Batman Begins (2005)
Bruce Wayne’s parents are murdered in front of him as a child, but as he reaches young adulthood, he finds his grief and rage are as strong as ever. Sickened at how crime and corruption are destroying his home city of Gotham, Wayne decides to put his considerable wealth to good use. He will become a one man army against the tide of crime and fear that is eating his city alive, a symbol of hope. But someone has decided that the time has come for Gotham City to fall and now Batman is the only person standing in his way…
Joel Schumacher had killed Batman, of that there’s no doubt. DC Comics Dark Knight had been reduced to a camp, laughable wreck over the course of Schumacher’s two Batman films but Warner had plans to resurrect the character; in a bold move Batman was to be given a harder edge and placed back in the shadows. And, rather surprisingly, the film was to be helmed by one of cinema’s bravest new talents. That’s right… Darren Aronofsky.
Well, we all know now that that fell through. Instead Nolan was given a chance to stamp his mark on the character and, alongside writer David Goyer, he did exactly that. Batman Begins stripped the Batman origin right back to the bone and rebuilt it from the ground up. By staying true to one central conceit (“If someone actually wanted to become Batman, how would they go about doing it?”) everything else fell into place. With an incredible cast (Bale, Caine, Freeman, Oldman, Neeson, etc) and his biggest budget to date, Nolan created an ominous, dangerous world for his Dark Knight to soar through. He just needed a theme to hang it all on and, by going back to Batman’s very first issue (“Criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot…”), he found it: Nolan was going to make a huge summer movie… About fear. Batman’s use of fear as a weapon against criminals, mobster Falcone’s use of fear as a means to keep the city’s corrupt bureaucrats and cops in line and fear as used by the Scarecrow to unhinge the mind of anyone foolish enough to get in his way. Nolan aligned his damaged hero with our troubled times and threw in a healthy measure of cinematic cool to boot. The audiences turned out in droves. Nolan had hit the big time.
The Prestige (2006)
In late 19th Century London, a tragic accident costs a young magician’s assistant her life, sparking an intense rivalry between two fellow magicians. As the years pass, their obsessive need to out do one another and perform ever bigger and better illusions becomes more and more dangerous…
The fact that he chose to gear up for Batman Begins sequel not by taking a holiday, but by making a smaller film instead, says a lot about Nolan and his desire to keep moving. The Prestige (adapted from Christopher Priest’s 1995 novel) sits between the two Batman films feeling a little bit like a curio. While smaller than either of it’s Gotham City bookends, it’s lavishly recreated period detail and twisty-turny plot feels more like someone coming to grips with a new set of toys than a filmmaker telling a story he had a burning desire to bring to life. But, yet again, Nolan was working some structural magic of his own behind the curtain. When you’ve finished watching The Prestige you realise that, from the very beginning, it has been explaining to you all along exactly how it was going to trick you. On a (virtually demanded) second viewing, many smaller joys become apparent, with the disarming nature of Rebecca Hall’s performance proving to be the heart of the movie. As well as Bale, Nolan brought Michael Caine with him from Gotham to round out a cast that also includes Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johansson and a bonkers little turn from David Bowie as inventor Nikola Tesla. It’s hugely enjoyable and more open to multiple re-viewings than most films with a twist in the tale tend to be, but – along with Insomnia – this seems to be the Nolan film most often pointed to by fans as his weakest.
So, having stretched his legs, it was time to head back to Gotham. This time however, we knew exactly what to expect from Nolan’s Batman.