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Old 08-21-2012, 10:16 PM   #350
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Default Re: Characterization of the Knight - Nolan and Bale's Bruce Wayne/Batman - Part 2

Long but good read.

The Dark Knight Rises: An Appreciation of Christian Bale

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.

The Hero

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.

The Playboy

Bruce Wayne comes from old money that works for him, as long as cat burglars don’t steal his fingerprints, so he parties like the careless trust fund baby that he is. That’s at least what he wants Gotham City and the world to think so he has the cover he needs to pancake cop cars on the evening news. The Dark Knight Trilogy is the only set of movies to integrate the playboy persona of Bruce Wayne into the story. This is a ruse going back to characters like the Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, and the Shadow where the stalwart hero conceals his courageous nature under the guise of a feckless layabout to take suspicion away from him while he’s out righting wrongs. It was very common in the pulps and still used in comics today but not so much in movies where the heroes are the same in costume as they are out of it for the most part.

Christian Bale has the looks and charm to pull off the playboy guise as proven in his breakout role as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho as a well-dressed serial killer equally at home with a martini in his hand as a chainsaw. He likely called on that previous role for the public face of a Bruce Wayne who played in pools with European models in his tailored suits and spirited away a Russian ballet company for a cruise on his private yacht all in service to his role as Batman which was so good the Rachel Dawes character seemed to even think it wasn’t such an act even after she found out he was the vigilante. Theatricality and deception truly are powerful agents.

Previous Bat-actors like Val Kilmer and George Clooney had the looks (Kilmer) and the charm (Clooney) it took to be plausible as Playboy Wayne but they weren’t required to make that little shift in posture or cast of the eyes like Bale did which signified he had put aside the guise and gone into hero mode. The change is noticeable in the second movie when the Joker crashes the Harvey Dent fundraiser and he springs into cold, competent action by taking out a Joker henchman without breaking stride while going to get his true power suit. It’s a minute change but not insignificant because it works as a silent nod to the audience that Bale has put the public face aside. That’s where the skill comes in because a true thesp can show just as easily as tell.

Christian Bale in The Dark Knight Trilogy was able to successfully bring to the screen the playboy persona of Bruce Wayne as a distinct facet of the whole character. He wasn’t the absent-minded goofball of Keaton in Batman ’89 or the smirking clown of Clooney in Batman & Robin but the perfect fop needed to deflect suspicion from the real man behind Batman’s mask and the playboy’s wine glass.

The Man

A constant criticism of the latest Batman movie has been the supposed lack of Batman in the movie but not many of those same reviews bring up the fact that Bruce Wayne is the main character of the story. TDKR is about the fallible man who has lost not just the woman he loved in the last film but also a real reason to move on with his life. As Alfred reminds him, he’s not living; he’s just waiting for something bad to happen again. When the misfortune comes though he does spring back into action as Batman again but it’s different. He wears the cowl and the armor again after eight years of movie time but he’s not the Dark Knight anymore rather just a man going through the motions. Was it any wonder Bane defeated him so easily in the Gotham sewers?

Bruce Wayne, the man, went through a most interesting arc in the just concluded trilogy. Growing from the scarred young boy who watched his parents murdered in front of him to an angry young man who blamed himself for their deaths. An anger that drove him to accept Ducard’s offer of training with the League of Shadows in Begins to focus that emotion before it consumed him from the inside to coming back to his home of Gotham City to do the work needed to become an incorruptible symbol to remind the people of his city that a hero can be anyone trying to do the right thing.

Just as the Playboy persona of Bruce Wayne had never been truly explored on the screen, a mortal Bruce Wayne who made mistakes and lost his way wasn’t either. Bale showed how lost Wayne was when he took a gun to kill Joe Chill, his parents’ murderer, at his parole hearing and how he underestimated the depths of the Joker’s madness for much of The Dark Knight by believing the Clown was just a run of the mill criminal to easily figure out and defeat.

Bale’s Wayne was still able to move past his mistakes by tossing the gun he planned to kill Chill with and coming back from a serious injury to not just defeat Bane but save his city in the latest film. With apologies to Rachel Dawes, she was wrong because Bruce Wayne, not the bat-eared cowl or the playboy persona, was the character’s true face. Like any human, he made errors but like the best of us Bale portrayed a Bruce Wayne who learned from his mistakes and grew as a result of them.

Christopher Nolan and company were able to create a series of movies that read like a dense tome chronicling the life of Bruce Wayne more than the adventures of Batman. An actor with chops like Bale was the perfect choice to show the beginning, the fall, and the rise of not just the Bat but the man in the costume. The heart to hearts Wayne had with his surrogate father, Alfred, or the witty back and forths he would have with his very own Q, Lucius Fox. Those interactions combined the palpable sense of loss over Rachel and the weight of living with the lie he and Commissioner Gordon created to keep the truth of Harvey Dent’s murderous fall from grace hidden from the public made for an arc worthy of any actor’s skills.

An arc that reached a satisfying end when the real Bruce Wayne became whole again after learning how to pick himself up after he fell. He didn’t just rise out of Bane and Talia’s pit; he rose from the same pit he had lived in since his parents’ death. Rising from that pain allowed him to leave all the masks behind to pass his mantle to a worthy successor while cementing the incorruptibility of his symbol.

Christian Bale being cast in the dual role of Batman/Bruce Wayne wasn’t that much of a stretch because he had the look for the character in and out of costume. The revelation however was his ability to interpret the character as something fresh for the masses of moviegoers burnt by fatuous portrayals of not just Batman but superheroes on film in other movies. The fact he was able to not just hold his own on-screen opposite Oscar-winning actors but let his character grow for each chapter was nothing short of amazing. Batman is going to be linked with Christian Bale the same way Wolverine is linked with Hugh Jackman and Superman is linked with Christopher Reeve but as evidenced by his award winning turn in 2010’s The Fighter, Bale is going to be known for more than the Caped Crusader for the rest of his career. Warner Bros. and Nolan lucked out getting an actor of Bale’s caliber to act in not just one but three comic book movies and Warners will have to hope for lightning to strike again when the Dark Knight rises on the screen once more

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