Amid the bombast of gadgets, powers and close-fitting costumes, it’s sometimes easy to forget that legendary comic-book heroes are born from a creator’s sharp comment on the world he sees.

When the late Bob Kane debuted Batman in the 1940s, he was a vigilante crusader forged from the fragility of the Depression and the blight of inner-city crime.

More than 60 years later, director Christopher Nolan applies a much-needed defibrillator to the character’s near-vegetative movie franchise. Working with screenwriter David S. Goyer, he’s updated the hero’s M.O. in a way that’s tantalizing and topical without abandoning his noir roots.

Christian Bale, the consummate actor for this role, plays a Batman who gets wrapped up in our globe’s current collective culture of fear and how unknowingly unsafe this world might be. The film’s brilliance is in its rich, specific plumbing of its hero’s psychology and physicality in combating it.

Even if the costume doesn’t show up for an hour, this is all Batman/Bruce Wayne, all the time. And Nolan makes equal-time use of his stacked cast (Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Tom Wilkinson) by using them as tributaries to his lead.

Batman Begins has intriguing father figures (Caine’s loving butler Alfred and Neeson’s mysterious warrior-poet Henri Ducard), but also compelling uncle figures in Oldman’s Lieutenant Gordon and Freeman’s Lucius Fox, an exiled executive at Wayne Enterprises.

The villains dictate Bruce’s path and thankfully don’t spout amateur-hour one-liners. There’s no hot-to-trot love interest; the last scene between Bale and Holmes, playing the childhood sweetheart, is beautifully bittersweet. And Nolan makes no weak attempt at a go-home-happy statement about the subject matter (although a sequel baiting coda feels tacked on by studio mandate).

This radical rewind opens with a perfect “Where are we?” note, with Bruce in a Far Eastern prison. He’s there to inhabit the criminal mind and, well, whale on bad-guy prisoners. Both needs spring from the scars and guilt of seeing his parents’ murder in a Gotham City back alley.

He’s sprung from the pokey by Ducard, who works for enigmatic Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) and his mysterious vigilante group, League of Shadows. Bruce’s training with them teaches him much, but his rejection of their eye-for-an-eye stance leads him back home.

Bruce finds Gotham City even more corrupt than when he left. With the goal of striking fear into criminals’ hearts as deeply as they have into his, Bruce gradually becomes Batman. But the past that started this process isn’t as buried as he thought; Ghul and the vicious Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) team up in a plot to permanently paralyze the town with a hellish hallucinatory “fear gas.”

More than ever, this material demands an actor’s understanding of the importance of Batman and Bruce Wayne. Bale’s performance is the most internalized and fully embodied.

He deeply dives into a well of anger and angst while conveying imperfections and easily exploited vulnerability other Batmen quite simply have lacked. Plus, his cloaked scowling as the Dark Knight is the only one that has gone for scares, not smirks — best shown when he gives Scarecrow a taste of his own “fear gas.”

The hero’s evolution takes place in a Gotham City that no longer looks like a bad visual-effects shot. (Portions of Chicago, including a sublime Batmobile chase on Lower Wacker Drive, stood in.) It’s the rare big-budget movie where it looks like money was used to construct and create a world, not a computer-generated stand-in. The action sequences share a similarly gritty, earthy feel — the aforementioned chase, training duels with Ducard, the climactic battle on a monorail train.

As Bruce says in the film, “People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy.” Batman Begins impresses at so many levels — accessible smarts, rousing action, character development, maybe the year’s finest acting ensemble — that “comic-book movie” seems inappropriate. This is a great film, period, and one that proves entertainment with a brain as big as its budget isn’t dead this summer.