exploring the Nolan Batman universe
There is a great gag towards the end of Wayne’s World 2, where Mike Myers’ slacker hero walks into a quintessential American-movie gas station looking for directions. The elderly owner awkwardly begins to deliver a stunted, stuttering soliquay on whether to turn right or left on Gordon Street. Myers looks into the camera, breaking the fourth wall with one of his trademark Proto-Austin Powers lameduckfaces: “Seriously,” he asks, “is this the best we can get? I know it’s a small part, but surely we could get someone better.” On cue, the rest of the scene breaks character, and the old man is almost literally wheeled out and replaced with an actor of more biblical proportion. Charlton Heston articulates, with a ton of gravitas: “ah yes, Gordon street. I knew a girl who lived on Gordon Street, a beautiful girl. She broke my heart, that girl on Gordon street.” So filled with emotion and acting craft, it even brings Mike Myers to tears. There are no small parts, just big actors, to alter an old Hollywood nugget.
(*okay, I didn’t get it all verbatim, but you get the idea. Sue me, I haven’t seen the WW2 movie in years…)
This is a roundabout way of explaining how I have considered the pure genius of the Christopher Nolan Batman films since Year One: from the origin-story of Batman Begins (BB), through The Dark Knight (TDK) and now, finally, in more ways than one, The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR), his final swansong to the Batman universe. Nolan’s entire philosophy in approaching the series, and the comic book movie, as a whole, that of injecting a strong platform of realism, believability and the creation of solid, assuring link between audience and film in story, character and special effects, can be summed up in one word: casting.
These films would be nothing without the acting talent used to create this world. This performance-centric approach is the number one building block in assuring us as filmgoers buy into this world, even though it is a comic book / super hero universe that can sometimes stretch plausibility and test our strongest resolve in flights of fantasy. The films work because the actors live and breathe characters, they are the story. Every part is a masterpiece, be it the leading man, supporting cast or bit-player – the great menacing character actor like William Fichter as a shotgun wielding bank manager in TDK, Eric Roberts’ star turn as mob boss Maroni (“Friends? Have you seen this guy”), a whatever-happened-to Matthew Modine and Tom Conti in TDKR spring to mind.
None of this applies more so than to Michael Caine as Alfred J. Pennyworth, manservant and foster father to billionaire Bruce Wayne, and all-round moral conscience of the Nolan Batman Universe. Taking nothing away from the other popular film performance of Alfred by Michael Gough (the only constant across the four previous Batman films of the 90s that included serving three Batmans, Chris O’Donnell in an earring and Alicia Silverstone in pouty lip-gloss. Brave, brave man, indeed.) But even Gough, an esteemed theatre actor but more famous for roles with schlocky British horror stable Hammer Films admitted that he approached the role, especially during the dayglo Joel Schumacher years as ‘hammy as a piece of cardboard’. For the most part, it worked well. Alfred served sandwiches and provided some highbrow comic relief. In the Nolan universe, Alfred needed to be much more than a jovial corner-man, he was required, as the character had been prone to be in over 70 years of stories in the comic books, an emotional center for not only Batman, but also Bruce Wayne, orphaned man-child with too much money, time on his hands and revenge on the mind. As played by Caine, Alfred is still the mister-fix-it, the clean-up guy and, yes, always ready with a humorous quip, but at heart, he is the soul of the Batman myth. No more so than in the TDKR, when things get seriously emotional, so much so that Nolan has to pull him out of the game for a while so the film can blow up a few things, (more about that shortly). Granted, Michael Caine has not always been the stoic acting powerhouse we know and love today. He has made some god-awful choices in a long illustrious career (The Swarm, The Hand, to name two), but his Alfred is a hard earned bookend to a career that began with Alfie. And that’s just the butler.
Let’s not forget there’s Gary Oldman bringing a Methodical quietness to the bravery of a good cop in a bad world, Jim Gordon, another iconic Gotham player that has had many interpretations, the worst of which was Pat Hingle’s bungling magoo in the Burton/Schumacher years.
Many things can be forgiven, Tim Burton, but underutilising the all importance of Commissioner Gordon, yet another father figure in the Bruce Wayne/Batman psyche, cannot go unpunished.
Luckily, Nolan, with screenwriter brother Jonathan and David Goyer realised this from the beginning and over the three films, have patiently built the Gordon role into a very important one, with much dedication from Oldman in his portrayal of a relatively marginal character.
Lucius Fox is a modern addition to Batman legend, having only begun popping up in comics from 1979, when he was essentially a Q foil to Batman’s Bond, a position neatly filled in film by Morgan Freeman, who, like many of the parts he plays, God, Nelson Mandela, Alex Cross, completely owns in such a way that no one else would ever be able to do justice to it (‘was this your card, Tyler Perry?’). Freeman is a great actor, but he essentially plays himself, even when broad historical parts like Mandela require to him move slightly outside the Morgan enigma and range. Nearly impossible, but we love him for trying anyway. Fox is a small part, important yes, especially in BB and TDK, but by TDKR, he is simply along for the ride, offering complex technical information introduced in easily digestible sound bites delivered in his unique reassuring hip grandfatherly manner – no one says “it is highly volatile nuclear bomb, Mr Wayne” quite like God himself.
