Batman Begins turns 15: How Christopher Nolan changed the rules of Hollywood Blockbusters

Batman Begins Changed Hollywood Blockbusters

Today marks the fifteen-year anniversary of the release of Batman Begins. We’re taking a look back at how this film changed the Hollywood blockbuster forever.

When not trying his hardest to get cinemas open even as a pandemic ravages, the planet Christopher Nolan occasionally makes films. You may know the legions of Snyder cultists demanding the Snyder cut of Justice League be released regardless of the situation we’re in, like the embarrassing cousin who mentions his STIs during a big family dinner, but Nolan fans are worse. Even so, Nolan is a talented filmmaker.

There are enough articles in the world about how great Memento, Interstellar, Inception, The Dark Knight and Dunkirk are – and for good reason. But given that it’s the fifteen-year anniversary and we’re about to get a new Batman film (eventually), we’re going to do a deep dive into something else. After all, we just lectured you on the parallels between 9/11 and War of the Worlds and now we’re doing another ’05 vintage. 

Batman Begins was Nolan’s fourth feature film, and his second for Warner Bros. Pictures, after scandi-movie remake Insomnia with Al Pacino and Robin Williams. Coming one year after Catwoman, and a year before Superman Returns, Batman Begins rewrote what a summer blockbuster was, and is as influential now as it was then.

Before we do that, let’s go back a little, to where the franchise was prior to his 2003 hiring. The last theatrically released Batman film before Begins was the now infamously terrible Batman & Robin. Director Joel Schumacher and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman had considered a fifth Batman film, this time called Batman Unchained (or Batman Triumphant) which would have seen Batman face off against The Scarecrow and Harley Quinn, and going for a darker turn. However, given that Batman & Robin grossed far lower than expected and was a critical disaster, these plans were put on hold. Then came the new ideas: Darren Aronofsky’s mooted Batman: Year One, as well as Wolfgang Petersen’s Batman vs Superman, and potential projects called Batman: DarKnight and a Batman Beyond film all stalled or variously fell apart. 

When Nolan caught wind of a new Batman project at Warner Bros. he proposed to go back to basics, with an origin story, as it had never actually been done properly on screen. Despite the well-worn idea of doing the story of the origin, Burton and Schumacher only ever made passing reference to his origins in his films (being shot by The Joker as a young man, the murder of his parents and the giant bat all feature in various films) but never covered the whole story.

Christopher Nolan and Katie Holmes and Christian Bale on Batman Begins set
Christopher Nolan and Katie Holmes and Christian Bale on Batman Begins set.

Nolan, along with screenwriter David S. Goyer, decided that the key would be to ground Batman in reality, and that the audience should care about Bruce Wayne just as much as Batman. The common criticism of past Batman films was that the villains were more interesting than the lead himself. Nolan recalled sitting and having extended breakfasts with Goyer in a diner, where they would discuss their plans for the tone and style of the film; moreover, they would walk past the cave entrance to the Adam West series, and both bonded over their shared nostalgia of it, as well as a desire to move away from it.

Nolan often cited the 1978 Richard Donner film Superman as an inspiration, in that it explored the emotional growth and grand scale of the mythos, as well as the all-star supporting cast, to achieve credibility. The plan was a sweeping epic in the mould of Lawrence of Arabia to bring the story into the real world as well as the world of noir. Nolan, Goyer, and Nolan’s brother Jonathan, have all stated that each film in his Batman trilogy are different genres. Batman Begins is a psychological noir, The Dark Knight a Michael Mann-style crime epic and The Dark Knight Rises inspired by historical epics (as well as Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities).

The revolutionary thing, which nowadays seems so obvious, is that Nolan and Goyer went back to the comics, before most comic book films only payed a passing lip service to the famous arcs. Xmen 2 loosely adapted God Loves, Man Kills, and Spider-Man 2 drew images from Spider-Man No More!, but Goyer and Nolan took pains to bring not just the images but the mood, tone, and the actual characters (albeit changed to fit the film) into the film’s narrative.

The studio’s main mandate was that the film not be R rated, which Nolan complied with (and has done since) mainly because he said he wanted to make the film as he would have wanted to see it as an 11-year-old. 

