THE DARK KNIGHT: Christian Bales Out Batman

The Dark Knight movie poster Bruce Lee, Alexander Fu Sheng and Brandon Lee: the circumstances surrounding their deaths catapulted these cinema martial artists to cult status. Six years ago, after Aaliyah from Jet Li's ROMEO MUST DIE died tragically in the Bahamas in a plane crash just after completing QUEEN OF THE DAMNED (eerily featuring her in a poignant death scene), Warner Brothers found itself in a quandary trying to salvage their investment in her shortlived fame. And now with this Friday's release (7/18/08) of Warner Brothers' DARK KNIGHT, Heath Ledger, who died earlier this year from a drug overdose at age 28, is on the brink of joining this existential club.

However, QUEEN OF THE DAMNED bombed partially because the critics lambasted Warner Brothers for publicizing the movie as Aaliyah's last film. This attempt to play off her posthumous cult status was viewed as politically incorrect.. But she was the star and driving interest of the film. What is freaky about Ledger's Joker character is that his make-up bears a striking resemblance to Brandon Lee's Crow character in THE CROW. However, when you consider the whole of DARK KNIGHT -- Batman (played by Christian Bale), the action, the fights, the cool gadgets, the engaging storyline -- it delivers a powerful gestalt that transcends the ghoulish realization that the crazy, outlandish and powerful performance by Ledger is indeed one of his last. This time around, Warner Brothers and the filmmakers have played down the real life tragedy and focused on the film, because it is a good sequel to a great franchise.

The Dark  Knight writer/director Christopher Nolan With BATMAN BEGINS, writer/director Christopher Nolan created a new chapter in the Batman film franchise by recounting the legendary hero's origins and how, born out of fear and helplessness, billionaire industrialist Bruce Wayne became the chiropteran (in animal classification systems, Chiroptera is the order of mammals that includes bats) crime fighter Batman. In DARK KNIGHT, Nolan returns to the Batman saga with the character now, in the words of Nolan, "Fully formed."

Nolan relates that he left the world of Batman at an interesting place in the first film, and the end suggested an intriguing direction in which the story could continue. "In this film," he explains, "I focus more on how Batman's very existence has changed Gotham City?and not, at least initially, for the better. At the end of BATMAN BEGINS, we hinted at the threat of escalation that because Batman pursued the city's crime cartels and attacked their interests, he could provoke an even greater response from the criminal community and now that has come to pass. On the one hand, Batman has begun to rid Gotham of the crime and corruption that has plagued the city, but, ironically, the vacuum he created draws in an even more powerful criminal element, who see it as their chance to take over the city."

Enter the Joker.BATMAN #1 published by DC comics; Spring 1940
Movie Poster for THE MAN WHO LAUGHS. Bill Finger's inspiration for The Joker First appearing in the DC Comic Batman #1 in the Spring of 1940 (one year after Batman first appeared in Detective Comics #27 as a wraith silhouette against the Gotham City skyline), the Joker was created by Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson and Batman creator Bob Kane, and was inspired by a photograph Finger showed Kane of the actor Conrad Veign - caked in make-up - portraying Gwynplaine in the 1928 silent horror/melodrama THE MAN WHO LAUGHS. This background is hinted at in the 1940 graphic novel Batman: The Man Who Laughs.

Ledger's malevolent clown rendition of arguably the most recognizable of Batman's archnemeses rivals Jack Nicholson's Joker from BATMAN (1989). In casting what was bound to be compared to Nicholson's madcap performance, Nolan says he was looking for the defining quality of "fearlessness." In a grunt of respect he adds, "I needed a phenomenal actor, but he also had to be someone unafraid of taking on such an iconic role. Heath created something entirely original. It's stunning, captivating?it's going to blow people away.

"When I first met Heath about the film, it was before a script was written," Nolan reminisces. "We talked about how we saw this character and we both had exactly the same concept?that The Joker was about the threat of anarchy and revels in creating chaos and fear on a grand scale. Heath seemed to instinctively understand how to make this character different from anything that had ever been done before. We didn't want to do an origin story for The Joker but show his rise. We wanted the Joker to represent pure, unadulterated evil, in the sense that he has no logical motivation for his actions. That is what we wanted to unleash on the city of Gotham." After a momentary pause Nolan adds, "He is an absolute."

Christian Bale, who reprises his Batman role in the vein of Frank Miller's version of the dark brooding hero fighting in an even darker world in the 1986 release of THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, has this to share about The Joker and Ledger.

"The Joker wants to break Batman, to prove that everybody has a price and even Batman can be leveraged in such a way that he would compromise his principles," he explains. "I actually think he's delighted to find that Batman won't do that, and it creates for The Joker an even better opponent in this game he's playing. He's a fascinating character, and Heath did an extraordinary job with it. I don't think the movie would have worked as well if we hadn't had an actor of the caliber of Heath Ledger, who was able to really up the ante, as much as The Joker does in Gotham."

The Joker (Heath Ledger) reviews his handywork.

