The Batman is back and he has cut a swathe through the box office with a record breaking opening weekend. But Alison Jones finds the director and star in somewhat dark mood.
Christian Bale sits slumped in his seat. He looks like he can barely muster the enthusiasm to stay upright, let alone take an interest in the proceedings.
It could be jet lag, it could be a hang over from an unseemly domestic spat that was, unknown to everyone else present, about to be spread all over the news following his arrest for allegedly assaulting his mother and sister.
It casts a blight on what should otherwise have been a night of triumph as The Dark Knight knocked Spider-Man 3’s record for the biggest opening weekend right out of the park, as well as garnering glowing reviews for all concerned and the late Heath Ledger in particular.
In fairness, director Christopher Nolan hardly seems more enthused, albeit considerable more alert. The pair of them should really take lessons from James Cameron in exhibiting the appropriate levels of unrestrained glee at being current kings of the film-making world.
It falls to new girl Maggie Gyllenhaal, stepping into the role of Rachel Dawes vacated by the baby busy and always too baby-faced Katie Holmes as the Bat/Bruce love interest, to say stuff the craft, sometimes greed is good.
“When I first started making movies I didn’t care if anybody saw them and I just thought I like this and I don’t care if anybody else does and now I realise I don’t wanna make movies for the 10 people who feel exactly the same way about the world that I do.
“I want to make movies that people see and this is actually about something and will I think affect people. I am so proud to be a part of it. I am so glad it made tons of money.”
Bale and Nolan have already experienced a similar media frenzy of excitement after Batman Begins revived the franchise that George Clooney thought he had killed off with Batman and Robin back in ‘97.
But Bale, 34, would be the first to admit that the majority of his movies, though always interesting dramatic choices that usually test his physical and emotional limits as an actor, rarely trouble the record books.
“Obviously this amount ($155.3 million in three days in the US) is an incredible surprise but I am always surprised that any movie I am in makes money because most of the ones I have done have bombed and I have been referred to as box office poison quite a lot, so it’s nice this has happened now,” says the Welsh-born star, speaking in an accent that is a peculiar hybrid of mockney and American and pitched almost as low as the hoarse mumble Batman adopts to try and disguise his voice.
Christopher Nolan says the intention was to improve, if possible, on the previous film: “My goal was certainly to expand somewhat on where we left it in Batman Begins. We spent more money making the film so you want to make more money to be profitable.
“We were given incredible support by the studio so it was very important to me that we did well enough but the level of success we have been enjoying this weekend is far beyond what I hoped for.”
Its success has been bittersweet. Part of its acclaim is based on the stunning turn by Heath Ledger which wiped away all memories of Jack Nicholson’s bar-setting showboating as The Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman.
Rumours that Heath has turned in an Oscar-worthy performance in the last film he completed before his death from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs have not proved to be just hype.
“Certainly talking about somebody who can’t be here to represent themselves it is an unusual circumstance,” says Nolan. “It has been a great relief to me to see people responding to the performance, to know the way he intended it to affect people. It makes me feel we have put the film out there the way it should be. I am grateful to the way people are responding to him. I think he would be very proud.
“He was terrific to work with. He was extremely precise and diligent in working out exactly how to balance the needs of the iconography of the character with the human reality and the psychological reality that allows the character to be genuinely threatening because you believe in him as a person.
“It was really very exciting to watch that very unpredictable combination of elements.”
Heath’s Joker is an unstoppable force for anarchy. He is a man who as Sir Michael Caine, as Bruce Wayne’s faithful retainer, Alfred, succinctly puts it “just wants to watch the world burn.”
But this isn’t a film that is black and white, good and evil. Equally important is the introduction of crusading lawyer Harvey Dent, played by Aaron Eckhart, who Bruce Wayne sees as his natural successor.
He is a legitimate crime fighter who can do away with the need for Batman’s brand of vigilante justice.
The fact that Eckhart is also listed in the credits as Two Face indicates that to be a somewhat forlorn hope.
The inclusion of a second villain is what, in the end, puts dramatic meat on the film’s bones. The Joker is unfathomable, his motivations a mystery.
“Two Face’s are all too clear, What got me interested in doing a sequel was the idea of escalation,” says Nolan. “The idea that Batman has created this extraordinary presence. How would criminals come back at that?
“I think Batman, both in the comics, the movies and the TV shows, has always thrived on reinvention. It felt very very exciting to look at a character who is almost as iconic as Batman himself – The Joker – in a very fresh way
“But we always felt The Joker wouldn’t be a character with an arc, wouldn’t have an incredible emotional journey or learning experience or whatever. He was designed to be a catalyst, to cut through the movie like the shark does in Jaws.
“We always knew that we were going to use another character, another story to provide the emotional backbone that would interact with Bruce Wayne and that was clear it would be Harvey Dent, his tragic story. I think it is one of the most interesting stories from the comic book lore that hadn’t really been shown before.”.
Eckart, Ledger and Bale may put the act in action but The Dark Knight, delivers on all fronts, from the pithy but affectionate banter between Alfred and Bruce, to the set pieces of never-tried-before stunts, which included somersaulting an 18-wheel truck, and the introduction of big boy toy, the bat-bike.
The bat suit has also been improved to allow greater flexibility, something that came as great relief to Bale, whose complaint that the first one was “hot, dark, and sweaty and it gives me a headache” was so heartfelt the film’s costumers had it printed on their T-shirts.
“This was so much nicer,” he concedes. “It has always been a desire of Chris’s – and that was without having to wear the damn thing so it was a real desire of mine – to be able to turn my head inside of it and just to have a little bit more motion.
“I was having to fight against the suit (in Batman Begins) in order to be able to achieve the fighting sequences. In this one I could breathe better and I could do more, so we used me for more of the fighting. In the other one, I got exhausted so much quicker and also it gave me a migraine all the time. This one was a real pleasure by comparison.
“It was actually heavier but it didn’t feel that way because I had more motion.”
“It was also,” Sir Michael softly interjects, “easier to press.”
Like the famously downbeat ending of Empire Strikes Back which concludes with the good guys in the ropes, their numbers diminished, the franchise is virtually begging for a second sequel (and with the financial returns achieved one would imagine the studio is too) but Nolan says it is too soon to commit.
“The truth is I finished working on this three or four weeks ago.
“We certainly didn’t save anything for another film, we put everything we wanted to see into this.
“On the other hand I had no real thought of doing the second one while I was doing the first one so I have no idea what I would want it to be in the future. I am just going to go on holiday.”