Today the new Batman film The Dark Knight hits US cinemas and will be opening in the UK a week later.
It is one of the most eagerly awaited films of the year and so I thought I’d write about the history of Batman on film, how the franchise was rebooted under director Christopher Nolan, the latest film, Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker, how some of the film was shot on IMAX and the viral marketing campaign.
Hopefully the videos, images and links will help you get in the mood for what looks like one of the most interesting blockbusters in quite some time.
I’m seeing it tonight, so I’ll put up some reaction over the next 24 hours, but in the meantime let’s begin with the history of the caped crusader on film.
BATMAN ON FILM
The Batman character (created by Bob Kane in the late 1930s) has inspired a TV show, an animated series and a previous series of movies. The first feature film – simply called Batman – was directed by Tim Burton and had Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Jack Nicholson as The Joker.
It was the biggest film of 1989 in the US (though Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade pipped it worldwide) and sold millions of dollars worth of merchandise, becoming a pop culture phenomenon.
A sequel was inevitable and in 1992 Batman Returns saw Keaton reprise his role as the caped crusader with Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman and Danny DeVito as The Penguin.
Similar in tone to the original it was also a big hit, grossing $266 million worldwide, although not as big a hit as the original film.
However, Tim Burton had grown weary of the demands of making summer tent pole movies and when the director and Keaton opted not to come back for a third film, Warner Bros took the character in new – and lighter – direction.
Val Kilmer was cast in the lead role and the directing reins were taken up by Joel Schumacher.
An all star cast included Jim Carrey as The Riddler, Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face/Harvey Dent, Chris O’Donnell as Robin and Nicole Kidman as the love interest, Doctor Chase Meridian.
Some cast members, such as Michael Gough and Pat Hingle, were kept on but the film was markedly different in tone and style. Despite that, it was still a huge hit and led to another sequel two years later.
Batman and Robin was the fourth film in the franchise and was scheduled to be Warner Bros biggest blockbuster that summer.
However, things started to go wrong when Val Kilmer (like Keaton before him) refused to return and was replaced by George Clooney, who was then breaking into mainstream movies after the success of the hit TV show ER.
Like Batman Forever, it had an all-star cast with Clooney and O’Donnell as the dynamic duo, Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy and Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl.
However, the camp tone, poor script and shoddy direction all contributed to a mess. It would be 8 years before another Batman movie but in retrospect the release Batman and Robin was quite interesting.
The negative advance buzz saw a major studio realise that online buzz could have an influence as much of it was fanned by Harry Knowles of Ain’t Cool News, a site then just over a year old.
Harry posted negative reviews from people who had seen advance screenings and the film – which opened to respectable numbers – never did the business the accountants at Burbank were expecting.
Knowles accurately summed up how a lot of people felt in his review, saying:
Because no matter how bad you have heard this film is, nothing can prepare you for the sheer glorius travesty of the 200-megaton bomb of a film this is.
This film is so bad, so awful, so vanity ridden with horrible over the top performances, that nothing I can say, can prepare you for it.
Even George Clooney seemed to agree, joking that:
“I think we might have killed the franchise.”
But it is interesting to note how his career has progressed since then. He would soon go on to be a major star, often appearing in films that were more left field than many might have expected.
Whilst managing to please the studio with the success of the Ocean’s franchise, he also directed and starred in more personal and challenging fare such as Good Night, and Good Luck and Michael Clayton.
Another interesting aspect of the film was that it marked the virtual end of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s long run of success as a movie star.
Although Terminator 3 in 2003 was a big hit, he was no longer the massive star he was in the 80s and early 90s.
His role was something of a bad joke with endless puns on cold and freezing littered throughout the film.
By 2003, he was Governor of California and effectively put his movie career on hold.
For director Joel Schumacher it took a while to recover – he even recorded a semi-apologetic commentary for the DVD release – and he went back to basics with the low budget Tigerland, a film that effectively launched Colin Farrell‘s movie career.
REBOOTING BATMAN WITH CHRISTOPHER NOLAN
In the following years things started to get a little interesting.
After the success of X-Men in 2000 and Spider-Man in 2002 a rash of comic book adaptations hit the big screen and it was a logical move to start from scratch and give the character a reboot.
A number of projects were considered – perhaps the most tantalising being Batman: Year One with Darren Aronofsky directing – but things finally started to happen when Christopher Nolan was hired to direct a new film in January 2003.
Nolan was an interesting choice, as he had only made two films up to that point – Following (1998) an ultra low budget tale of a writer obsessed with following people around London and Memento (2000), a dazzling neo-noir thriller about a widower (Guy Pearce) struggling with short term memory loss.
It won widespread critical acclaim for its innovative narrative structure – the screenplay was nominated for (but somehow didn’t win) an Oscar – and established him as major directing talent.
His next film Insomnia (2002), was a more conventional thriller about a police officer (Al Pacino) in Alaska on the trail of a killer (Robin Williams), who is haunted by guilt and is unable to sleep. A remake of the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name, it was still a highly accomplished piece of work.
