Back in black, bat ears intact

'Batman Begins' has subplots galore but can't commit to any

As a kid, I was satisfied with the information comic-book writers gave me about the things that mattered - how Superman got his superpowers, when Spider-Man started spinning webs, and yes, why Batman became Batman instead of plain old Bruce Wayne, millionaire playboy.

Hollywood thinks we need more knowledge, though. This explains why "Batman Begins" has begun at theaters - a prequel with as much energy as the Caped Crusader himself, which isn't surprising from director Christopher Nolan, of "Memento" fame.

The moguls who crafted "Batman Begins" clearly wanted to assure their box-office take by any means necessary, since they've thrown in everything from a new star (Christian Bale) to Eastern mysticism (with Liam Neeson as a ninja master) and social commentary (with Gotham City suffering from a depression induced by corrupt politicos).

The worst part of "Batman Begins" is, ironically, the beginning. The early scenes are fairly effective when little Bruce loses his parents to a murderer. But intercut with this is a lot of nonsense about grownup Bruce going crooked, beating up other guys in prison, and being sprung from the hoosegow by ninjas. Bruce joins the ninjas because he thinks they'll help him overcome his guilt about not avenging his parents' deaths - which isn't his fault - but he turns against them when he finds they want to wipe out his beloved Gotham, claiming they must destroy urban culture to save it.

Add subplots about corporate chicanery, drug smuggling, chemical terrorism, and romance, and you have something for everybody. Or nobody, since any one of these subjects would be more interesting if the filmmakers cleared away the clutter around it.

This said, "Batman Begins" delivers enough action to please Saturday-night crowds, if not the surreal wit that made the first two "Batman" movies, directed by Tim Burton, so entertaining. And you finally get answers to the question asked by Jack Nicholson as the Joker in the franchise's first installment, "Where does he get those wonderful toys?!!"

Rated PG-13; contains violence.

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