The Dark Knight comic book series was begun by writer David Finch of DC comics in 2012, followed by Paul Jenkins, Joe Harris, Judd Winick, Greg Hurwitz, and Tom Taylor. It is still going on. The film, first of a highly regarded trilogy, was produced, directed and co-written by Christopher Nolan. The term Dark Knight goes all the way back to Batman #1, in a story by Bill Finger. With the Dark Knight Trilogy, Batman takes another step away from high-minded hero toward Dark Avenger. Batman, Gotham City, and the villains attracted there are seen as a kind of co-dependency. Batman is drawn to the criminals, but the criminals are drawn to the city the Dark Knight defends.
Batman had been revived somewhat by the Tim Burton films Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), but with Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997), the franchise had crept back into comedy, with over-the-top villains portrayed by the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jim Carrey. No-one had succeeded in making another Batman film in eight years, until Christopher Nolan turned toward the darker iterations, many of them from Dark Horse Comics.
The young Bruce Wayne (Gus Lewis) falls through a hole, like Alice, and is attacked by a swarm of bats, giving him a traumatic fear of the creatures. Watching an opera with his parents, Thomas (Linus Roache) and Martha (Sara Stewart) Wayne, he is frightened by a character dressed as a bat and they take him out of the theater, only to be murdered by mugger Joe Chill (Richard Brake), leaving the child to be cared for by their loyal butler Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine). Fourteen years later, Chill is paroled after testifying against Mafia Boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson). Bruce (Christian Bale) intends to murder him, but Falcone beats him to it. Falcone says that real power comes from being feared. Bruce takes this to heart and travels the world for seven years, training in Ninja-like skills. In prison in Bhutan, he runs into the League of Shadows, led by Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe).
Returning to Gotham, Bruce takes over Wayne Enterprises. Company archivist Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) shows him mothballed prototype defense technologies, including body armor and armored vehicles. Known to the public as a playboy, Bruce sets up a cave beneath Wayne Manor, sharing the space with the bats which he no longer fears, and calls himself Batman. He is instrumental in incarcerating Falcone, who meets corrupt psychologist Doctor Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), who wears a scarecrow mask and sprays Falcone with a fear-inducing hallucinogen, transferring him to Arkham Asylum.
Assistant District Attorney Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) is drugged by Crane, but Batman sprays him with the same hallucinogen, and he admits to working for Ra’s al Ghul. Sought by the police, Batman escapes using high-pitched sound to summon bats. The real Ra’s al Ghul, Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) attacks Bruce’s birthday party. He plans to vaporize Gotham’s water supply and spread the hysteria-inducing drug by air. He loads a microwave emitter onto Gotham’s monorail system. He sets Wayne Manor ablaze and Alfred rescues Bruce.
Rescuing Rachel from a crazed mob, Bruce reveals his identity to her. Confronting Ra’s on the monorail, Bruce has arranged to destroy part of the track with his Tumbler, the latest version of the Batmobile, and allows Ra’s to die in the crash of the train while gliding to safety himself. Batman becomes a public hero and Bruce publicly takes control of Wayne Enterprises, promoting Fox. Commissioner Gordon unveils the bat-signal and tells him about a petty criminal whose calling-card is a Joker.
Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger, and David Boreanaz tried out for Batman, but Nolan picked Christian Bale, a relative unknown. Bale felt that the villains had over-shadowed Batman for too long. He studied the comics, lost weight but gained muscle, and trained in Kung Fu. Viggo Mortensen was considered for Ra’s al Ghul, but Liam Neeson was picked as a shock for the audience, since he normally played upright mentors. With his calm delivery, he was able to portray a frightening villain who was not insane. Likewise, Gary Oldman, who usually portrayed villains, was picked as the honest Commissioner Gordon. As far as the audience is concerned, the most obvious change is Bale’s dark, throaty, low-register whisper, which everybody must use now if they want to play Batman.
Hans Zimmer scored the music. He asked for James Newton to help, thinking that two people should work on music for a bi-polar hero. Christian Bale himself regarded Batman and Bruce Wayne to be two separate individuals. Nolan used Blade Runner as a template for Gotham and made everyone watch that movie. There were four street-ready Tumbler vehicles made at the cost of a million dollars, plus models and miniatures. It looked like a Hummer made by Lamborghini. It was nine feet wide, 16 feet long, could accelerate from zero to sixty in six seconds, weighed two and a half tons, and got seven miles to the gallon. The vehicle was crashed into by a drunk driver on the streets of Chicago, who claimed he thought it was an invading alien spaceship. Christian Bale performed his own stunts but was not allowed near the Batmobile.
Lindy Hemming designed a Bat-suit that one could move and fight in, for a change. The cape was made of parachute nylon, and it moved and billowed like the cape in the comics, almost a character in itself. Christian Bale lost his voice twice. The ninja trainers stood on wooden blocks because Liam Neeson towered over them. After having played The Machinist, Bale spent six months gaining forty pounds, then lost twenty converting it all to muscle. Sir Michael Caine based Alfred on a Colonel he knew in the British Army, thinking that Alfred was just as much a bodyguard as a butler. The Batcave was not a matte painting, but a full-sized set. Hans Zimmer named the tracks on the soundtrack album after bats: Barbastella, Artibeus, Tadarida, Macrotus, Antrozous, and Mycteris—BATMAN.
During all the promotions and interviews, Christian Bale spoke in an American accent instead of his native Welsh accent. Wayne Manor was played by Mentmore Towers, the Rothschild estate in Buckinghamshire. Bruce Wayne’s Lamborghini is a Murcielago, which is Spanish for Bat, though it was actually named for a prize bull. The screenplay was so secret it could only be read in Christopher Nolan’s garage. The film was a fair success at the box office, but was outperformed by its sequels, which is extremely rare. It received excellent reviews, called brooding and dark, but exciting and smart. It was the first live action Batman movie to get a thumbs up from Roger Ebert. It inspired Barbara Broccoli to go for a darker James Bond for Casino Royale, resulting in the hiring of Daniel Craig.