Nolan said at the time of getting the Batman job that he wanted to re-imagine the franchise by:
“Doing the origin story of the character, which is a story that’s never been told before”.
In stark contrast to the Schumacher films, the emphasis here would be on portraying Batman realistically.
Entitled Batman Begins, it would show the origin story of how Bruce Wayne became a crime fighter who dresses up like a bat.
Christian Bale was cast as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Nolan stated that Richard Donner‘s 1978 Superman film was an inspiration, especially the first half which has – for a superhero movie – a long, extended backstory for the main character.
He also wanted big name actors in supporting roles to give the film more credibility and stature which meant experienced leading actors like Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Gary Oldman and Rutger Hauer had key supporting roles.
Some of the key influences on the story were Batman: The Man Who Falls (a story about Bruce Wayne travelling around the world); Batman: The Long Halloween, (which features the gangster Carmine Falcone) and Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One.
The latter comic book influenced the plot details of Bruce Wayne’s extended absence from Gotham City, the idea of a younger Commissioner Gordon (who in this film is a Sergeant) and the general setup of a corrupt city that is crying out for an outsider to bring justice.
Another important influence on the film was Blade Runner, which Nolan screened to his cinematographer Wally Pfister to show the kind of look and tone he was aiming for. The casting of Hauer (who came to fame as replicant Roy Batty) was also a nod to Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi classic.
When it was released in 2005, the film was warmly received by critics and audiences, going on to earn nearly $372m worldwide and becoming the 8th highest grossing film that year.
THE RETURN OF THE DARK KNIGHT
After completing The Prestige in 2006 – his dark and complex tale of two rival magicians (played by Bale and Hugh Jackman) – Nolan got to work on the Batman sequel The Dark Knight with co-writer David S Goyer.
Batman: The Long Halloween was an important touchstone for the story. The 13-part comic book series takes place during Batman’s early periods of crime fighting and involves a mysterious killer who murders people around the holidays.
Along with District Attorney Harvey Dent and Lieutenant James Gordon, Batman has to solve the murders and uncover the killer. This film also sees the return of The Joker, a development that was strongly hinted in the final scene of Batman Begins.
Nolan was resistant in doing a full on origin story but was influenced by the iconic villain’s first two appearances in DC comics, which were both published in the first issue of Batman in 1940.
They even consulted Jerry Robinson, one of the Joker’s co-creators, about the character’s portrayal. Instead of a straight origin story they focused on his rise to notoriety, saying:
“We never wanted to do an origin story for the Joker in this film. The arc of the story is much more Harvey Dent’s; the Joker is presented as an absolute.
It’s a very thrilling element in the film, and a very important element, but we wanted to deal with the rise of the Joker not the origin of the Joker….”
He also cited Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke and Michael Mann’s 1995 crime drama Heat as inspirations for a story that would show Gotham’s key characters in the context of a crime ridden city.
HEATH LEDGER AS THE JOKER
Heath Ledger was cast as The Joker after Nolan had expressed interest in working with him in the past. After Batman Begins, Ledger went for an interpretation consistent with the more realistic tone of that film.
Reportedly, Ledger prepared by living alone in a hotel room for a month, formulating the character’s physical movements and voice, even keeping a diary of the Joker’s thoughts and feelings.
It would become a much darker character and he said that the Droogs of A Clockwork Orange and Sid Vicious were starting points for the character.
The aim was for a colder kind of sociopath, far removed from the lighter versions popularized by Cesar Romero in the 60s TV show or Nicholson’s in the 1989 film.
Ledger’s portrayal was key to a lot of the early marketing to the film and anticipation was high, especially after his Oscar-nominated performance in Brokeback Mountain.
However, tragedy struck on January 22nd this year when Ledger died in New York during a short break from filming Terry Gilliam’s forthcoming The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. His work on The Dark Knight had been completed but it none the less was a deep shock to the film world and his colleagues on the film.
Nolan penned a moving tribute in Newsweek:
Heath was bursting with creativity. It was in his every gesture. He once told me that he liked to wait between jobs until he was creatively hungry. Until he needed it again. He brought that attitude to our set every day.
There aren’t many actors who can make you feel ashamed of how often you complain about doing the best job in the world. Heath was one of them.
When you get into the edit suite after shooting a movie, you feel a responsibility to an actor who has trusted you, and Heath gave us everything.
As we started my cut, I would wonder about each take we chose, each trim we made. I would visualize the screening where we’d have to show him the finished film—sitting three or four rows behind him, watching the movements of his head for clues to what he was thinking about what we’d done with all that he’d given us.
Now that screening will never be real. I see him every day in my edit suite. I study his face, his voice. And I miss him terribly.
All of Ledger’s scenes were unaffected and Nolan added no “digital effects” were used to alter his performance posthumously.
Recently Christian Bale has been quick to dismiss the idea that Ledger playing such a dark role had any part in his death.
On the Today show with Matt Lauer they discussed the issue:
Lauer: So much was made of Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker. It was such a dark role.
In some way, perhaps, do you think in real life, it caused him to slip across some line of reality and may have had some role in his accidental death?
