The films of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy – Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), The Dark Knight Rises (2012) – are often cited among some of the most influential films in recent memory, certainly responsible for revitalizing the superhero genre in the public consciousness, but perhaps also changing the landscape of big-budget blockbuster Hollywood filmmaking. Nolan’s grounded approach to superhero films, seeped with realism, has influenced every franchise since, for better or worse.
It is easy to note and cite the influences these films have had since their release, but art is not born out of a vacuum. And while I do think “everything is a remix” can be a rather pessimistic way to look at things – if nothing is truly “original,” what is even the point, right? – it is important to look back, not just to gain a deeper understanding of a work, but also to acquire a new outlook with which to look forward.
So, what are the influences of The Dark Knight Trilogy? It is, of course, a marriage of two mediums, taking a character predominantly associated with comic books and bringing him onto the big screen, so it must have had influences from both films and comic books. What films informed the cinematography of this trilogy? And what stories from the character’s rich publication history were mined to tell the tale Nolan et al. were trying to tell with their films?
After the disastrous Batman & Robin (1997), the Batman film franchise needed a revival. After several attempts to find the right filmmaker to helm the project, the powers that be at Warner Bros. finally settled on Christopher Nolan, who at the time was coming hot off the heels of the commercial and critical success of Memento (2000) and Insomnia (2002). David S. Goyer was hired soon enough, providing Nolan with the insight he needed to stay faithful to the mythos from the comic books.
As Goyer told The Guardian in 2013:
“Chris had never read comic books: he didn’t know the world. So he trusted me on that franchise […] to know what was canon: what could be changed and what couldn’t be changed.”
Together, the duo set out to revitalize both the franchise and the character. It helped that they both saw potential in a certain aspect of the character that previous films had failed to explore: Batman’s origin.
Years ago, in an effort quite similar to the one Nolan and Goyer were undertaking at the turn of the century, DC Comics hired Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli to reforge Batman’s origin, offering a definitive take that could forever be enshrined in their new canon for a new age; something that became necessary following Crisis on Infinite Earths, which did away with decades of continuity with the intention of providing a new starting point to the readers. Miller was a young auteur in the comic book industry at the time, having reinvented Daredevil at Marvel Comics and done something of a final Batman story at DC Comics. As Dennis O’Neil so eloquently put in his introduction to the trade paperback collection of Year One, “Having done Batman’s omega, Miller was willing and anxious to do Batman’s alpha.”
Miller and Mazzucchelli attempted to neither alter nor retell the “who he is and how he came to be” that the character’s creators, Bill Finger and Bob Kane, told in Detective Comics #33, just a few months after his debut in Detective Comics #27. Instead, they focused on what came after, when a young Bruce Wayne returned to Gotham after trekking the world for twelve years, training under the tutelage of various masters, honing his craft and sharpening himself for his fight as the caped crusader. Goyer was fascinated by these “lost years,” so to speak.
“The moment in Year One when Bruce Wayne is returning to Gotham after a multi-year absence. I was captivated by that. I wanted to explore what had happened in those intervening years,” Goyer told SFX in 2004. “And I also wanted to depict the moment when he decides to leave Gotham – what he would say to Alfred, his foster father, and how that would take a terrible toll on his heart… And because we were using Rā’s al Ghūl, we definitely used some of the Denny O’Neil issues as a point of reference.”
One Dennis O’Neil written story in particular – “The Man Who Falls,” illustrated by Dick Giordano and first published as the only original story in the 1989 Secret Origins trade paperback collection – would serve as the structural influence for the film, as cited in Genesis of the Bat, a short documentary featured in the DVD collection for Batman Begins.
Nolan too was captivated by Year One, but perhaps not in the same way as Goyer was. He was coming into the project from a filmmaker’s perspective and was looking for themes he could furnish the film’s world with. He was, however, interested in grounding Batman in contemporary reality and, as he told The Guardian in 2005, “wanted to try to do it in a more realistic fashion than anyone had ever tried to a superhero film before.” So, he traded the “fears, frustrations and hopes […] of 20th-century urban life” that Miller and Mazzucchelli, with colorist Richmond Lewis and letterer Todd Klein, had brought to life in Year One with that of the 21st-century. Nolan and Goyer’s Batman thus became a post-9/11 War on Terror Batman, militaristic in his approach to both crime-fighting and the gadgets that would help him in his war on crime.
