SUPERHERO: Christian Bale as Batman.

Batman, ladies and gentleman, is back. What’s more, he’s better than ever. Smart, dark, witty, full of action, and with a number of fine performances, “Batman Begins” manages to blow away even the best of its forebears (even — though I never thought I’d say it — the first “Batman” film, with Jack Nicholson as the Joker). Blacker, bleaker, full of quiet rage, this is a “Batman” for a new and more frightening century — easily the best comic-book-spawned movie ever, and one of the best movies of this year.
Here, in the familiar tale of the Dark Knight’s origins — albeit with a few tasty twists — young Bruce Wayne falls into an abandoned well, where he is engulfed in a cloud of bats. A few months later, when his flashbacks of that moment force his billionaire parents to leave the opera early, they are gunned down by a street thug, damning him to a life of guilt and self-hatred. Grown (and played by Christian Bale), this need for vengeance leads him around the world in his youth, where he lands in a Chinese prison before hooking up with a mysterious warrior named Ducard (Liam Neeson) who teaches him the way of the ninja in a snowy mountaintop retreat. After that relationship explodes, quite literally, Bruce makes his way back to Gotham, and with the help of his butler Alfred (Michael Caine), weapon-building genius Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and Ducard’s secrets of using his own worst fears to instill fear in his enemies, Wayne creates the character of Batman, complete with homemade weaponry and a secondhand Batmobile that looks like a cross between a warthog and an M-1 tank. Heroes need villains, however, and soon Batman has his: Dr. Jonathon Crane (Cillian Murphy), alias the Scarecrow, a mad psychologist who wants to destroy Gotham with the aide of a powerful hallucinogen that creates nightmarish visions.
For all its comic book roots, “Batman Begins” is — paradoxically — a movie about realism. That is: if you were a billionaire who wanted to become Batman, how would you go about it while remaining anonymous? If you wanted to create Batman’s body armor, where do you shop for boots? Where do you get a grappling gun? How do you go about laying hands on a bat-a-rang? Can you actually buy a bat-signal? In short, as Jack Nicholson’s Joker said: “Where does he get those marvelous toys?”
By giving such a home-grown answer, “Batman Begins” manages to zero in on why many fans prefer Batman over his DC Comics stable mate Superman: While there’s only one Son of Krypton, if you had Bruce Wayne’s money and kick-ass physique, you could actually BE Batman. Therein lies the root of a fanboy dream, and the logic behind the best Batman flick ever.
In short: Less spandex, more rats. Fewer mega-stars, more fun. Fewer hams, more heart. See it. Soon.
— David Koon
Light summer fare
Here’s a look at some other movies out at local theaters this weekend:
n Sisters Nora and Delia Ephron penned an inspired setup based on the 1960s television sitcom “Bewitched.” Television star Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell) snaps up the Darrin role in the updated version. He wants to hold the spotlight and seeks an unknown actress to play Samantha. Enter Isabel (Nicole Kidman), a real-life, cauldron-stirring witch trying to live as a mortal. She’s almost sworn off nose-twitching and bears an uncanny resemblance to Elizabeth Montgomery. The film stumbles over feeble attempts at romantic comedy, but there is pleasure to be found in Shirley MacLaine’s Endora and Michael Caine’s magical warlock turn.
n In Disney’s “Herbie: Fully Loaded,” Maggie (Lindsay Lohan), the third generation from a family of NASCAR pros, purchases Herbie, a junked VW bug with a mind of its own. Maggie’s dad (Michael Keaton) forbids her to race, but the high-octane fuel in Maggie’s veins combines with Herbie’s crush on a fellow race car to propel the pair onto the track. A sequel to 1968’s forgettable “Love Bug,” “Herbie” hopes to turn Dad’s NASCAR frenzy into a family affair.
n Director George Romero joins the resurgence of zombie mania with “Land of the Dead,” and it’s only fitting since the director’s 1978 “Dawn of the Dead” inspired the current Dead film wave. A powerful CEO (Dennis Hopper) holes up in a luxury complex, looking down on the unfortunate living as they evade marauding zombies. The CEO’s hired mercenaries (Simon Baker and John Leguizamo) zip around the city in a spiffy armored vehicle used to fetch supplies for their boss. Tension soars when the living attempt to storm the CEO’s complex and his life-sustaining vehicle is stolen. Ever the social commentator, Romero hopes we are dying to see the high and mighty take a fall.
n In “The Perfect Man,” Holly (Hilary Duff) has had it with moving to a new city each time her mother’s (Heather Locklear) latest ill-fated romance dissolves. Holly creates a dream lover to fix Mom’s broken self-esteem and fulfill her romantic fantasies. Ben (Chris Noth) is drafted to Holly’s cause, which includes curing Mom’s fear of being alone. A tender teen and family vehicle that makes a statement concerning ‘’living life on life’s terms’’ and also makes a case for Duff’s big-screen potential. Forget finding the perfect man. Finding the perfect movie is much better.
— By Lisa Miller