheroic summer spectacles, this one actually has a soul behind the special effects.