The Road to Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins

We’ve previously examined the road to Christopher Nolan taking over the Batman film franchise, from Batman and Robin through Frank Miller’s “Year One” screenplay. This installment concludes the story, taking us up to Batman Begins.

The Wachowski Brothers’ Year One Proposal

This doesn’t mean that Warner Bros. wasn’t considering other options during this time. One possibility was to replace Darren Aronofsky with Larry and Andy Wachowski, while keeping Year One as the studio’s intended subject. (While the dating of this stage is difficult, it would seem to have occurred after the Wachowski brothers scored a titanic hit with 1999’s The Matrix, also from Warner Bros., and the brothers’ focus on The Matrix’s two 2003 sequels.) The brothers drafted a proposal for a different film entitled Batman: Year One that stayed close to the comic-book original. Reportedly, their treatment was abandoned in favor of the Wachowski brothers directing the two Matrix sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, produced simultaneously.

It shouldn’t be surprising that the Wachowskis would draft such a proposal: several elements of The Matrix were borrowed from comic books and the brothers sponsored the creation of original comics based on The Matrix (originally published online though later collected in print form). In addition, the Wachowskis parlayed their Matrix money into creating the comic-book publishing company Burlyman Entertainment. The Wachowskis have subsequently produced the film V for Vendetta, adapting the classic graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd.

The Wachowskis’ proposal begins directly with the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents after seeing the film The Mark of Zorro – closer to the comics than the opera seen in Batman Begins. Bats, presumably symbolically, fly overhead as a police officer arrives on the scene, aiding the transition as we jump forward some 20 years. Bruce Wayne, 28 years old, returns to Gotham after years of training abroad – apparently not shown or shown briefly, again more in line with the comics than Batman Begins. Bruce quickly takes to the streets in black clothes and a hockey mask, but is wounded and flees into an abandoned building. There, shaken and bleeding, he is frightened by a bat – thereby inspiring his assumption of the Batman identity. This represents a change from the comics, where such a scene always occurred at Wayne Manor, as it does in Batman Begins. The proposal calls for the opening credits only at this point in the film, suggesting how brief this prelude was supposed to be.

Two months later, Gordon saves three girls from a “maniac” – a scene lifted from the comic-book Year One and mirrored in Miller’s screenplay (though the Wachowskis have made one child into three, apparently heightening the stakes). Commissioner Loeb doesn’t seem pleased, and he apparently orders officer Flass off-screen to beat Gordon – another Year One reference. But, unlike Year One, Batman interferes and saves Gordon.

We then meet Selina Kyle, thus retaining Catwoman from the comic-book Year One. But now, instead of being a prostitute, she starts out as an animal activist, breaking into a laboratory in order to free cats from “genetic study” and fighting with “scientists.”

Gordon then preps a task force to catch Batman – another scene fairly lifted from the comics version. Officer Sarah Essen, with whom Gordon has an affair in the comic-book version but who is dropped from both Miller’s script and Batman Begins, is preserved in the Wachowskis’ proposal – although Gordon does not have an affair with her. Gordon questions District Attorney Harvey Dent about being Batman – a scene in both the comic-book version and Miller’s script. But like the comics and unlike Miller’s script, Batman is seen lurking in Dent’s office – already in some secret collusion with Dent before befriending Gordon.

Adapting the comic-book version fairly directly, Gordon and crew corner Batman in an abandoned building and the police drop a bomb from a helicopter, prior to sending in a SWAT team. As in the comic-book Year One but unlike Miller’s script, Batman calls in a swarm of bats to provide a distraction for his escape. Selina Kyle is then shown making an outfit, inspired by the Batman – again closer to the comic-book original than Miller’s script.

Batman, Catwoman, and Gordon all meet at Commissioner Loeb’s residence – where Batman fights Catwoman, then saves her from Gordon. Gordon tells Batman that he knows the vigilante’s not bad – making Gordon more sympathetic to Batman, a move strangely out-of-line with both the comic book and (especially) Miller’s script. Batman leaves behind a piece of his costume that features the Wayne Enterprises logo, leading Gordon to question Bruce with officer Sarah Essen – another scene in the comic-book original, complete with Wayne acting drunk, but found in neither Miller’s script nor Batman Begins. While leaving the Wayne Enterprises logo on Batman’s costume is sloppy, and this plot device is not used in the comic book, Batman is still a beginner. But this new way of justifying Gordon’s interest in Wayne detracts from Gordon’s detective skills.