Nolan used the Denny O’Neil and Dick Giordan short story The Man Who Falls about Bruce’s travels around the world as a jumping-off point, and the image of a young Bruce falling through the well into what would become the Bat-cave was lifted directly from said story. The narrative of the origins of Bruce Wayne, starting out his alliance with Gordon being the only good cop in Gotham, is lifted from Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One.

Year One was instrumental in the inception of Batman Begins, as it helped introduce the world to the origins and what would become the norm for any story involving Batman. The following miniseries The Long Halloween, which looked at the end of the criminal empire that ruled Gotham and the origins of the supervillains that would take over, also served as partial inspiration – though this would come more into play in The Dark Knight.

Begins’ use of the comic books images, story and characters that had yet to be properly looked at had not properly been done before in comic book movies, and the grounded “do it for real” nature of Nolan’s process was in stark contrast to the other CGI heavy blockbusters of the time.

Aside from a few CGI shots, Nolan’s film was done for real; the cities were shot in Chicago, London and New York so that the city breathed and lived in a real-world, while sound stages and airship hangers were used to create the slum-like narrows that would play host the film’s third act. Nolan does not use a second unit, so everything that appears in his film is shot specifically by him.

Nolan, infamously, made a crude model of what he thought the famous Batmobile should look like, commenting he thought he looked more like a croissant than a car, and yet his production designer Nathan Crowley got the idea, a fast-moving tank, and given that Nolan wanted the film to work for real, had to build an actual working “tumbler”. Despite extensive use of miniatures for certain elements, the moment where the tumbler bursts through the waterfall was done for real.

Everything in the film had to come for a level of logic for Nolan. Why a bat? A symbol of fear. Why a tank? It’s an urban assault vehicle. Even the bat-suit had to be practical, that’s why Morgan Freeman’s character Lucius Fox explains the body armour is made of kevlar for military purposes, the cape is made from a fabric developed for electrical manipulation, and the ears of the cowl house an earpiece. Lindy Hemming’s costume design focussed on giving a reality and practicality to the famous costume.

Nolan also sought the have the action reflect this. Justo Diegeuz and Andy Norman’s fight choreography utilised the Keysi Fighting Method, which is used as a means to protect oneself in any given situation and environment. As Norman explained “why do a triple backflip over someone when you can grab an ashtray and smash it in their face? That’s the style we’re going for”.

Liam Neeson and Christian Bale in Batman Begins

When it came to creating a musical score for Batman Begins, Nolan had originally only asked Hans Zimmer to compose the score, but Zimmer asked if he could invite James Newton Howard to collaborate. Together, they split the duties to reflect the duality of the character. Both men visited the set to get a feel for the tone, and to sought to avoid themes and ideas that both Danny Elfman and Elliot Goldenthal had used in their Batman scores.

Zimmer commented that the painful scenes of memory about the death of his parents utilise a lone boy’s voice that gets stuck on one note as if to describe the arrested development of Bruce. The heavily mechanical action music and Batman-centric music was done by Zimmer, while the lush orchestral Bruce Wayne-centered dramatic music was the work of Howard.

Even in casting, Nolan went for different; skewing the usual Hollywood leading men, Nolan opted for famed character actor Christian Bale who at the time was rake thin thanks to his method role in The Machinist. Nolan called Bale as asked how he looked, and how he would go about convincing producers of his ability to play the role. Bale hired a personal trainer stating that he had to have the trainer hold his t-shirt so he could do a push-up, and just gained as much weight as he could by training with weights.

Bale intended to gain 100 pounds (45 kg) to convince the studio heads of his ability. Upon entering the audition room he realised he had gone 30 pounds over, when he saw the shock on Nolan, Goyer and Nolan’s producer-wife Emma Thomas’ faces. One crew member, with whom Bale had worked with before in England commented “blood hell, Chris, what are we doing here, Batman or Fatman?” so Bale set about dropping the excess weight.

The supporting cast followed Nolan’s desire to emulate the all-star gravitas of Superman; Michael Caine took the role of stalwart Butler and guardian Alfred, starting a collaboration with Nolan that would span each Nolan film since, and Morgan Freeman took the role of Lucius Fox, the loyal member of the Wayne company and the man who helps Bruce build his arsenal. Cillian Murphy, who had originally auditioned for Bruce Wayne, was cast instead as Dr Jonathan Crane, the psychopath doctor who experiments on his mental patients. Fascinated with his eyes, Nolan took every chance to remove the trademark Scarecrow mask to showcase his intensity.

