Gary Collinson traces the many screen incarnations of The Dark Knight in the third of a three-part feature… read parts one and two.
While the Batman franchise was enjoying a prolonged spell of creativity and popularity throughout the 80s and 90s, the release of the much-maligned Batman & Robin (1997) looked to have steered the series towards a disastrous conclusion. With the movie franchise in tatters, it was clear that Warner Bros. had lost sight of the character and were in need of a complete overhaul. The next few years would prove difficult for fans with constant and often unsubstantiated rumours as to what direction – if any – the series was headed, along with a number of proposed projects that ultimately failed to get off the ground.
After giving filmmaker Joel Schumacher the green light to start working on a fourth movie during the theatrical run of Batman Forever, Warner Bros. took this one step further when they began developing the next sequel while cameras were still rolling on Batman & Robin. Based on a script from newcomer Mark Protosevich (who had been brought in to replace the departing Akiva Goldsman as scriptwriter) Batman Triumphant would have featured The Scarecrow and Harley Quinn as the primary villains, along with the return of The Joker courtesy of a fear-toxin hallucination. Schumacher, George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell were all slated to return until Batman & Robin sent everything crashing back to the drawing board. Clooney and O’Donnell were out along with Protosevich’s script, while the director’s own involvement was hanging by a thread. “The only way I would do another Batfilm was if we went back to the basics,” said the Schumacher of the ‘toyetic’ approach of his previous two efforts. “It would be nice to take the bigger-is-better concept out of it and just go pure.”
A year after the release of Batman & Robin, Schumacher approached Warner Bros. with the idea of adapting Frank Miller’s classic miniseries Batman: Year One, while rumours of Clint Eastwood and Michael Keaton portraying an aging Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Returns proved unfounded. However, the studio was giving consideration to an original concept from Lee Shapiro and Stephen Wise entitled Batman: DarKnight. “We pitched an idea to return the story franchise to its dark roots, which they liked,” said Shapiro on the unproduced screenplay, “but what really hooked them was our concept of including the Man-Bat as one of the antagonists.” Adopting a darker approach, DarKnight would have seen The Scarecrow unwittingly unleash the alter-ego of Dr. Kirk Langstrom on Gotham, forcing Bruce Wayne to come out of retirement and clear his name when the creature threatens the city.
While the film department of Warner Bros. were floundering over their next move their small-screen counterparts were busy developing their own take on Gotham’s favourite son. Fresh of the success of The Iron Giant in 1999, scribe Tim McCanlies pitched executives a proposal for a series entitled Bruce Wayne, which would follow the formative years of the young billionaire along with regular supporting characters including Detective James Gordon and best friend Harvey Dent. The WB Network immediately optioned the series and a pilot script and show bible were produced with Trevor Fehrman (Clerks II) and Shawn Ashmore (X-Men) hotly tipped to secure the title role. An internal struggle between Warner’s film and TV divisions soon erupted as the series continued into development and following the impressive box-office returns of X-Men in the summer of 2000, the show was shelved in favour of pushing forward with their feature ambitions. The original premise did survive and would be reworked the following year as Smallville, with the future Dark Knight replaced by the future Man of Steel.
Opting to pass on Batman: DarKnight in 2000 and with Schumacher finally out as director, the studio’s attention then turned towards adapting the popular animated series Batman Beyond, which had recently made its debut on the WB Network and was proving popular with audiences by supplying a fresh take on the character. Paul Dini and Neal Stephenson were hired to pen a screenplay along with Remember the Titans director Boaz Yakin, but the project was quickly cancelled when the decision was made to concentrate on Year One. The studio’s commitment towards repairing the damage caused by Batman & Robin was evident when they secured the services of the highly rated up-and-coming filmmaker Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream), who was officially handed the director’s chair in 2000 and immediately delighted fans by bringing in Frank Miller as his co-writer.
“I just think it’s a great story that’s been told two different ways in the last 10 years, both interesting, but not the way I would tell it,” commented Aronofsky on his vision for The Dark Knight. “It’s somewhat based on Frank Miller’s novel but it’s going to be very different from anything in Year One. Toss out everything you can imagine about Batman! Everything! We’re starting completely anew.” An early script review from Ain’t It Cool News seemed to confirm that there would indeed be a number of changes – such as a black Alfred (described as a “jive talkin brotha”), the inclusion of elements of The Killing Joke and The Penguin reimagined as a heroin-smuggling mob boss – and was highly critical of the screenplay as a whole. Progress on Year One seemed to move at a snail’s pace as it sunk into development hell, with actors such as Brendan Fraser, Josh Hartnett, Ben Affleck and Christian Bale allegedly in the frame to don the cape and cowl.