As in Batman Begins, we see Bruce creating the Batcave in the caverns beneath Wayne Manor – though his boyhood fall into the cave is apparently not shown. This is an interesting and logical extension of the comic-book original, which featured no such scene. Even Miller’s screenplay had more construction of the Batcave, even if it was in Gotham’s East End instead of under Wayne Manor, and one may well believe the comic-book original defective in this regard.

In another scene adapted from the comic-book original, Catwoman and Batman appear at mobster Carmine Falcone’s penthouse – culminating with Catwoman scratching Falcone’s face. Falcone then meets with Loeb – making the corruption shown in the comic-book Year One more overt, though less so than the heightened corruption of Miller’s own screenplay.

In the conclusion, Falcone and his goons kidnap Gordon’s daughter and Batman intervenes. In the comics version and Miller’s script, of course, it’s the police and not Falcone who attack Gordon’s family at the end – though Miller’s script has Commissioner Loeb do so himself and has Gordon’s wife as the loved one in jeopardy. Apparently trying to tie the Catwoman thread into the conclusion better than the original, it’s Selina Kyle who defeats Falcone in the climax. Batman and Gordon merely find the mobster, marginalizing them in a way that may have raised objections. And, while there’s a crash on a bridge in the climax, characters don’t go careening off of it into mud as they do in the comic-book Year One. His daughter safe, Gordon lets Batman go, as he does both in the comic book and in Miller’s script – though Batman doesn’t lose his mask in the Wachowskis’ proposal as he does in those other two versions.

The epilogue takes place at the end of the year, like both the comics version and Miller’s script. Instead of Gordon merely referencing the Joker’s attempt to poison the city’s reservoir, as in the comics’ Year One, the Wachowskis call for us to be shown that madman cruising around in a speedboat. While he’s never called the Joker, unlike the comics’ version, we do see “a large, evil grin.” Instead of Batman merely promising to intervene, as in the comic-book version and in Batman Begins, he’s shown arriving – another move towards the visual.

The film, or at least the Wachowskis’ proposal for one, ends there.

Ironically, the proposal retains a number of elements that Miller rejected in his screenplay. Most notably, Bruce Wayne and Alfred do not suffer from the changes they are subjected to in Miller’s screenplay. On the other hand, if Miller’s script exaggerates the violence from his comic-book original, the Wachowskis’ proposal sanitizes the morality – particularly in the case of Gordon. In the proposal, Gordon seems far more sympathetic to Batman from the start and never has the affair with Essen that is so important to his characterization in the comics. The proposal does give us a little more of Batman formulating his costume and headquarters than the comics original, but nothing near as much as Batman Begins. Moreover, Batman seems everywhere – intervening in scenes in which he made no appearance in the comics version.

Superman Vs. Batman

Another alternative to Aronofsky’s project was Superman Vs. Batman, intended to kick-start both the Batman and Superman franchises in one fell swoop. One can certainly understand the appeal for Warner Bros., which probably thought fans would appreciate seeing both heroes (and their villains) in a single movie, getting double the characters for their money. A new Superman film had gone through several permutations in the 1990s, and, with the Batman film series stalled, the studio saw the opportunity to combine the two franchises for maximum effect.

The idea of combining Superman and Batman in a single story has long roots in comics, echoing the comic-book series World’s Finest, which told stories teaming the two characters. But fans don’t tend to appreciate an arbitrary combination of heroes any more than they do when too many villains are shoehorned into a super-hero movie: they’d generally rather see a movie that is faithful to the characters and their stories – or, failing this, at least has a distinctive and unique artistic vision. To add insult to misunderstanding, the plot for Superman Vs. Batman diverged radically from the comics.

The project was reportedly pitched by Andrew Kevin Walker, best known for having written Se7en, in August 2001. The idea had already circulated for years, as both the Batman and Superman franchises languished, but it was Walker’s pitch that got the ball rolling. Wolfgang Peterson, known for action and disaster movies such as In the Line of Fire and The Perfect Storm, was tapped as director. Walker wrote a draft, but Warner Bros. was unsatisfied with it, hiring Akiva Goldsman to do a rewrite. Goldsman’s rewritten script is dated 21 June 2002 and deviated wildly from the comic-book source material.