Katie Holmes was cast as love interest Rachel Dawes, drawing on her persona from Dawson’s Creek to show the heart and warmth of the film, while Tom Wilkinson was cast as mafia don Carmine Falcone, a character lifted from the pages of Year One, and Rutger Hauer, whose role in Blade Runner served as one of the inspirations for the look of Wally Pfister’s cinematography, was cast in a supporting role as the CEO of Wayne’s company.

Nolan also looked to subvert expectations: while originally Gary Oldman was considered for the role of Henri Ducard, the persona adopted by the film’s villain Ra’s Al Ghul, this choice didn’t satisfy Nolan. Instead, Oldman was cast as James Gordon, the morally righteous figure who Bruce considers the only decent member of the Gotham Police force; his appearance in the film is lifted directly from Mazzucchelli’s drawings in Year One. Liam Neeson’s casting as Ducard / Al Ghul was also intended to subvert; by that point had become known for playing father-figure mentor roles, as seen in Gangs of New York, Star Wars and Kingdom of Heaven. Nolan uses this prior expectation of the audience to set the stage for the shock third act reveal that Neeson was in fact the evil mastermind the whole time.

While not the huge commercial success in line with The Dark Knight or The Dark Knight Rises, the film grossed $373.4 million against a budget of $150 million. No small feat, and it set a precedent for future films in the series. Nolan and co had created a successful franchise reboot.

Before Batman Begins, big summer blockbusters were often bright and filled with jokes and OTT action – Independence Day, Spider-Man, Armegeddon were all examples of this, while comic book films refused to take themselves too seriously. Following Nolan, nearly every single comic book film – and blockbuster in general – took a change for the darker. Blockbusters change every ten or so years anyway; Jurassic Park re-wrote the rules for the 90s, The Avengers did so for the 2010s, but with Batman Begins, Nolan changed the industry itself forever. 

Its influence can be seen in works like Casino Royale, throwing off the silly CGI of Pierce Brosnan’s tenure for a more rooted action film, and with Skyfall, released the same year as The Dark Knight Rises, director Sam Mendes stated it as an influence on his film. Jon Favreau used it as a benchmark for grounding his first Iron Man film, Robert Downey Jr used it for Sherlock Holmes, Hugh Jackman for X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Patty Jenkins, Rupert Wyatt, Damon Lindelof and Gareth Edwards have all stated it’s influence on their works. The term “reboot” became common parlance in the studio system as a way of redoing a franchise that had been let down

Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige once said “Chris Nolan’s Batman is the greatest thing to happen to superhero films because it bolstered everything”. It made it adult, it made it cool for a film that wasn’t just about selling toys, that took what the fans loved in the source material and placed it on the big screen. Marvel Studios’ would carry that by using comic arcs as the basis for their films, and recreating images from the pages on screen. 

Of the film, Frank Miller himself said “I totally thought they did a damned good job. It was the first Batman movie I‘ve genuinely liked. I sat there, I watched it, and I came out of there going ‘Well done, man’. Sure, they used my stuff – they used everybody’s stuff, but they used my stuff a lot – but they did it well, and that’s all I care about. It was Batman. What I mean by that is, I thought the character was true. You understand, when I work on a  character I have a very very hard time seeing anybody else’s interpretation. I get very possessive. But when I went out to the this thing, I said, ‘This is a pretty cool Batman’. I wasn’t sitting there going ‘This is a merchandising tool’. I felt like it really had heart and substance, and Christian Bale with no doubt performed the best Batman I have ever seen.”

Certainly The Dark Knight built on the foundation laid by Begins, being bigger, more daring in it’s themes, casting choices and spectacle but it had to come from a place of proof, Nolan had to prove he was worth the faith. His career since has been a succession of “thank yous” from Warner Bros, with several green lights for Inception, The Dark Knight/Rises, Dunkirk and this year’s Tenet all following.

Batman Begins stood as a teachable moment, that high art and commercial success were not enemies, but could become bedfellows.

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