Naturally, the biggest casting slam-dunk and most universally associated element of the entire film series is Heath Ledger as The Joker in TDK. Anyone who has watched him eat scenery in films such as Monster’s Ball and Brokeback Mountain, and even in his breakout teen idol role in Ten Things I Hate About You, a run-of-the-mill teen comedy, can attest to his talent and an eerie dedication to his craft. Controversial as the announcement of his casting as The Joker was, with many thinking he was completely wrong for the part, a role already made iconic by not only Jack Nicholson in Burton’s original 1989 Batman, but also the cultic reverence of Mark Hamill’s voice performance for the character over various animated versions of Batman, Nolan held true to his vision that the part needed to be re-evaluated and rebooted by a competent serious actor, as opposed to a movie star, in order to make the film series truly unique and a standalone from the rest of the Batman cinematic mythology. It worked, we were all blown away by it, and the role earned instant cult status – named by many serious film analysis media as Greatest. Villain. EVER. – An accolade more vital and relevant than his much earned, though much placated posthumous Oscar win. Ledger’s death, months before the film released in 2008, added to the mystique of the role and his performance, but even if he had not died, many still feel he would have and could have sustained and expanded the role substantially if needed. Luckily the performance survives.
His presence is still felt in TDKR, even if Nolan himself as gone on record saying that the new third film will not reference the character, as respect to the memory of Heath Ledger who died after completing the role. Naturally, the comparisons with Tom Hardy’s Bane are inevitable.
Bane, as created by Chuck Dixon for the comic book in 1993, is a formidable foe to Batman. Originally imagined as a vague South American freak of nature, whose strength and blindly evil manipulation techniques challenged Batman on both a physical and intellectual level, quite different from the usual rogues’ gallery of villains, such as The Joker and The Riddler, who were determined to oppose and undermine the Batman psychologically? Quite literally, in the comic series Knightfall, Bane broke Batman, both his back and his invulnerability. In his only past film appearance, the Bane character has not being treated well. In Batman & Robin, Joel Schumacher’s ice-cold Vegas-style embarrassment, Bane is a monosyllabic battering ram in the service of Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy – the film’s only saving grace, at a stretch – he is pure comic book, Archie on steroids kind of comic book.
The power of Bane as envisioned by his creator and in the original graphic novels is pure jarring powerhouse strength combined with the mind of a terrorist. And that is how we are introduced to him in the TDKR prologue, an ambitious Bond-bombastic aerial showpiece, involving, inexplicably, the CIA and a Russian nuclear scientist. Thanks to the opening scene of the precursing TDK, which unwrapped Ledger’s Joker in all his IMAX glory, this Bane introduction is a poor cover version with little or no pure awesomeness. We do however get a good look at the Bane as envisioned by Nolan. At face value Bane is indeed very scary. A masked concrete wall, looking like a cross between a pro-wrestler and Predator, it is his voice that is the most chilling aspect of his character. Sounding like Darth Vader after a few whiskies, the voice is a jarring disembodiment from the visual body. Tom Hardy is brave enough to allow the mask to fill out his character. Doubts are that any other ordinary Hollywood star in the same role would have the patience or the suspended vanity to keep it on for the entire film – Chris Evans’ Captain America is the most recent example. Having looked at a few of Hardy’s previous star turns in a wide variety of films in anticipation for his Bane, more notably his lovable closeted gangster in Guy Ritchie’s Rock N Rolla and suave surefooted scene-stealing role in Nolan’s own Inception, the realisation is he is versatile and courageous. He has to hide behind Bane, he is unrecognisable, and if the Oscars had Best Supporting Crazy Eyes category, he would win it single-handedly.
Much has been said about the sound quality of the Bane voice in the film, and like the similar scandal around the bass overkill on the Batman voice in TDK, it is something you have to just live with. Here, while sometimes inconsistent and unintelligible, the Bane voice is distracting, but not enough to get the plot moving along. Together with the mask, the bulging eyes alternating between dead and bulging furious and the voice, Hardy’s Bane is pure steampunk Hitler. Frightening. There is no comparison with Ledger’s Joker, they are two separate animals. TDK’s Joker was a little more rock n roll bad boy, his deceit lying in that if you got him on good day you might still want to share a needle and chuckle with him on good terms. Bane is pure business, and no mercy, and once entered into crushing mano-on-mano knuckled down fist fight, The Dark Knight himself struggles to Rise against him (at first). As anyone who has struggled, like me for three months against Bane in the first level Boss Battle of the Arkham Asylum game will tell you, there is no escape.
So what of Christian Bale’s Batman? It is after all his movie, his story that needs to be completed here. When Bale was firstly introduced in the first Batman Begins, I was confident he could carry the role, in both Batman and Bruce Wayne guises. Though he did take Wayne into Patrick Bateman –the role Bale made infamous and indelible in the filmed version of Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho – territory once in a while, making it difficult to buy the tortured hero element at times, Bale is at his the best in the Batsuit, and by far he is the best film Batman, compared to Keaton, Kilmer and Clooney. The knack is he brings a much needed anonymity to the Batman legend in order for us to buy the character, which the other Batmans have struggled to shake. Thanks to some fresh, innovative and very organic costume design – no bat nipples in this trilogy – Bale can move and hide in the suit, bringing the Batman to life, making this yang to Wayne’s ying spark with life and breath and awarding the Batman a separate iconic status that is sorely needed to transfer from the original comic stories to the big screen.
(to be continued)