The premise, at least in Goldsman’s draft, is that Bruce Wayne has been retired as Batman for five years – an idea taken from Batman: DarKnight (which in turn drew it from The Dark Knight Returns). This time around, the reason is his own personal demons. Dick Grayson, Alfred, and Commissioner Gordon are all dead – virtually unimaginable to fans. This version would also have had no connection to past Batman films, since it featured the Joker still alive.

For his part, Clark Kent has recently divorced Lois Lane and is mired in depression. While Clark had never married Lois in the Superman movies, the two had wed on TV’s Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman in 1996, an event mirrored in the comics. The Superman Vs. Batman version, however, would have ignored all past continuity.

Bruce would pull himself out of his funk through a relationship with Elizabeth Miller – another slight to fans, since this character was entirely new. The two wed, with Clark (who is friends with Bruce in this continuity) serving as best man. But the Joker would have killed Elizabeth during the Honeymoon.

This would have caused a rift between the two heroes, as Clark holds Bruce back from taking revenge and Bruce blames Clark for Elizabeth’s death. It also would have brought Batman out of retirement, leading to his clashing with Superman. The divorced Clark would have returned to his his hometown of Smallville, where he would woo another love interest: his traditional hometown girl, Lana Lang. Ultimately, Superman and Batman would have united, after they learned that the entire plot to split the heroes had been spurred by Superman’s arch-foe, Lex Luthor.

In the second half of 2002, with a revision of the script completed, director Wolfgang Peterson went about casting the film. Inspired by Tobey Maguire’s turn as Spider-Man (in the 2002 movie), Peterson sought actors who could depict both emotion and the fun of being a super-hero. Casting rumors for both heroes circulated and included Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law. Josh Hartnett was even offered the role of Superman.

Christian Bale, who had tried out for the role of Robin for 1995’s Batman Forever, was approached to play Batman. Because Aronofsky’s Year One script was still in development, Bale was told that Warner Bros. didn’t know which film would go ahead but that he was wanted for the role of Batman in whichever film got made. Bale reviewed both scripts and preferred Aronofsky’s project.

The studio initially disagreed with Bale’s assessment, setting dates for Superman Vs. Batman’s production and release: filming would start in early 2003 and run five or six months, with the film set for a summer 2004 release. Aronofsky’s project would have to be shelved, as it didn’t make sense to have two competing versions of Batman in theatres. Not long after scheduling the movie, however, Peterson left the project in favor of the Brad Pitt vehicle Troy (2004). A new director would have to be found if the project was to continue.

Internal politics at Warner Bros., however, made sure that the film was killed before a new director could be found. The studio not only had a competing script for Aronofsky’s Year One film but also a script by J. J. Abrams (of Lost fame), known as Superman: Flyby, that would reboot the Superman franchise with a new origin story that also diverged widely from the comics. Peterson had actually been sought to direct Abrams’s script before that project was put on hold in favor of Superman Vs. Batman.

With Peterson’s departure, however, certain Warner Bros. executives were reevaluating the decision to put that Abrams script on hold, especially since it was liked by some and the script for Superman Vs. Batman had received mixed reviews. Putting Superman Vs. Batman on hold in favor of Superman: Flyby also had the advantage of allowing Aronofsky’s Batman project, which was pretty well advanced, to move forward. When the dust settled, Superman Vs. Batman, then in preparation to begin filming, was instead on hold, in favor of the two solo origin films.

But the real reason for this change wasn’t just that the two solo films were superior in quality. It was also that Warner Bros. could make more money with two franchises than a team-up movie that might or might not succeed. Especially in the wake of Spider-Man’s stellar success at the box office, relaunching major characters like Batman and Superman in a single movie just smacked of defeat.