Since this was Nolan’s first foray into the superhero genre, he leaned for inspiration on the very first superhero film of the modern age to truly capture the public’s imagination at large: Richard Donner’s Superman (1978). Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter in 2015, Nolan elaborated on the impact the film had made on him and how it served as the blueprint for his take on Batman:
“I can remember the trailers for it, I can remember about Superman the movie, all of that. And it was very clear to me that however brilliant – and it was very brilliant – Tim Burton’s take on Batman was in 1989, and it was obviously a worldwide smash, it wasn’t that sort of origin story, it wasn’t that real-world kind of epic movie; it was very Tim Burton, a very idiosyncratic, gothic kind of masterpiece. But it left this interesting gap in pop-culture, which is, you know, you had Superman in 1978, but they never did the sort of 1978 Batman, where you see the origin story, where the world is pretty much the world we live in but there’s this extraordinary figure there, which is what worked so well in Dick Donner’s Superman film. And so I was able to get in the studio and say, ‘Well, that’s what I would do with it.’”
Nolan was insistent in presenting Batman’s world as realistically as possible, so Chicago became Gotham, much like how New York became Metropolis in Donner’s Superman. He did have to compromise to a certain degree, though. Finding himself unable to shoot on location, unlike how much of the subsequent films in the trilogy were shot, Nolan and crew had to “build the streets of Gotham in large part.” This is where Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) came into the picture as another influence, as Nolan told Forbes in 2015:
“I immediately gravitated toward the visual treatment that Ridley Scott had come up with, in terms of how you shoot these massive sets to make them feel real and not like impressive sets. And immediately we started looking at the rain, the handheld cameras, the longer lenses…”
The Dark Knight
Escalation is the name of the game by the time Nolan and Goyer get to The Dark Knight. Interested in exploring how Batman’s war on crime would prompt criminals to retaliate with an increase in both intensity and intent, Nolan and Goyer spent months developing the key plot points for the film. As Goyer told Empire in 2012:
“With these three films […] we always said, ‘What kind of story do we wanna tell about our protagonist, what kinda challenges do we want to have them face?’ And then, ‘What character in the rogues’ gallery will be best equipped to put our hero through those?’”
The Joker seemed an obvious pick, having already been teased at the end of Batman Begins, even though Nolan had no plans for a sequel then, as he himself admitted to Empire in 2009:
“I didn’t have any intention of making a sequel to Batman Begins and I was quite surprised to find myself wanting to do it. I just got caught up in the process of imagining how you would see a character like The Joker through the prism of what we did in the first film.”
The Dark Knight’s Joker thus became “pure evil through pure anarchy” to the military might of Batman, tying into the film’s themes of escalation of terrorism, leading to some very real world parallels; to the point that, as The Atlantic reported in 2016, it prompted former US President Barack Obama to cite the film’s portrayal of the Joker as an analogy to explain the growth of the ISIL to his inner circle.
Heath Ledger’s legendary performance as the Joker is revered now, but back when his casting was announced, it was met with quite the backlash, from fans and critics alike. Jack Nicholson’s iconic portrayal of the Joker in Batman (1989) was seeped into the public consciousness and Ledger certainly had big shoes to fill. Nevertheless, Nolan trusted Ledger’s vision and, essentially, gave him free rein to develop the character.
“We talked a lot about Alex in A Clockwork Orange, people like that. He’d come up with the same things independently. I looked into his eyes and I just saw… This guy knows he can do something here, he wants to get in and do this thing. And that was without even a script! I always felt – because people were uncertain about the casting; other people were a little surprised by it, I think – but I always felt very strongly that he was going to really put everything into his performance and really do something extraordinary,” Nolan told Empire in 2009.
