Forget comic books. Forget superheroes with super powers. The once-powerful “Batman” movie franchise returns to theaters this week, bringing a new dose of adult reality to a series that fell victim to cartoonish villains.
Eight years after the last screen version failed to impress fans of the Caped Crusader, makers of “Batman Begins” promise action and adventure that could take place in today’s world.
Director Chris Nolan and writer David Goyer wanted to bring a new measure of reality to comic book-based movies. Christian Bale, the latest incarnation of the “Dark Knight,” said long-form graphic novels influenced his characterization far more than the comics.
“Batman Begins,” which opened in theaters Wednesday, paints a bleak picture of a city, Gotham, besieged by drugs and run by recognizable underworld gangs.
Gone are cartoonish villains like Mr. Freeze of 1997’s critically panned “Batman & Robin,” and in their place is mob chief Carmine Falcone and a bad guy named Scarecrow who dresses in business suits and covers his face with a sack — a gas mask, really, that allows him to breathe amid the noxious chemical fumes he unleashes on his victims.
“We were looking for the textures of today’s world,” Nolan told reporters in a recent group interview. Added Bale: “This is our answer to what went wrong with the other ones.”
For non-fans, it may be hard to imagine anything went wrong with four films that in nine years sold more than $1.2 billion of tickets worldwide. But for true fans, the lame story in “Batman & Robin” and a plastic batsuit complete with breast nipples were too cartoonish. That film put Batman out of business — for a while.
So when Warner Bros considered reviving the film franchise, it liked the “reality” take of writer Goyer and director Nolan, who scored a big hit with art-house thriller “Memento” and followed it with studio-backed murder mystery, “Insomnia.”
Back to Batman basicsIn dreaming up “Batman Begins,” the writer and director said that what interested them about the comic book lore most was the physical and emotional process by which a pre-Batman Bruce Wayne transforms into the crime fighting Dark Knight.
The new “Batman” begins with young Bruce Wayne falling into a cavern where he is scared by swarming bats before being rescued by his father. Soon after, young Bruce sees his parents gunned down by a crook. Years later, Bruce leaves Gotham and lives on the streets in faraway cities, stealing food to eat.
He is rescued from his wandering and recruited to rid the world of evil by the secretive League of Shadows. When Bruce returns to Gotham, few people, besides his childhood sweetheart and now Assistant District Attorney Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), are honest. Crimes rules the roost.
Under the guise of a dilettante playboy, Wayne turns to his trusted butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and weapons expert Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). He dons the bat suit and sets out to rid Gotham of crime boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) and Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy).
No superpowersCompared to other comic crime fighters, Batman has no superpowers. He doesn’t fly like Superman or shoot a sticky web like Spider-Man. Nolan and Goyer remained true to that idea by giving him weapons and tools that could be used today.
The batsuit contains Kevlar to stop bullets, the cape acts like a hang glider when electronically charged, the batmobile is a real car — albeit one with a turbo-charged engine, armored plates and a weapons system that would put U.S. Army Humvees to shame.
For the bad parts of Gotham, the filmmakers used the slums of the Kowloon section of Hong Kong, and the skyscrapers are what might be found in any major city.
Fewer digital effects were used than most comic book flicks like “Spider-Man,” and instead, the filmmakers used film sets.
Nolan picked Bale, 31, to play Batman for his acting more than his box office appeal. He starred in Steven Spielberg’s 1987 film “Empire of the Sun,” but is best known for low-budget, independent movies such as “Velvet Goldmine,” ”American Psycho” and last year’s “The Machinist.”
“Batman tends to obliterate the actor who plays him,” said Nolan. “We needed somebody who, when you look into his eyes, had the intensity to play the character ... Christian had that intensity.”
The key factor for the success of this reality-based Batman will be whether it resonates with true fans. Last year, at the giant Comic-Con convention for comic book fans, Goyer was speaking at a seminar and the first question, he said, from fans was: “How can you guarantee this movie won’t suck?”
His answer: “In a year, you’ll know.”