Following last weeks thoughts on where the Batman franchise may go from here, I thought I would take a look how we got to where we are now. The Dark Knight Rises didn’t just happen, a comic book movie this big and epic but also this dark could not have been made in the 80’s or 90’s. Is the world in a darker place making such filmmaking a product of its time? Probably, but there is more to it than that. The billion dollar gross of The Dark Knight (2008) ensured that there would be a third film but things were very different before that. Batman Begins (2005) had a reasonable but unspectacular profit (it grossed around two and half times its budget). A few years before that would a big budget comic book movie have been made especially after Batman & Robin (1997).
When I started getting into movies as a kid the only comic book or super hero movies that had any credibility were Superman (1978) and Superman II (1981). Batman was best remembered for the Adam West/Burt Ward TV show from the 60’s that although it has gained a cult status now it something of a joke for a long time. Then things changed in with Tim Burtons Batman (1989). Although it is a long way from Christopher Nolan’s (very dark) Dark Knight version of Batman it was a million miles from the camp TV show. Gotham City became stylized Art Deco world that didn’t know if it belong to the future or the past. Futuristic gadgets existed alongside old cars and villains carrying Tommy guns. Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne is a gloriously awkward character, only just the right side of sanity and probably closer to Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark than Christian Bale’s Batman. The big name and star turn is Jack Nicholson as the Joker who has been unfairly forgotten in the shadow of Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. Batman Returns (1992) offered more of the same, it didn’t expand on the first film or offer anything new or different the way The Dark Knight did after Batman Begins but did boast an unforgettable Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle/Catwoman. But then it all went wrong when Joel Schumacher took over.
Before all of that Frank Miller wrote two seminal comic book series The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Batman: Year One (1987). As well as introducing characters and storylines that their way into Nolan’s films, both books had a dark tone and themes of rebirth and redemption that we have come to associate with Batman. It also popularised the name “The Dark Knight”.
Then in a true comic book way, an unlikely hero came forward to save the genre, Blade (1998). After years of the rights to Marvel comics being sold off for TV shows and rubbish films (often with a tiny budget) Marvel studios first film was a co production with New Line Cinema. Not risking one of their big name comic books their first film and in some ways their most important was Blade. The character originated in the 1970’s as a supporting character in The Tomb of Dracula comic book. He went on to star in his own comic book as well as making appearances in various other Marvel Titles. Released in 1998 written by David S. Goyer (who also has writing credits on all three Nolan, Batman films), directed by Stephen Norrington and starring Wesley Snipes. Snipes is perfect in the lead role giving the right blend of stone faced killer, brooding hero and a little deadpan humour. The production had a relatively modest budget of around $45million and produced worldwide Gross revenue of $131million. This does not appear to be much when compared to the near $600million Iron Man took or the or the $2.5billion the three Spider-Man movies have made however without the relative success of Blade these films and the X-Men may never have been made. The sequel directed by visionary geniuses Guillermo Del Toro is even better and also introduced comic book audiences to a darker more melancholic view. Like many of his movies, there is an underlying question of who the monsters really are, and more importantly who are the real monsters.
So these are the films that created the environment that made The Dark Knight trilogy possible but what about its director. Christopher Nolan’s first feature Following (1998) is a low budget, low key affair that is well worth a look. He really made his name with the innovative and brilliant Memento (2000) before making Insomnia (2002) a remake of a Norwegian. Both films made a decent profit received critical praise. Between the first two Batman movies Nolan made The Prestige (2006), another financial success that received largely positive reviews. After the success of The Dark Knight he embarked on what appeared to be an expensive vanity project, Inception (2010), but that too was a runaway success taking over $800million and appearing at the top of many people top ten movies of 2010 (including mine). The net result of each of these movies is the same, they prove Nolan to be a bankable director that studios what to work with.
This leads to the part Warner Bros. played in the production of Nolan‘s Batman trillogy. Ultimately they hired him to make A Batman film. Prior to that, there was always going to be a Batman film but which Batman film? Early ideas involved a fifth film in the existing series and a return for director Joel Schumacher. Schumacher preferred the idea of a reboot bases on Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One he was reported to have said: “[I] owe the Batman culture a real Batman movie. I would go back to the basics and make a dark portrayal of the Dark Knight.” This is the first suggestion I have heard of for both a reboot and a darker movie. Lee Shapiro and Stephen Wise pitched an idea to Warner called Batman: DarKnight. It involved the character Man-Bat as well a plot centred around Dr. Jonathan Crane and his experiments into fear (sound familiar). This idea didn’t get off the ground, the studio instead deciding to hired Darren Aronofsky to write and direct and adaptation of Batman: Year One. He quickly brought Frank Miller in on the project as a co-writer and approached Christian Bale for the role of Batman. This idea fell by the wayside along with Clint Eastwood’s The Dark Knight Returns and a Wolfgang Petersen directed Batman vs. Superman.
I’m not necessarily saying all of these movies or events had a direct influence on Nolan and his trilogy but they are all the building blocks that made the movies possible.