As the release date for the year’s most anticipated movie approaches, Scotsman film critic Alistair Harkness looks back at the movie’s history - from the London Film Festival in 2000 to the skies over Inverness...
BATMAN ALMOST BEGINS
BACKTRACK to the autumn of 2000 and a young, up-and-coming twenty-something indie director is on stage after the London Film Festival premiere of his narratively dazzling second feature.
The post-screening Q&A session inevitably turns to what he’s doing next. Batman, he grins: a raw and edgy version of the origins story, although first he has a “post-Matrix metaphysical science-fiction film” he wants to make, something called… The Fountain?
Yes, things might have been very different had Warner Bros. stuck with original choice Darren Aronofsky to reboot the Caped Crusader. At the turn of the noughties, fresh from Pi and his hard-hitting follow-up Requiem for a Dream, the future Black Swan director pitched a radical, low-tech, adult-oriented, “street” version of the Dark Knight based on co-writer Frank Miller’s legendary graphic novel, Batman: Year One.
Intended to be shot on grainy Super-16 mm film stock, it would have seen Bruce Wayne taking on Gotham’s underworld in a makeshift Batmobile reconfigured from a black Lincoln Continental and souped-up with a school bus engine and armour-plated bumpers.
“I think Warner Bros always knew it would be something they would never be able to make,” Aronofsky later admitted. “But they were very brave in letting us develop it.”
Perhaps sensing this, the studio simultaneously had its eye on another twenty-something maverick director who, like Aronofsky, had also made his low-budget, black-and-white debut in 1998 and similarly followed it up in the Autumn of 2000 with a narratively dazzling sophomore feature.
That filmmaker was, of course, Christopher Nolan, whose backwards thriller Memento caught the attention of everyone - including Warner Bros, who hired him to helm Insomnia (2002) and simultaneously began sounding out what he might do with their cowl-wearing vigilante.
Having proved he could handle the jump from independent productions to mid-level studio fare, he was officially signed up to reboot the franchise in 2003. Sadly the prominence of the Batman insignia in a background shot of Nolan’s debut film Following had nothing to do with his hiring: its presence was merely a coincidence and definitely not his attempt to pull off a spot of real life inception.
At the heart of Nolan’s take on the Batman mythos from the start, however, has been his rooted-in-reality approach to the character’s billionaire alter ego Bruce Wayne, played in all three films by Christian Bale. As Nolan explained ahead of 2005’s Batman Begins: “He has no superpowers. All he has is his wealth, which he uses to obtain the technology he needs to do what he has to do.”
Consequently, though set in a somewhat heightened blockbuster world, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight (2008) were full of shots of Wayne’s battered and bruised body, something that continues with The Dark Knight Rises – which is set eight years later and opens with Wayne as a Howard Hughes-esque recluse hobbling around with a cane, the physical, emotional and psychological effects of his grief-fuelled vigilante proclivities clearly having taken their toll on him. “He’s been damaged by his experiences as Batman,” confirms Nolan.
WATCHING THE WORLD BURN
One interesting upside of this reality-based approach, though, has been the way in which the films have, increasingly, found real world parallels. In Batman Begins, Liam Neeson’s villainous Ninja cult leader Ra’s al Ghul prophetically talked of bringing about a complete financial collapse, while in The Dark Knight, the Joker’s escalating craziness in response to an effective and intimidating symbol of hope looks like a prescient comment on the rise of the lunatic, Republican, Tea Party fringe in the aftermath of Obama’s election.
The Dark Knight Rises goes even further. With a massive battle erupting on Gotham’s equivalent of Wall Street and Catwoman alter-ego Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) warning Bruce Wayne that he’ll soon wonder how he and his friends “ever thought they could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us,” the film seems to have appropriated the imagery and language of the Occupy movement.
Though it sounds contradictory, these real world resonances are probably helped by the fact that Nolan is a relatively old school filmmaker in a modern age of CGI trickery. He abhors 3D, refuses to shoot on digital and likes in-camera effects, fully constructed sets, real crowd scenes and interesting location work.
To up the visual ante for The Dark Knight Rises he prepared by watching lots of silent epics, and employed thousands of extras. He also kept his crew on the move, taking it across the globe to give the film a more interesting and varied look.
Already among the most talked about sequences is the shot-on-IMAX opening: a daring mid-air plane heist filmed in the Highlands near Inverness. If it looks authentic, that’s because it is. “We braved the weather,” joked Nolan to the LA Times last year. “It rains all the time there, a terrible place to do an aerial sequence, which is why no one has sort of done it before… But it really came off.”
Of course the final test of the trilogy’s authenticity has been Nolan’s ability to create credible villains rather than simply cherrypicking big names from DC’s extensive rogue’s gallery. The late Heath Ledger’s skuzzy punk take on the Joker set the bar ludicrously high, but Tom Hardy’s mumbling, physically intimidating terrorist Bane looks like he might be an equally frightening and unpredictable nemesis.
It’s certainly a long way from the character’s gimp-masked, Fedora-wearing appearance as a silent henchman in Joel Schumacher’s wretched Batman & Robin (1997). That film unintentionally ended Batman’s cinematic prospects when fans – newly empowered by the internet – vented their frustrations on proto-blogger sites like Ain’t It Cool News.
Incredibly, Hollywood actually listened and not only bet on Nolan when the time was right, but stuck with him, even when Batman Begins failed to match the box office receipts of the Spider-Man and X-Men movies (they did, however, hit paydirt with its billion-dollar-grossing sequel).
The good news about this is that when The Dark Knight Rises ends this particular run of Batman films – and Nolan has said the ending is definitive and has confirmed he won’t personally be back for more – it will at least feel as if it’s been designed that way. This Batman deserves nothing less.
• The Dark Knight Rises is in cinemas from Friday 20 July.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 26 May 2013
Temperature: 8 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 15 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 8 C to 12 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: South