Bale: Personally, I find it to be a complete lack of understanding of acting. I also find it very rude to try to create some kind of sound bite for such a tragedy. The man was a complex man, a good man, but you know what?
I saw him having the best time playing The Joker. He was someone who completely immersed himself in his role. As do I. But in the end of the day, he was having a wonderful time doing it, He couldn’t have been happier doing it.”
Watch the full interview here:
Nolan has dedicated the film in part to Ledger’s memory, as well as to the memory of technician Conway Wickliffe, who was killed during a car accident while preparing one of the film’s stunts.
SHOOTING ON IMAX
On a technical level, The Dark Knight is the first mainstream movie to have several major sequences shot in the IMAX format.
Nolan was particularly enthusiastic about shooting on the larger cameras, saying:
“There’s simply nothing like seeing a movie that way. It’s more immersive for the audience. I wish I could shoot the entire thing this way.”
Typically, feature films that play in IMAX cinemas are converted to fill the enormous screens.
With The Dark Knight the sequences shot in IMAX will fill out the full screen, whilst on traditional cinema screens they will appear more vivid than usual.
However, there were obstacles in shooting in the format such as the bulkier cameras (IMAX film stock is 10 times the size of standard 35mm), the extra cost and the noise they make, which made filming dialogue scenes difficult.
So far, showing films in IMAX cinemas doesn’t have a huge effect on the overall grosses as there are currently only about 280 IMAX theatres worldwide.
But The Dark Knight could be an important film in making the format more popular, as it will be released on IMAX the same day as it is in regular cinemas (in the UK there was nearly always a delay between the two).
Last December I saw the opening sequence at the BFI London IMAX and producer Charles Roven spoke to the audience afterwards about the film.
I noted down some of the discussions that came up in the post-screening Q&A:
- Heath Ledger was cast as The Joker because of his range and his initial meetings with Chris Nolan about the character
- 3-D was never really considered as an option for the IMAX portions of the film
- Prior to these Batman films he’d been trying to work with Nolan ever since he saw Memento
- The Alfred/Bruce Wayne relationship continues
- It is the first time Christian Bale has repeated a role
- There is a sequence actually set in Hong Kong – they filmed a key sequence there where Batman jumps off a building. The idea of the setting was to get outside the world of Gotham and place it in a more believable context as a world city.
- They aren’t even thinking about the villain for the next movie.
- David Goyer, Chris Nolan and Jonathan Nolan wrote the first draft of the script and Jonathan wrote the later drafts whilst Chris was filming The Prestige.
- The story is not directly based on anything by Frank Miller but has been influenced by him and other classic Batman writers.
- Chris Nolan reportedly used the London IMAX cinema during the making of the film.
You can read the post I did at the the time here.
Filming took place in Chicago, London, Los Angeles, Baltimore and Hong Kong, the latter being a real location in the story.
Perhaps more than any other recent blockbuster The Dark Knight has benefited from a long and detailed viral marketing campaign.
Since May last year, Warner Bros have been running a marketing campaign under the film’s “Why So Serious?” tagline.
The website whysoserious.com features the fictional political campaign of Harvey Dent (played in the film by Aaron Eckhart), with the slogan “I Believe in Harvey Dent.”
Gradually the site revealed itself to be “vandalized” with the slogan “I believe in Harvey Dent too,” and revealed the first image of the Joker. It was then replaced with a hidden message that said “see you in December.”
The site encouraged visitors to find letters composing a message from the Joker which said:
“The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules.”
In October last year the film’s official website turned into another game with hidden messages, telling fans to uncover clues in certain US cities.
Those who finished that task were directed to another website called Rory’s Death Kiss (which was how the film was referred to on location). There fans could submit photos of themselves dressed as the Joker.
In December last year, the opening sequence of the film – which involves a bank raid featuring the Joker – was shown in selected IMAX cinemas before selected showings of I Am Legend.
After Heath Ledger’s death in January Warner Bros marketing campaign shifted a little, as up to that point the Joker had been a central part of the campaign.
On the whysoserious website there was even a black ribbon in memory of the actor.
Today sees the release at cinemas in the US on regular and IMAX cinemas.
If you are in North America and Canada, Film School Rejects recently posted a list of the different places where you see it in IMAX (click here for the full list).
If you are in the UK, next week you can see it at the following IMAX cinemas:
BIRMINGHAM / Thinktank IMAX
GLASGOW / IMAX Theatre at Glasgow Science Centre
50 Pacific Quay
LONDON / BFI London IMAX Cinema
1 Charlie Chaplin Walk
020 7902 1234
MANCHESTER / Odeon Manchester
6-8 Dantzic St.
BRADFORD / IMAX Theatre at the National Media Museum
If you are in the rest of the world go to IMAX.com and there you can find the nearest cinema to you when it opens in your country.
If you have already seen the film then feel free to post your thoughts below.
> Official site for The Dark Knight
> Reviews at Metacritic
> IMDb entry
> Find an IMAX cinema near you
[All images Copyright © Warner Bros. Pictures Inc]