With Batman no closer to a big screen return, the character did manage a handful of television appearances under the guise of Bruce Thomas (Legally Blonde), who starred alongside Michael Gough in a series of General Motors OnStar commercials in 2001 and reprised his role for the pilot and premiere of Birds of Prey the following year. Based upon the DC Comics series of the same name, Birds of Prey is set in a future Gotham where Batman has retired and a female superhero team featuring his daughter The Huntress (Ashley Scott), Barbara Gordon (Dina Meyer) and Black Canary (Rachel Skarsten) are left to continue his legacy. Premiering on the WB Network in October 2002, the live-action TV series enjoyed strong ratings but was cancelled after a run of just thirteen episodes.
Although Warner Bros. were having trouble getting the Batman franchise up and running, the lengthy process was nothing compared to that of their other major DC property Superman. Last seen back in 1987 with its own franchise-killer Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, the Man of Steel had since passed through the hands of a host of writers and directors including Kevin Smith, Tim Burton, J. J. Abrams and McG. The two superheroes’ paths would collide in 2001 when Se7en screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker pitched an idea for Batman vs. Superman courtesy of director Wolfgang Petersen, with an impressed Warner Bros. then abandoning Year One as a result. Serving as a reboot to both franchises, the script for Batman vs. Superman was rewritten by Akiva Goldsman and just about every major young actor was suggested for the leads. Offers were made to Christian Bale and Josh Hartnett to portray Batman and Superman respectively, although project soon met the same fate as its predecessors when Petersen left to direct Troy (2004).
Frustrations continued in late 2002 when the studio rejected a pitch by Joss Whedon. “In my version, there was actually a new [villain], it wasn’t one of the classics,” said the Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator on his idea for a new origin story. “It was more of a ‘Hannibal Lecter’ type. He was somebody already in Arkham Asylum that Bruce went and sort of studied with.” While the concept failed to ignite the interest of studio executives, Whedon still has ambitions of realising it in one form or another. “I get very emotional about it, I still love the story. Maybe I’ll get to do it as a comic one day.”
Struggling to find a suitable way to reboot the main Batman franchise, Warners chose to test the water with a spin-off featuring one of the most popular villains of the Rogue’s Gallery. Based on a screenplay by Daniel Waters (Batman Returns) that had been circling since 1995, Catwoman had passed through the hands of no fewer than twenty-eight writers before moving into production in 2003. With Michelle Pfeiffer opting not to return as Selina Kyle, the decision was made to go with a completely new character and sever all ties to earlier Batman films. Despite the presence of Oscar-winning actress Halle Berry in the lead role as Patience Phillips / Catwoman, the $100m film proved to be an unmitigated disaster and was universally slated upon release in 2004, putting up a strong challenge to Batman & Robin as the worst superhero film ever made. Berry personally accepted a Razzie Award for Worst Actress – thanking the studio “for putting me in this piece of shit, God-awful movie” – while it was also ‘successful’ in the Worst Screenplay, Worst Director (Pitof) and Worst Picture categories.
“All I can say is that I grew up with Batman, I’ve been fascinated by him and I’m excited to contribute to the lore surrounding the character,” said Memento director Christopher Nolan when he was officially unveiled as the man to oversee the rebirth of the Batman franchise in January 2003. Nolan had recently completed his third feature Insomnia (2002) for Warner Bros. and impressed executives with his vision for a complete overhaul of the series. He was soon joined by screenwriter David S. Goyer (Blade) and the pair set about to develop a script that would explore the origins of the character, drawing inspiration from comic-book storylines The Man Who Falls, Year One and The Long Halloween. Nolan was also clear on how he intended to differentiate the new film from previous instalments: “The world of Batman is that of grounded reality. Ours will be a recognizable, contemporary reality against which an extraordinary heroic figure arises.”
Having been under consideration for the role of The Dark Knight since Darren Aronofsky was attached to adapt Year One, British actor Christian Bale was officially announced as the next Batman in September 2003, putting an end to speculation that had linked the likes of David Boreanaz, Billy Cudrup, Jake Gyllenhaal, Joshua Jackson and Cillian Murphy to the role. “Christopher Reeve became the defining Superman, but I don’t feel that has ever happened with Batman,” said Bale, who had to undertake an intense training schedule to prepare for the physically demanding role after losing over 60lbs for his previous film The Machinist (2004). “I felt like this was an opportunity to do that in regard to the way that Bob Kane originally intended it – a dark and terrifying and intimidating character.”
With Bale secured as Batman, Nolan then went about assembling a strong supporting cast including Michael Caine (Alfred), Gary Oldman (Sgt. James Gordon), Katie Holmes (Rachel Dawes), Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox) Liam Neeson (Henri Ducard / Ra’s al Ghul), Tom Wilkinson (Carmine Falcone) and Cillian Murphy (Dr. Jonathan Crane / The Scarecrow). Filming commenced in March 2004 with the majority of the shoot taking place in England’s Shepperton Studios and locations such as London’s National Institute for Medical Research, University College London and Mentmore Towers in Buckinghamshire (Iceland’s Vatnajökull glacier was used to recreate the exterior shots of Ra’s al Ghul’s temple while the police pursuit of the Batmobile was filmed in Chicago).
