2005’s Batman Begins, from the Chicago-based, UK-born writer/director Christopher Nolan, was a surprising hit for a franchise that had been dead in the water thanks to George Clooney, Joel Schumacher and a controversial pair of rubber nipples.
Surprising that is for everyone except Nolan’s fans. His all-too-rare blend of intelligence and commercial appeal had wowed audiences in Insomnia, Memento, The Prestige and his little seen first film, the enigmatic Following.
If studios needed any more convincing the box office action was in comic book movies, Nolan wasted no time showing them with 2008’s The Dark Knight, one of the first films with a billion dollar box office haul and currently the 12th highest grossing movie in history. This is a man for whom comic book movies win Oscars.
The 41-year-old seems every inch the British gentleman rather than the video game geek in sneakers and Reservoir Dogs T shirt. But he’s certainly doing something right despite appearances, having shepherded the biggest selling (and best) blockbuster movie trilogy to the screen.
“There’s been a shift in recent years about how people view the relationship between source material and movies,” the director says. “When I started on this project the source material wasn’t necessarily how we were going to treat it in a movie. When we set out to make Batman Begins we tried to make a great movie, not in any way paying lip service to the form of the original source material. If it’s a story or a novel you didn’t try to represent that form in a movie, that was the more traditional philosophy.”
It’s a method that worked in the Dark Knight and imbues every frame of The Dark Knight Rises. Where past Batman films from Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher looked like comic strips, Nolan’s anchored his films in a world that looks just like ours with office buildings, traffic and cops who just happen to be facing larger-than-life criminals.
In doing so, casting might be among his greatest talents. To go along with the real world Gotham City, a real actor instead of just a pin-up again dons the cape and cowl.
Laugh all you want at the leaked recording of Christian Bale freaking out at cinematographer Shane Hurlbutt on the set of Terminator: Salvation – Bale is an intense man. During the interview, he barely smiled, staring at the table or into his hands, barely masking disdain for the whole press junket process and looking like he’d rather be anywhere else.
But ask Bale about the art of performing and he’s as erudite as he is serious. “This what I love about Batman, he lives right on that edge,” says the Welsh-born star, propelled firmly to the A-list by Batman Begins.
“You understand his motivation before that as well but he’s always holding himself back. He’s got that altruism and that’s what makes the difference between himself and Bane [The Dark Knight Rises scary villain, played by Tom Hardy], he takes himself right back to that point. And that’s what I’ve always found so fascinating about it – he’s altruistic, he does good but mentally his motivations are very questionable. He manages just to keep this side of being the good guy.”
As Bane, the human bulldozer with a plan, Tom Hardy is set to go down in history as one of cinema’s great villains. But in the great tradition of superhero films he’s joined by another fan favourite, jewel thief Selina Kyle. Although never referred to as Catwoman in the film, Anne Hathaway plays the subtle relationship between her and Batman perfectly. It’s never clear in the Caped Crusader mythology whether the pair are truly enemies, and Hathaway and Bale have the amorous banter of their shaky alliance down pat.
In the film, Kyle is a petty thief who catches the eye of Bruce Wayne even while she’s stealing a precious necklace from his safe, but she has an ulterior motive and a very dangerous benefactor in Bane pulling the strings to carry out his master plan of destruction (you’ve seen its jaw-dropping opening in the trailer as he lays waste to a football field mid-game).
Nolan could have cast any number of pretty Hollywood starlets to dress in black leather and fight (didn’t Scarlett Johansson just do that in The Avengers?), but again he aimed high, casting a woman who’s not just pretty and athletic but who’s proved her dramatic chops. At 26, Anne Hathaway had already been nominated for an Oscar for Rachel Getting Married and she brings Selina Kyle a level of depth the rest of the cast shares.
But dressing in heels and learning to fight was new to her. “The training was really hard but it actually ended up being fun because it wasn’t about trying to look a certain way. We had to get me to a place where I could believably defend myself against guys three times the size of me. And that was fun, not just learning how to fight but coming up with her style. It took ten months but I had an absolute blast. The day that we finished the rooftop scene [where Batman helps Selina take down a gang of Bane’s goons] was one of the happiest experiences I’ve ever had as an actor. I was really proud.”
Another point of difference Nolan’s Batman makes in the comic book canon is that where the rest of Hollywood is obsessed with youth (throwing in an older actor to bring to impart wisdom and convey a sense of gravity) the fate of both Gotham City and Batman himself are in the hands of no less than three father figures.
Morgan Freeman returns as Lucius Fox, still in control of the now-flagging Wayne Enterprises thanks to Bruce Wayne’s self-imposed exile since the death of Harvey Dent eight years previously. Gary Oldman is back as police commissioner Gordon, a man who knows what an ally Batman is to Gotham’s crime-fighting ability and who’s smart enough to give Batman the leeway he needs to operate.
But it’s Wayne butler Alfred who’s always been Bruce’s closest confidante and friend. The bond between the two men fractures in The Dark Knight Rises, Alfred first unable to see Bruce rot away in Wayne Manor instead of re-engaging with the world, then unable to watch him face certain death at the hands of a new and far more dangerous foe.
79 year old Oscar winner Sir Michael Caine, a veteran of over 120 films, describes how as well as acting as the home base and conscience for Bruce Wayne, he’s the emotional byway for the rest of us to invest in the whole IMAX-sized universe. “I always saw my character as representative of the audience,” he says. “He’s so skeptical about everything that was going on and a bit worried when someone is going to put a mask on and fly over a roof in something. So I’m there to bring humanity and heart to it and suspend disbelief because if Alfred believes it, you believe it.”
When July 20 comes and The Dark Knight Rises opens everywhere, Alfred is sure to be joined by a whole world full of believers.