In a batshell, with the help of Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and the intrepid newly appointed District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Batman sets his sights on completely ousting organized crime in Gotham City. The triumvirate initially proves effective as crime disappears, forcing all the mob bosses to think outside the envelope, specifically toward the former postage stamp colony of Hong Kong. Ironically, the criminal element is bamboozled like a deer in headlights as they fall prey to the sardonic grin of The Joker, who laughingly plunges Gotham into anarchy and forces The Dark Knight ever closer to crossing the fine and now blurry line between vigilante and hero.

Bale welcomed the opportunity to again embody the solitary figure who relinquishes much of his personal identity for the greater good. He notes, "Bruce is certainly sacrificing, both mentally and physically, as a consequence of this character of Batman whom he has unleashed and now is unable to rein in anymore. More than a persona, he has created a symbol, and that symbol can't have limits. He can't show weakness?ever. So you have the conflict between what is good for Bruce Wayne and what is the right thing for Batman to do, because the two of them are not always compatible. In the last film Bruce learned martial arts, but in this film Batman has perfected them."

Nolan adds that although Bale portrays the same character in DARK KNIGHT as he did in BATMAN BEGINS, the two films present very different challenges for the actor. "In the first film, we went about developing Batman's combat method and the film's visceral fight sequences, and searched for a style that married the gritty intensity of street fighting with a disciplined martial arts approach, because for Batman, everything is about function, about the most effective way of doing something, so we needed a style that is brutal, economical and real.

Christian Bale as the DARK KNIGHT; BATMAN "So in that regard, with all the training sequences and such, BATMAN BEGINS demanded a lot of physical effort. Christian had to get himself in terrific shape and learn all kinds of skills in terms of the way Batman fights, the way he moves. Yet on this film, I would say it required more of an internal process because Bruce is realizing the personal toll of living this double life and is questioning the choices he had made. Christian conveys that emotional struggle very convincingly, often without saying a word."

Regardless, DARK KNIGHT still engages in heavy physicality, so Bale immersed himself in a refresher course on the Keysi Fighting Method (KFM) that Batman employs against his enemies. KFM, created 20 years ago by JKD practitioner Justo Dieguez, is not so much a new style as a new way of thinking, an expression of self-defense, where the challenge is to better understand how the mind and body function, and to do that, one must crack open the conditioning of the human mind. According to Dieguez, everybody's training is constantly trying to evolve and grow, where - through desire, passion and openmindedness - there are no limits other than the limits you impose on yourself. It is merely an extension of Lee's sagacious statement, "Having no way as a way and no limit as your limit."

There are actually more fights in DARK KNIGHT than the previous film, so honing his martial skills was essential to make Batman look even more violently fluid this time around, each successive bludgeoning blow coming across with hammer-fist intensity rather than the slip-slap, rapid-fire furor seen in the BOURNE films. It was therefore even more important for Bale to be in peak physical condition, achieved through training with Keysi fight coordinators Dieguez and Andy Norman three hours every day.

Christian Bale as BATMAN, the DARK KNIGHT.

"It's a fascinating fighting method," says Bale, "because it uses the adrenaline that everyone feels entering into a threatening or violent situation. It really comes from the gut rather than the kind of Zen calm that some martial arts call on. KFM is based on animal instinct and honing those instincts to be lethal, so it's perfect for Batman."

But Batman is about to confront a singular criminal called The Joker, who has little regard for Keysi or any other fighting method. "In a fair fight, Batman would obliterate him," Bale asserts, "but The Joker doesn't fight fair. He has other tricks up his sleeve, so it's more of a mind game. But he finds in Batman a very worthy opponent, and I think he enjoys that.

"The Joker is somebody without any rules whatsoever," Bale adds. "How do you fight somebody who is bent on destruction, even if it means self-destruction? That's a formidable foe. But it is The Joker's total lack of morality that is one of his most potent weapons in his war with Batman because like any revered martial arts legend or heroic crime fighter, a knight or Dark Knight, Batman has a very strict moral code for what he will and won't do, and The Joker can use that to his advantage. Batman still has this huge reserve of anger and pain and knows he could easily go too far, so he must not cross that line. He has to be sure that in chasing a monster, he doesn't become a monster himself. Chris (Nolan) raised interesting ethical questions in this movie about the complications of ?having' power versus ?aspiring' to power."

Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and Alfred (Micheal Kane) review video footage of their new nemesis.

While BATMAN BEGINS did not aspire to create awesome fight choreography (the fights were shot tight enough to give one a headache, and one could not tell exactly what Bale was doing), in DARK KNIGHT the fights are shot slightly wider, giving you a better sense of Batman's techniques. The power is more successfully matched to loud sound effects and the dark lighting adds to the mystery of his dark style. However, be prepared for a lot of confusion in the final fight/action set pieces because tight close-ups, snippy/snappy editing and blue flashes make it hard to follow. Of particular note, although a big deal is made that the first 6 minutes of the film were shot with real IMAX cameras (and I saw the film at an IMAX theater), the hype exceeds the results. Just keep it pure people.

Nolan wraps the interview with these words. "For me, Batman has an enduring appeal and endless fascination because he is a relatable character. He is referred to as a superhero, but actually he is a self-invented superhero. And I think the fantasy of a man who, through sheer will and self-discipline, has turned himself into more than just a man, into a heroic figure?that's just a very compelling myth."

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