After an abundance of failed projects and an eight year absence, The Caped Crusader finally returned to cinemas when the $150m-budgeted Batman Begins was released on June 15th, 2005. It took first place in North America with an opening weekend of $48.7m and went on to accumulate $372m world-wide, positioning it as the second-highest grossing installment in the franchise behind Tim Burton’s 1989 effort. The film also enjoyed critical acclaim and industry recognition, picking up an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography (Nolan regular Wally Pfister), three BAFTA nominations, three Saturn Awards (Best Fantasy Film, Best Actor and Best Writing) and an MTV Movie Award for Best Hero, although Katie Holmes’ performance came in for criticism and she was nominated for a Razzie Award for Worst Supporting Actress.
At the same time as Batman Begins was gearing up for release, Warner Bros. were also looking to bring the character back to the small screen with a new Saturday morning animation that would cater to the younger viewer. Utilising character designs from Jeff Matsuda (Jackie Chan Adventures) and set in its own continuity, The Batman debuted in September 2004 and focussed on a young Batman (voiced by Rino Romano) as he fights to protect Gotham from a slew of familiar – and often reimagined – faces. As with the earlier Batman: The Animated Series, the show featured a host of notable voice actors including Mitch Peliggi (Commissioner Gordon), Robert Patrick (Hawkman), Gina Gershon (Catwoman), Ron Perlman (Bane / Killer Croc), Robert Englund (The Riddler), Louis Gossett, Jr. (Lucius Fox), Jerry O’Connell (Nightwing), Mark Hamill (Tony Zucco) and Clancy Brown (Lex Luthor). Although it came under fire from some quarters for deviating too far from the established Batman mythos, the show won six Emmy Awards and an Annie Award during its five season run, and also spawned a direct-to-video feature in 2005 entitled The Batman vs. Dracula.
Ending Batman Begins with a tease towards the introduction of The Clown Prince of Crime, Christopher Nolan took time out from the franchise to helm the Victorian-era mystery The Prestige (2006) before a follow-up was officially announced on July 31st, 2006. Budgeted at $185m, The Dark Knight was to be the first entry in the franchise not to have Batman in the title and would see The Caped Crusader teaming up with Jim Gordon and Harvey Dent to bring down his arch-nemesis The Joker. Working from a treatment by David S. Goyer that was inspired by The Long Halloween, Nolan and his younger brother and co-writer Jonathan sat down to develop a screenplay that would push the boundaries of the superhero genre. “To me, The Joker is an absolute”, said the director on his decision not to explore the origin of Batman’s most popular villain. “We wanted him to be absolutely threatening in what he represents as a force of anarchy and chaos. That’s really the reason for Harvey Dent’s prominence in the film. It’s his story that has to provide the emotional backbone of the film.”
With the likes of Paul Bettany, Adrian Brody and Robin Williams expressing interest in the role of The Joker, Nolan made a surprising casting choice when he turned to Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain), who based his portrayal on a combination of Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and A Clockwork Orange’s Alex DeLarge. Meanwhile the crucial part of district attorney Harvey Dent / Two-Face went to Aaron Eckhart (Thank You For Smoking) against competition from Mark Ruffalo and Hugh Jackman, with Maggie Gyllenhaal replacing the outgoing Katie Holmes as love interest Rachel Dawes. Rounding out the supporting cast were the likes of Eric Roberts (Sal Maroni), Anthony Michael Hall (Mike Engel) and Michael Jai White (Gambol), joining returning players Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman (along with Cillian Murphy, who would cameo once again as The Scarecrow).
Principal photography on The Dark Knight got underway in April 2007 with Nolan opting to return to Chicago for thirteen weeks of filming before moving on to England and Hong Kong, with Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister frustrated by restrictions imposed by the Chinese government and pressure from environmentalists. Meanwhile filming at London’s Battersea Power Station prompted emergency calls by local residents who feared a terrorist attack on the station. The production was also marred by tragedy when technician Conway Wickliffe was killed preparing a stunt in September 2007 and star Heath Ledger died of an accidental overdose during post-production in January 2008. “It was tremendously emotional, right when he passed, having to go back in and look at him every day,” reflected Nolan on the challenge of completing the editing process after the actor’s untimely passing. “The truth is, the performance is so iconic. It’s so not Heath Ledger; it is The Joker. He just inhabits it. It’s riveting to watch this incredible performance.”