Speaking to MTV in 2008, Nolan argued how the films in The Dark Knight Trilogy are “a very large survey of the comic history.” That is particularly true for the books Ledger used to draw inspirations from for his performance. The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brain Bolland became a crucial influence to base the narrative that Ledger’s Joker wants to drive home in the film’s climax; which is, as Nolan told IndieWire in 2008, “pull everybody down to his level and show that he’s not an unusual monster and that everyone else can be debased and corrupted like he is.” In a way, Nolan and Ledger’s Joker is quite similar to the Joker the characters’ creators, Jerry Robinson, Bill Finger, and Bob Kane, envisioned back in Batman #1 – something that Nolan acknowledged while speaking with IndieWire in 2008:
“If you look at the first two appearances of The Joker ever in the Batman comics, we were quite startled to look back at those and realize how close that character is to what Heath’s done and what our story is. I think it’s very close to the original incarnation of the character some sixty-five years ago.”
In the end, “it’s a combination of reading all the comic books I could that were relevant to the script and then just closing my eyes and meditating on it,” Ledger noted while speaking with Empire in 2007:
“I sat around in a hotel room in London for about a month, locked myself away, formed a little diary and experimented with voices – it was important to try to find a somewhat iconic voice and laugh. I ended up landing more in the realm of a psychopath – someone with very little to no conscience towards his acts. He’s just an absolute sociopath, a cold-blooded, mass-murdering clown, and Chris has given me free rein. Which is fun, because there are no real boundaries to what The Joker would say or do. Nothing intimidates him, and everything is a big joke.”
Ledger’s “Joker diary”, “filled with images and thoughts helpful to the Joker backstory,” and his method-acting approach to find his vision for the character came under added scrutiny following his unfortunate demise before the film’s release. Grant Morrison, whose seven-year run on Batman has become somewhat of an ultimate take on the character, noted the inclusion of their stories in that diary, particularly Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth and “The Clown at Midnight.”
“He actually had a whole list – blind babies, doctors, accidents – really horrible stuff,” Morrison told MTV in 2008. “Heath wrote it all down. So yeah, I can see there’s a lot of [Arkham Asylum and “The Clown at Midnight”] in his Joker.”
Interested in grounding the character, as they had done with Batman, Nolan and Goyer went the opposite way of what Tim Burton did with his version of the character in Batman (1989), and what the duo themselves had done with Batman in Batman Begins. That is, they opted to not explore the Joker’s origin, but keep him rather mysterious in that aspect. Instead, the only member from the main cast who goes through something of a character arc in the film is Harvey Dent, who has a triumphant rise as the city’s new District Attorney, an ally to Batman and Gordon, to a tragic fall as Two-Face, forever on the opposite side of the law.
In both its intent – exploring the forces of acceleration that led to the transition of Batman’s rogues gallery from mobsters to supervillains and to tell the origins of Two-Face – the film drew heavily from The Long Halloween, the 13-issue limited series by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale. Speaking to MTV in 2008, Nolan went into the details of precisely what pulled him into the book, “The Long Halloween has a great, triangular relationship between Harvey Dent and Gordon and Batman, and that’s something we very much drew from.”
The idea for The Long Halloween, as Loeb reveals in his introduction for the trade paperback collection, germinated when Archie Goodwin, editor extraordinaire, approached Loeb and Sale, who at that time were working for Marvel Comics, with an intriguing hook, “I just was sort of wondering what happened to The Roman and all those other gangsters from Batman: Year One. I don’t think Frank [Miller] is going to revisit that material, and maybe you two should.” Perhaps Nolan and Goyer, and Nolan’s brother, Jonathan, who joined the team to develop the screenplay, were also wondering the same, which is why The Dark Knight feels a lot like a crime drama that has escalated to envelope an entire city than a traditional superhero film focused on the fight between good and evil.
“In the case of The Dark Knight, we’re attempting to tell a very large, city story or the story of a city. In the same way that, I don’t know, Michael Mann’s films, like Heat or something. That was sort of an inspiration,” Nolan told IGN in 2007. “If you want to take on Gotham, you want to give Gotham a kind of weight and breadth and depth in there. So you wind up dealing with the political figures, the media figures. That’s part of the whole fabric of how a city is bound together.”
