Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh

Less archly stylized than Tim Burton's cheerfully macabre BATMAN (1989) and vastly superior to the vulgar excesses of Joel Schumacher's crudely camp sequels, Christopher Nolan and David Goyer's somber prequel puts the darkness back in the Dark Knight's corner of crime-fighting hell. Set in a Gotham City suspended somewhere between America's past and a future that never was, it tells the story (or more accurately, given the variations spun by an assortment of comic book writers, a story) of fledgling prince-of-the-city Bruce Wayne's transformation into the haunted Batman. The key elements always remain the same, of course: Little Bruce (Gus Lewis), the much-loved son of wealthy, principled parents (Sara Stewart, Linus Roache), stews in the memory of their senseless murder until his psyche curdles. Raised to troubled manhood by the flinty family butler, Alfred (Michael Caine), the adult Bruce Wayne's (Christian Bale) thwarted thirst for vengeance drives him into the arms of martial-arts guru Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), who in turn answers to shadow warrior Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). His education at their hands spawns a bold plan to rescue Gotham from its homegrown bad apples; bit by bit, Wayne channels his darkest impulses into a symbol of justice and order born of ninja stealth, carefully customized accessories developed for Wayne Enterprises' "applied science" (read: weapons) division and the nightmarish memory of a blinding twister of bats spewing from the mouth of a deep, dark cave. Nolan, Goyer and a top-flight cast and crew bring ambition, intelligence and craft to the table, combined with respectful knowledge of the Batman mythos. The result is handsome and logical, but missing the spark that would make it thrilling. Batman's story is grim, a Faustian fable of making deals with darkness in hopes of loosening its stranglehold on the world, but the moments when the backstory coalesces into iconic images and situations should tingle with exhilaration and satisfied recognition — and they don't. That said, Bale burrows into Bruce Wayne's troubled mind with characteristic thoroughness, and the supporting cast is vivid proof that first-rate actors can enrich even broadly drawn characters. They include Cillian Murphy as Dr. Crane, master of Arkham Asylum; Tom Wilkinson as thug Carmine Falcone; Gary Oldman as Commissioner-to-be Gordon; Rutger Hauer as shady CEO Richard Earle and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, Batman's ally at Wayne Industries — even the tiny role of a homeless man is brought up a notch by veteran actor Rade Sherbedgia. Only the game but outclassed Katie Holmes falls short as Batman's boyhood crush-turned-crusading district attorney.