Released in North America on July 18th 2008, The Dark Knight exceeded its already lofty expectations and immediately entered the record books with a midnight opening of $18.5m before overtaking Spider-Man 3’s weekend record with a total of $158.4m. It became the second film to ever break the $500m mark in the US and only the fourth to reach the a billion dollars world-wide with a total box office gross of $1,001,921,825. Garnering near-universal praise from audiences and critics alike, The Dark Knight appeared on numerous top ten lists of the year and was nominated for eight Academy Awards in total, breaking the record of most nominations for a movie based on a comic-book or graphic novel that was previously held by Dick Tracy (1990). Acclaim was particularly high for Heath Ledger who received a slew of posthumous accolades including the Academy Award, Golden Globe Award, BAFTA Award and Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Supporting Actor, while the film also took home the Oscar for Best Sound Editing.
To coincide with The Dark Knight in 2008, Warner Bros. produced an animated anthology film set between the two Nolan features entitled Batman: Gotham Knight as part of their DC Universe Animated Original Movies line. Featuring six short stories (including one from Batman Begins scribe David S. Goyer) and heavily influenced by the Japanese anime style, Gotham Knight was notable for the return of Batman: The Animated Series star Kevin Conroy as the voice of The Dark Knight. Conroy would go on to reprise his role in the direct-to-video features Superman/Batman: Public Enemies (2009) and its upcoming sequel Superman/Batman: Apocalypse (2010), while the character also appears in two Justice League animated features, voiced by Jeremy Sisto in Justice League: The New Frontier (2008) and William Baldwin in Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths (2010). Batman continues to be an integral part of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies series with Bruce Greenwood donning the cowl for Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010) and an adaptation of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One slated for release in 2011.
During pre-production of The Dark Knight, Warner Bros. announced plans to bring DC Comics iconic superhero ensemble Justice League to the screen with George Miller (Mad Max) hired to direct in September 2007. Budgeted at around $220m and based on a script by Kieran and Michele Mulroney, Warner Bros. secured a cast that included Armie Hammer (Desperate Housewives) as Batman, D. J. Cotrona (Windfall) as Superman and Adam Brody (The OC) as The Flash, with plans to produce the film using motion capture technology. Justice League: Mortal was delayed due to the Writers Guild of America strike and was continously put back amid rumours that Miller had left the project. By August 2008 Warner Bros. allowed options on the cast to expire and Miller went on to develop other projects with the Justice League feature currently on hold.
Although The Batman finished its run in 2008, The Caped Crusader continues to enjoy animated adventures on the small-screen through the Cartoon Network series Batman: The Brave and the Bold. Debuting in November 2008, The Brave and the Bold is inspired by the DC Comics’ series of the same name and is made up of standalone episodes that see Batman teaming up with fellow superheroes such as Plastic Man, Aquaman and Green Arrow to solve crimes and combat his foes. Diedrich Bader takes over voice duties as Batman, while the show has included a number of notable guest stars from earlier incarnations of the franchise such as Clancy Brown, Mark Hamill, Julie Newmar, Ron Perlman and Adam West. At the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con it was announced that The Brave and the Bold would finish its run in 2010 after three seasons with the producers planning to replace the show with a new, darker take on the character. Meanwhile Bruce Greenwood will also voice Batman as a supporting character in a new Cartoon Network series entitled Young Justice, which is set to premiere in November 2010 and centres on a team of teenage sidekicks as they look to make the transition to fully fledged superheroes.
“My brother is working on the screenplay,” said Christopher Nolan in June 2010 with regards to his plans for a follow up to The Dark Knight. “We came up with a story that we are very excited about. We particularly like where we are taking the characters and what the ending is.” With the third installment of his hugely successful Batman series set for release in July 2012, Warner Bros. have also signed a deal with the British filmmaker to act as ‘godfather’ to their Superman reboot. Nolan will serve as producer on The Man of Steel with co-writers David S. Goyer and Jonathan Nolan reportedly candidates for directorial duties, although the prospects of a superhero team-up seem slim while Nolan remains in control: “They’re two very different characters, but there’s an elemental feeling of power in the iconography of those characters. To me that’s originally because they stood alone. I need to hang on to that in my imagining of them.”
Since Lewis Wilson made history as the first screen incarnation of The Caped Crusader back in 1943, Batman has spawned a host of television and direct-to-video releases in addition to eight theatrical features with global box office receipts in excess of $2.6 billion. It is one of the most popular franchises of all-time and with Nolan’s third Batman feature set to arrive in 2012 – along with two new animated shows and further DC Universe Animated Original Movies – there seems no end in sight for The Dark Knight and his war on the criminal element of Gotham City.
Check out Theatre of the Mind, Trevor Hogg’s in-depth profile on the career of director Christopher Nolan for more on the making of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.
For more on Batman, be sure to head over to TheBatmanUniverse.
Short Film Showcase – Batman: Dead End (2003)
Short Film Showcase – Batman: City of Scars (2010)