Retrospective Part 5 of 8: Batman Begins (2005)

This is part 5 of an 8 part series discussing the production, influence and overall quality of the modern live-action Batman films. With The Batman (2022) approaching release, it’s the right time to take a look back at how we got here, examining the highs and lows of Batman’s cinematic career.

Part 4 here: RETROSPECTIVE PART 4 OF 8: BATMAN AND ROBIN (1997)

With Batman and Robin’s failure still lingering well into the early 2000s, there were many questions regarding the best way forward once discussions around a new film finally opened up. Director Joel Schumacher continued to express interest in his ideal Batman film (subtitled Batman Triumphant), but the studio was hesitant to let him helm another one. Should they still continue the current story, or should they do a modern remake of the original? This was relatively untested waters for Warner Brothers, so they needed to take some grand creative risks if they were to bring Batman back. The studio opened up a call for creative pitches, which many up and coming filmmakers happily answered. Ultimately, director Christopher Nolan won the job with a now legendary 15 minute pitch, putting forward an engagingly grounded reinterpretation of the character and his world.

Christian Bale and Morgan Freeman as Bruce Wayne and Lucius Fox.

It’s actually kind of staggering how Nolan was able to get the studio to happily go along with what amounted to a complete rebuild of the Batman mythology. Unlike the previous four films which prioritised style, merchandise, design and box office receipts, Nolan wanted to place the focus on narrative and drama. The pitch revolved around the idea of making the viewer care about both Bruce Wayne and Batman, which was also a far cry from the previous entries in the series. His intention was to develop the story and character for an hour before we actually see him in the Batsuit. There was some initial pushback out of worry that viewers would get bored, but Nolan won that battle after using Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) as a prime example of the hero only putting on the costume halfway into the film (which ironically isn’t even true, but Nolan trusted the studio wouldn’t bother to fact check that).

Along with writer David S. Goyer, Nolan continued to push some risky choices on the studio, opting to only include villains who hadn’t appeared in film before. This meant that the most recognisable and popular characters like The Joker, The Riddler and The Penguin were off the table. This too was a worrying prospect, as the famous villains were usually used as marketing tools. Nolan and Goyer wanted to pick villains which made the most thematic sense of the story at hand. Given that the story centred on an analysis of corruption, fear and moral justice, Mobster Carmine Falcone, Scarecrow and Ra’s Al Ghul were the chosen antagonists. While three villains seemed excessive, Nolan and Goyer’s script was structured like a dramatic ensemble, thus successfully arranging the players in a sensible and narratively satisfying manner.

Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes.

Speaking of the film’s narrative structure, Nolan envisioned Batman’s story as a grand epic with deeply emotional complexity. To do this, Nolan intended to tell the origin story, which had previously been left rather ambiguous in all mediums. By focusing on this period of Batman’s development, Nolan was able to highlight the tragedy surrounding the character, which in turn altered the character’s central motivations. In previous iterations, Batman had always been defined by the mental trauma caused by his parent’s death, but Nolan’s Batman ended up being a far more socio-political figure. Whereas previous versions of Batman did what they did in order to make sense of their fractured psyche, this version of Batman did what he did in order to inspire social change in an economically fractured city. This would set a precedent for Nolan’s Batman films, in which he would eventually use them as a device to lightly communicate relevant issues.

This made the film’s casting equally challenging, as they needed to find actors who could fit neatly into their dramatic roles while still providing the necessary star power. While that may sound like a relatively simple task, Nolan knew it wasn’t about finding the best or most popular actors, but more about finding the right actor for the right part. Unlike the previous entries, they weren’t going to be banking solely on the name recognition of whoever was attached. In the title role, big names like Jake Gyllenhaal and Josh Hartnett eventually lost out to Christian Bale, who was a relatively well respected performer at the time, having been in American Psycho (2000), but he wasn’t the superstar he is today. For this version of Batman, Bale proved to be the perfect choice, as he was able to bring the necessary levels of emotional and physical commitment.

Liam Neeson and Christian Bale as Henri Ducard/Ra’s al Ghul and Bruce Wayne.

Physical commitment was certainly a must, as Nolan’s vision required an unprecedented amount of practical sets, real locations and death-defying stunt work. While no superhero film escapes the need for cutting edge visual effects, Nolan wanted his world to feel as tangible as possible, resulting in the need to build entire city blocks (even with functioning plumbing) inside a decommissioned aircraft hanger. While they could’ve resorted to matte paintings or green screen (and there probably was in spots), Nolan’s desire to make Gotham as real as possible really made the fictitious city feel like a living, breathing metropolis. Given how unavoidably large this Batman film was becoming, it’s interesting to think that Nolan and co went out of their way to keep the production under wraps for as long as possible.

While it’s true that studios do try and maintain a level of secrecy, Batman Begins (as it was now called) wasn’t even heavily promoted prior to it’s release. Sure, there were the usual trailers, teasers and TV spots, but there was a noticeable restriction on set visits, pre-film interviews or press leaks. In a way, Batman Begins was almost the complete inverse of Batman and Robin, in that they wanted to release the film quietly and let its franchise success be decided by the people. While Batman Begins didn’t set the box office on fire, the critical and fan response was overwhelmingly positive, proving that the perceived risks paid off in spades. From the dramatic shift in tone, to the grounded realism, Nolan had hit a home run in almost every sense. More and more viewers started having renewed hope for the Batman franchise, and there was even praise from people who would ordinarily stand clear of superhero films.

Gary Oldman and Christian Bale as James Gordon and Batman.

For better or worse, Batman Begins’ success had a distinct and measurable effect on the film industry. Practically overnight, the term “reboot” became commonplace, prompting nearly every studio to look at their old franchises and weigh up if any could be given a “Batman Begins Style” gritty redo. This even extends beyond reboots, as many filmmakers claimed to have taken inspiration from Batman Begins due to how it boosted the legitimacy of genre films. This influence would only become more apparent once Nolan and his team returned with the highly anticipated sequel, which multiplied Batman Begins’ impact tenfold and arguably started a new cinematic era we are only just coming out of.

Continued in Part 6: RETROSPECTIVE PART 6 OF 8: THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)

Batman Begins Poster
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Robert Fantozzi

Passionate filmmaker. Proud Italian-South African. Total Nerd.

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