It’s been a month since The Dark Knight Rises was released to nearly universal acclaim and record-breaking box office returns. Even critics and fans alike who had problems with the movie’s length and perceived plot holes admit the sheer spectacle of it all on the screen is something that calls back to the days of epic filmmaking by the likes of DeMille, Lean, and Ford which is high praise indeed for a film about a billionaire orphan in a tricked-out Nomex survival suit trying hard to get rid of a bomb.
Such spectacle would be reduced to sound and fury signifying nothing or a Michael Bay Transformers movie if it wasn’t for strong acting performances not just in RISES but across the preceding movies of the trilogy, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Performances like Sir Michael Caine as the long-suffering butler, Alfred, Morgan Freeman’s smoothly droll Lucius Fox, and, of course, the Agent of Chaos, the Joker, as interpreted by the still-missed Heath Ledger to name just a few.
Those same performances would have been good without a strong lead in Christian Bale’s portrayal of Bruce Wayne/Batman but because Bale was more than up for that task those performances as well as his own are indelible in film history. Bale’s ability to play three versions of the same character as a fearsome masked vigilante, a self-absorbed playboy, and an all too fallible mortal trying to save his city is often overlooked because of its subtlety but it would be a mistake to do that because Bale was just as important as director Christopher Nolan when it came to helping the Dark Knight truly rise on the silver screen.
Being the lead in a superhero movie is a largely thankless task because if an actor is not overshadowed by the comic book villains he goes up against onscreen then he has to make an asinine script read like Chekhov. For every Robert Downey Jr. as Tony (Iron Man) Stark there’s Ben Affleck as Daredevil and Brandon Routh as Superman. It’s even tougher to play Batman in a live-action movie because a deviation one way and its back to the idiotic stories of the post-Seduction of the Innocent caped crusader or the other and you get the misogynistic brute of Frank Miller’s All-Star Batman and Robin. That says nothing about being upstaged by Batman’s rogue’s gallery which is almost as well-known as the hero himself and cheered for just as much sometimes. Christian Bale solved that conundrum because the rage and menace he exhibited while slinking through the shadows wearing the cape and cowl was truly sinister.
Bale translated perfectly to the screen why criminals have feared Batman for over seventy years in the comic books not just with the costume but also the way fire flashed from his eyes and the controversial growl he created to give voice to his Dark Knight. The actor has said in interviews that he understood Batman as being in a perpetual state of rage so merely speaking his voice in a raspy whisper wasn’t going to do it. Viewers can see that deep anger on display in the SWEAR TO ME clip in Begins and the interrogation scene in TDK. We know Batman isn’t going to kill Detective Flass or the Joker but what we don’t know is how far Bale’s Batman will take it which was something never seen on film before not counting the mad bomber Batman of Michael Keaton.
That uncertain certainty combined with the threatening aura he exuded made his Batman just as much a chaotic force as the Joker which brings us to the purple and green elephant in the middle of the room, Heath Ledger’s scene stealing in TDK. This may sound snobbish but people who merely watch movies think Ledger’s Joker blew Bale’s Batman off the screen the whole film but those who truly watch a movie know both actors were evenly matched. Any actor worth his salt can play manic (see most Nicolas Cage movies) but an actor who can convincingly hold his own while his co-stars swing for the fences truly knows his craft. atman is the straight man in the macabre comedy act he plays out with the Joker so on-screen an actor has to keep the audience just as invested in the hero while the villain gets the great lines. Or to use a music metaphor, Batman is the thumping bass line under the theatrics of the Joker’s electric guitar because you’re not going to get the best out of one without the other most times.
Bale was able to take a role in Batman that during the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher days was just there to be a cipher to be outshined by Jack Nicholson’s Joker, Michelle Pfieffer’s Catwoman, and Jim Carrey’s Riddler among others. It worked in those four movies because they were exercises in style over substance so no heavy lifting was needed for the men behind the masks even though Michael Keaton’s performance in costume still holds up very well over twenty years later. Christopher Nolan and his series co-writers, Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer, reversed that formula by giving Bale a script where the substance was paramount and Bale created a Batman who truly was the lead in his own movie in name as well as deed.
Click for “part 2″…
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