As the Dark Knight dons his inky cloak for one final battle, Tony Earnshaw looks at modern phenomenon that is Batman and wonders why we’re still intrigued by him.
It’s a brave man who takes on an existing franchise and re-models it for a new audience; an even braver man who decides to wrap it all up after three movies when a global audience thirsts for more.
But Christopher Nolan has always done things his way. Like Peter Jackson, who immersed himself in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga, Nolan has delved deep into the comic book roots of Batman. The road has been a rocky one, not least with the shock death of Heath Ledger in 2008. And now, with The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan closes his own saga with a third and final explosive adventure.
It might be argued that the last episode in this trilogy has little of the baggage associated with its predecessors. Batman Begins in 2005 was always going to be compared with Tim Burton’s 1989 gothic re-branding. Then The Dark Knight in 2008 had to simultaneously embrace and exorcise the tragedy of Ledger’s demise.
The sombre nature of Ledger’s loss inevitably led to a billion dollar box office bonanza as fans flocked to see the star’s last great role. And what a goodbye. Notwithstanding his unfinished performance in Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus it was The Dark Knight – and the Joker – that everyone wanted to see.
Flash forward four years and Nolan, 41, has delivered The Dark Knight Rises. Meet the gang because they’re all here – Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman. But the established repertory company has been swelled by Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, all previously seen in Nolan’s Inception. The new girl on the block is Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman.
Set eight years after the last episode, The Dark Knight Rises finds Bruce Wayne mourning his alter-ego in the knowledge that Batman’s aura has been tarnished and Gotham City considers him a cop killer.
Seeking a purpose, the billionaire recluse finds himself pushed to the limit by the appearance of Bane, a fanatic with a twisted agenda. Suddenly, Batman is needed again and Bruce Wayne rediscovers his identity.
Still, it’s the villain who steals the show in The Dark Knight Rises and it falls to Tom Hardy – soon to be the screen’s 21st century Mad Max in Fury Road – to wrap up the chronicles with a performance of magnetic malevolence.
Everybody loves a bad guy and in the annals of comic book heavies they don’t come much badder than Bane. If the Scarecrow (in Batman Begins) was a madman and the Joker was an anarchist, then Bane represents a pure terrorist. Bane’s role is to strike terror into the heart of Gotham City. He does it very, very well.
Emerging as a combination of Darth Vader and Hannibal Lecter, Bane is masked throughout. For Tom Hardy, 34, a superstar in waiting, accepting the role was a no-brainer. Hardy has played the heavy before – in Bronson, and in Star Trek: Nemesis. But in Bane he saw an opportunity to concretise in people’s minds the ultimate criminal mastermind.
“Chris [Nolan] called me up and said there was a role I might be good for, but he wasn’t sure I’d be interested because I’d have to wear a mask for several months. He wouldn’t tell me anything else about the character, except that he was a very bad guy.
“I said, ‘Let me get this straight: you want me to come and work with you, travel around the world, have a stunt team and all the weapons I could possibly want to play with, and all I have to do is wear a mask...? I’m in!’”
He adds: “Bane is a terrorist in both his mentality and his actions. He is physically intimidating and very intelligent, which makes him even more dangerous. He has no feelings of remorse or shame about the destruction he’s causing. There is nothing ambiguous about Bane. He is clearly a villain... a horrible piece of work.”
There was a moment when Hardy saw Christian Bale, playing Bruce Wayne/Batman, in the make-up chair being readied to play the hero. As his arch nemesis Hardy admits he couldn’t resist musing on the physical requirements of his role.
“I arrogantly thought to myself, ‘That’s not a problem; I can handle him.’ And then, on the set, Batman showed up. It wasn’t Christian Bale anymore; he absolutely was Batman.”
Bale is slightly more measured in his appreciation of Hardy, calling him “a very bold actor”. It falls to Nolan to recall the choreography of machismo on the set when both men, in costume, went mano-á-mano for the benefit of the cameras. It was, he says, absolutely electric.
“This was very much a toe-to-toe, blow-to-blow physical clash,” recalls Nolan, “and Christian and Tom put an incredible amount of work into it. Just the demands of the costumes - one character has the lower half of his face obscured; the other the upper half - posed problems. They had trouble hearing each other because they were wearing those masks and working in very noisy environments while performing these feats.
“It required very intense preparation. And when it came time to shoot, Christian and Tom worked extremely well together. It was frighteningly real and quite intimidating to see these larger-than-life characters really go at it.
“There are plenty of other large-scale action scenes in the film but that face-to-face confrontation between these two adversaries was something I really felt was the centrepiece of the film.
“Bruce Wayne’s story has fascinated people for more than 70 years because it’s a great story.
“We were thrilled to bring our interpretation of this legend to the screen with these three films. It has been an extremely gratifying experience.”
Batman on the screen
The first screen incarnation of Batman was in 1943, with the Dark Knight joined by Robin in 1949.
In 1966, Batman was the first full length movie, starring Adam West, with Burt Ward as Robin.
After several false starts, Tim Burton’s vision was brought to the screen in 1989, with Michael Keaton in the cape, and Batman Returns in 1992.
Less successful versions followed: Batman Forever (1995) and the low point of Batman and Robin (1997).
It was in 2005 with British director Christopher Nolan bringing Batman Begins to the screen that the darker, grittier, most critically successful version came, continuing with The Dark Knight in 2008.