Nolan credits Heat for not just inspiring the central themes running through The Dark Knight, but also for the visual language of the film. As he explains in the interviews for The Nolan Variations:
“We’re going to shoot in a real city, with real streets and real buildings, because the scale of that can be massive. We are going to use IMAX cameras so we can shoot the full height of the buildings and we’re going to give you an antagonist who’s interfering with the very fabric of the city. Just from the way we shoot it, the Joker walking down the street will be a huge image. Heat was very much an influence, because Mann is a fanatic for architecture, too; he understands the grandeur of a city and how it can become a kind of epic playground.”
The Dark Knight Rises
Despite the commercial and critical success of The Dark Knight, and that the film became such a global cultural phenomenon, Nolan was hesitant in making a third film in the series. “How many good third movies in a franchise can people name?” he joked in an interview with the LA Times in 2008. While that may be true, Hollywood logic would tell you otherwise. And so, after much delay, work began on the final entry in the trilogy. Goyer had written a three-film treatment back in 2005, various elements of which had been incorporated into Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Using that as a rough framework, Nolan completed a story outline which was then handed over to his brother to develop a screenplay out of:
“Without getting into specifics, the key thing that makes the third film a great possibility for us is that we want to finish our story,” Nolan told LA Times in 2008. “And in viewing it as the finishing of a story rather than infinitely blowing up the balloon and expanding the story.” Another thing that went contrary to Hollywood logic. But, Nolan, it would seem, had put his foot down. This would be the end of his version of Batman. “Unlike the comics, these things don’t go on forever in film and viewing it as a story with an end is useful. Viewing it as an ending, that sets you very much on the right track about the appropriate conclusion and the essence of what tale we’re telling. And it harkens back to that priority of trying to find the reality in these fantastic stories. That’s what we do,” he told LA Times in 2008.
The question then became who do you pit Batman against for his final story? The question plagued Frank Miller too when, years ago, he fired a “barrage of scenes” at Dick Giordano, who had then been promoted to an editorial position at DC Comics and had asked Miller to develop a Batman story. In Miller’s own words for the introduction to The Dark Knight Returns, a book so revolutionary that it continues to influence the superhero genre to this day, as it certainly did The Dark Knight Rises, he describes how he pitched a “raw, rambling narrative […] not yet a story at all, a mixed bag of cool things Batman will do and say that winds up with an ending that could never work.” Miller’s story would put Batman against the Mutants and their powerhouse of a leader and end with a showdown with Superman. Nolan’s is perhaps less sumptuous in its design, but is equally grand in its ambitions. The Dark Knight Rises gets a lot of its best ideas from The Dark Knight Returns, beginning with the core premise of a retired Batman coming back for one last fight, against an enemy that threatens to destroy his city.
In the case of The Dark Knight Rises, that enemy is Bane. “The fact is that The Joker is an anarchist. He has a plan, but not really, but kinda sorta he does… And the question that energizes The Dark Knight is: does he really wanna kill Batman or not? And the twist is that he doesn’t. He wants to kill everybody else. That opened up the possibility for a third film in which you have a more literal villain,” Jonathan Nolan told Empire in 2012, elaborating on the team’s choice to go with Bane as the villain for the film, a character perhaps far less familiar to the casual moviegoer than Joker:
“This is a much more driven character. Bane is a resourceful, cunning and committed villain who knows exactly what he wants. He wants Batman dead and Gotham in ruins. That’s fitting for a third film.”
Debuting in the “Knightfall” storyline that ran through the Batman line of books at DC Comics in the early 90s, Bane was created, in the words of the character’s co-creator, to be “Batman’s equal both physically and intellectually.” The film stays true to that, but chooses to drop the “fanciful” elements of the character, particularly his addiction to Venom, a highly effective strength-enhancing drug. His luchador-inspired look from the comics was also at odds with Nolan’s insistence to ground the character in contemporary reality. So, Nolan’s version of Bane became a militant leader, a revolutionary, and an Occupy Wall Street protester all rolled into one.
