10 Years Later: How Nolan's 'Batman Begins' Redefined a Dark Knight
by Dan Marcus
June 19, 2015
Ten years ago the state of the Batman franchise – and the movie industry – was in a much different place than it is now. In today's movie climate, the term "reboot" is a word bandied about casually and Batman as a character and movie franchise is held in high regard. However, ten years ago things were completely different. Before Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, the future of Batman in live-action was uncertain. With the ten year anniversary of Christopher Nolan's seminal film this week, let's take a look back at how Nolan – before he was the enormously successful filmmaker he is today – redefined Batman and the reboot.
In the late 90's, the Batman franchise was at an all-time high. It was just coming off 1995's Batman Forever, which at the time was a big box office success and a hit with audiences. Then along came 1997's Batman & Robin, directed by Joel Schumacher and starring George Clooney as the new Batman and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze. Even to this day, most comic-book fans would agree there hasn't been a more disappointing superhero movie. The movie was a box office disappointment, was trashed by critics and ripped to shreds by fans, who left the theater upset and confused. After the colossal failure of Batman & Robin, the Batman franchise would lay dormant for 8 years. In that time period, many filmmakers would try to resurrect the Dark Knight from its ember-filled grave: Darren Aronofsky, Boaz Yakin and even Joel Schumacher again. But it would take one filmmaker in particular to help Batman rise from the darkness.
That filmmaker was Christopher Nolan, who was quickly establishing himself as an auteur filmmaker with a bright future. He was just coming off Memento, which pulverized the indie community and put Nolan on the map as an up-and-coming director to pay attention to. In 2002, Nolan directed the mid-size studio film Insomnia for Warner Bros. The film was a critical and box office success and it was around that time that WB was looking to finally bring Batman back to the silver screen. Nolan was actually working on a completely different project at the time WB approached him – he was writing a Howard Hughes biopic – but as fate would have it, Martin Scorsese would end up making The Aviator, making room for Nolan to focus on something else. When WB first asked Nolan about Batman, he confessed he was not a comic book expert. However, he pitched his idea in 90 minutes. His pitch was simple – take Batman back to his roots, make it grounded in realism and do what no other Batman film has done before: the origin story.
Warner Bros quickly took to Nolan's ideas and in 2003 hired him to direct the next chapter in the Batman franchise. While not many people could have guessed it at the time, what Nolan was doing would later send shockwaves through Hollywood and forever alter the way Hollywood would approach a superhero movie. Not since Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie (released in 1978) had Hollywood seen a more innovative and groundbreaking superhero film. To understand why Nolan's approach was so pioneering, it helps to understand the state of comic book movies as a whole back then. Nolan's Batman was coming off of a renaissance in the comic-book movie genre (which, back then, wasn't even a genre like it is now). Bryan Singer, another independent auteur, brought the X-Men to life in ways no one thought was imaginable. Sam Raimi turned Spider-Man into a blockbuster icon.
While Singer and Raimi may have proved superheroes could work in a modern context, what Nolan proved is that you could make a superhero movie that sits up there with some of cinema's greatest works. Nolan didn't approach Batman Begins like an ordinary comic book movie – as a matter of fact, he didn't approach it as a comic book movie at all. He approached it like a movie in and of itself.
It started with the cast, which at the time was arguably the greatest cast out of any superhero film to date. Christian Bale was cast as Bruce Wayne/Batman, an unknown to most mainstream audiences but known very well to a set of movie fans as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. What some might not realize is that Bale was actually a fan favorite for the role, with fans exclaiming "Bale Dammit!" on message forums to show their support of the Welsh actor for the part. When Bale was cast, most regular folk probably went "Who?" but most die-hard Batman fans everywhere cheered in elation. While Bale was an accomplished actor, Nolan knew he needed to fill out the cast with well-known and established actors… and he did just that. Soon enough, actors like Liam Neeson, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman filled up the rest of the cast. Having Oscar-winning superhero movies is very commonplace in the modern superhero climate today – but back then? It was unheard of.
Nolan continued to do things differently with his approach to Batman. As he pitched to WB, he grounded his take in realism – and it showed. While many fans were initially apprehensive of this – the reveal of the Tumbler (the film's version of the Batmobile) befuddled most fans with its crazy and different aesthetic – no one could have guessed just how influential Nolan's take would be. In the years since, the words "origin story", "reboot" and "grounded in realism" would be cemented as catchphrases by studio executives when approaching a blockbuster film. In 2006, MGM & Eon Productions reinvented James Bond with the reboot Casino Royale, bringing Bond back to his roots in the vein of Nolan's Batman. In 2012, Sony & Columbia would do the same with Spider-Man, rebooting the character in a version that was more grounded and more palatable. Even other DC Comics characters would get similar treatment – Nolan's take would be so successful and popular that Warner Bros hired Nolan to spearhead a reboot of the Superman character in Man of Steel, taking Nolan's realistic approach and applying it to DC's most iconic superhero.
While some of those attempts would work – such as Casino Royale – some didn't. Studios are now realizing not every superhero, such as Spider-Man (known for having a slightly lighter tone in the comics), deserves a take "grounded in realism" and while that it might've worked well for Batman, it might not work for every superhero. However, there is no doubt Nolan revolutionized studio thinking with Batman Begins – which came at a pivotal time not only in the way studios would approach their blockbusters, but the way they would listen to fans as well. While it is mostly obvious that studios don't make decisions based solely on what fans want, the advent of the internet - with message forums, Twitter and social media as a whole – allowed fans to have a voice that was harder to make known in years prior. When Batman Begins was in production, fans responded positively to casting announcements and trailers. When the script leaked back in 2004, it was met with almost unanimous praise – proving to lifelong fans of the character that WB was finally taking Batman seriously this time. Fans could let their voice be known if they didn't like something. Before Batman Begins, studios could mostly get away with comic-book movies that were awful and not faithful to the comics. After Batman Begins, that was a lot harder to do.
The movie industry and the comic book sub-genre has changed dramatically since 2005's Batman Begins. Most of what Nolan did was groundbreaking, original and innovative – causing some fans to scratch their head and forcing most studios to pay attention. Nolan would later continue to redefine the Batman series and comic book movies with 2008's The Dark Knight, a movie that would later prove a comic book movie could be embraced as great cinema along the likes of The French Connection, Heat and Chinatown.
Nolan finished his Batman trilogy in 2012 with The Dark Knight Rises, being one of the only superhero trilogies to tell a complete and whole story. Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy is commonly regarded as one of the finest in superhero movie lore and it has set the bar very high for other superhero movies and Batman movies for decades to come. While Zack Snyder is rebooting Batman yet again in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – starring Henry Cavill as Superman and Ben Affleck as the new Caped Crusader – it is clear Snyder and Affleck have very big shoes to fill. Regardless of how that movie is received, Nolan's Batman will go down as one of the finest takes on the character we will likely ever see on the big screen.
What do you think? Is Batman Begins one of your favorite Batman movies? Sound off in the comments below! And let us know where you think they might take Batman next?