“Chris and David started developing the story in 2008 right after the second film came out. Before the recession. Before Occupy Wall Street or any of that,” Jonathan Nolan told the Washington Examiner in 2012, arguing against the parallels between the film’s pivotal moments and the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City. “Rather than being influenced by that, I was looking to old good books and good movies. Good literature for inspiration… What I always felt like we needed to do in a third film was, for lack of a better term, go there. All of these films have threatened to turn Gotham inside out and to collapse it on itself. None of them have actually achieved that until this film. A Tale of Two Cities was, to me, one of the most harrowing portrait of a relatable, recognizable civilization that completely folded to pieces with the terrors in Paris in France in that period. It’s hard to imagine that things can go that badly wrong.”
A sentiment his brother seemed to agree to. “There’s an attempt to visualize certain things in this film on this large scale that are troubling and genuinely threatening to the idea of an American city. Or, to put it another way: revolutions and the destabilizing of society have happened everywhere in the world, so why not here?” Nolan told Empire in 2012.
Filming a revolution, fictionalized as it may be, is not an easy task, especially on the scale Nolan wanted for his final Batman film. He took inspiration from an extraordinary 1966 film called The Battle of Algiers, a film that “captured the chaos and fear of an uprising” so vividly that its exhibitions in America carried the disclaimer that “not one foot” of newsreel had been used in the film. Chronicling the eponymous Battle of Algiers during the Algerian War (1954–1962), it is a brutal film that does not shy away from highlighting the human cost of war and the atrocities committed under colonial rule. Its documentary-style presentation of organized guerilla resistance was so authentic, and continues to be so, that even though the film was banned in France for several years, state authorities could not help but praise it when it finally released there in 1971.
It is appropriate then that Nolan described The Dark Knight Rises as a “war film.” Elaborating on the influences of The Dark Knight Rises, he told Empire in 2012:
“It’s a revolutionary epic. It’s looking back to the grand-scale epics of the past, really, and for me that goes as far back as silent films. I’ve been watching a lot of silent films with my kids on Blu-Ray. We’ve shot over a third of the movie on the IMAX format and that naturally puts you more in the mode of staging very large events for the camera. It’s my attempt to get as close to making a Fritz Lang film as I could.”
It is easy to see how Lang’s iconic 1927 film, Metropolis, inspired much of the visual language of class warfare that The Dark Knight Rises aims to convey to its audience. “In an era when films had to communicate purely with the visual, the relationship between the themes of the story and the architecture of the setting is clear and expressive,” Nolan told Yahoo! Movies in 2012, listing the films that inspired The Dark Knight Rises.
The Dark Knight Trilogy is certainly not a perfect set of films, but do I admire how every entry into the trilogy is ever so slightly different from the previous, yet stays within the tropes established by its predecessors. Take the superhero elements out of these films and, Batman Begins is very much a hero’s journey film, The Dark Knight is a crime drama, and The Dark Knight Rises is akin to a war epic. In fact, these films only reinforce how you can tell any story you want to with Batman, that the character is that versatile.
Maybe Frank Miller put it best when he compared the character to “kind of like a diamond” while speaking to Entertainment Weekly in 2016:
“Batman’s just a terrific character, open to wildly different interpretations. […] he’s astonishingly versatile. He’s kind of like a diamond. You can throw him against the wall and you can pound him with a hammer, but you can’t break him. Every interpretation seems to work. […] You can do it badly, but you can’t really do it wrong.”
And perhaps that is why we keep going back, diving ever deeper into the character’s rich publication history, to mine these disparate interpretations for that spark of inspiration that can thrust us forward to tell an excitingly new Batman story. We pull from other mediums when need be. To experiment, of course, but also, isn’t it human nature itself? To see if it worked for them, can it work for us? It helps to study stories (and the storytelling techniques) of the past – and not look at them with nostalgia-tinted glasses – so that we can tell exhilarating new stories for the future. The Dark Knight Trilogy certainly wears its influences on its sleeves, but it never crumbles under the weight of them or comes across as a cheap knock-off. It took its influences and presented a bold new interpretation off them, thereby becoming the influence for legions of interpretations to come, and thus leaving a towering legacy.