Ironically, neither Superman: Flyby nor Aronofsky’s Year One project would ultimately be made. Warner Bros. moved forward with both. In September 2002, Warner Bros. hired Brett Ratner (of the Rush Hour series and, later, X-Men: The Last Stand) to direct Flyby. Ratner started casting, but found great difficulty finding the actors who were both right for the part and who would agree to a three-movie deal – he planned on directing two sequels if Flyby did well. In March 2003, Ratner dropped out of the project, citing casting difficulties as well as fights with producer Jon Peters. Warner Bros. replaced Ratner with the director known as McG, and he went through his own casting process only to drop out as well. He was replaced, in July 2004, by Brian Singer, who instead opted for an approach that obliquely continued and paid homage to the Richard Donner’s 1978 film Superman, and the result was 2006’s Superman Returns.

Meanwhile, Aronofsky’s Batman project went forward. As previously mentioned, storyboards were completed before that project also fell apart. Warner Bros. quickly responded, in January 2003, by hiring Christopher Nolan to replace Aronofsky as director.

Joss Whedon’s Year One Proposal

Before hiring Nolan, Warner Bros. entertained a pitch for a different version of the Year One project from writer-director Joss Whedon, most famous for Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and beloved by many comics fans. Information about Whedon’s pitch has been scant, but he spoke about it in August 2008, in an interview with MTV following The Dark Knight’s box-office success.

While Whedon said that his tone was similar to Nolan’s, his version was “a bit less epic” and “more in Gotham City.” Whedon’s comments suggest that he would have omitted Bruce’s period of travel entirely, instead keeping Bruce Wayne in Gotham during the film.

Whedon’s version departed further from established Batman stories, however, in his choice of foe. The story would have featured a new villain, one in the mold of Hannibal Lector. As in Batman Begins, the main villain would be tied to Bruce Wayne’s training: Bruce would have visited Arkham Asylum to study the criminal mind with this brilliant but deadly criminal.

Whedon has expressed personal involvement in the story, saying, “I get very emotional about it, I still love the story. Maybe I’ll get to do it as a comic one day.” He also expressed no hard feelings towards the man who won the job, saying that he’s a fan too – one who liked Batman Begins and was eagerly anticipating The Dark Knight.

Batman Begins Begins

Director Christopher Nolan was intrigued by the idea of telling Batman’s origin and liked that the story would allow a focus on Batman’s humanity, grounding the film in reality. Nolan received a few comics from the studio, but said that he didn’t read the earlier proposals and scripts: “I was aware of the fact that Aronofsky and Frank Miller had collaborated on a script, and I gather it was a pretty faithful adaptation” – an utterly incorrect assumption that helps argue for Nolan’s truthfulness.

Nolan sought a screenwriter who was knowledgeable about the comics and found David S. Goyer, hired a couple months after Nolan. The only problem with Goyer as screenwriter was that he had already been signed to write and direct Blade: Trinity, the third movie for the formerly obscure Marvel property. Still, Goyer found the time, and he began meeting with Nolan to discuss the film.

One of Goyer’s major difficulties was Nolan’s demand that the villain in the film’s third act must relate to the first act. That the first act would show Bruce Wayne’s past and training was obvious enough, especially after the studio gave Nolan the short origin story entitled “The Man Who Falls,” notable for its depiction of Bruce Wayne’s wandering and training. Also obvious was basing the second act upon Year One. But Nolan wanted a blockbuster-style third act, complete with a threat upon all of Gotham City – a climax Nolan thought fitting to the character. Based on the comic-book versions of these three acts, there was no obvious way to interrelate them. “It was the thorniest issue we grappled with,” Goyer recalled, “not making it seem like they were two separate movies. We’d already done a draft or so before that happened.”

The two decided quickly that Batman’s mentor in the first act would become the third act’s villain. The second act would feature a different foe who would seem like the main nemesis until the mentor’s return, and this second-act foe would need to be tied to the main nemesis in some way. Deciding upon the film’s villains would therefore have to come next.

It was Goyer who solved the problem and came up with the specific foes. Nolan wanted someone who wouldn’t overshadow Batman, a criticism of the four previous films. He related Batman to James Bond: “I think the best of the Bond movies have… memorable villains, but Bond is always the center of the movie. That’s never been in dispute.” Responding to this, Goyer proposed the international criminal mastermind Ra’s al Ghul, the Batman foe first introduced in a memorable story by writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams in Batman #232 (June 1971). Nolan wasn’t familiar with Ra’s al Ghul, but the character appealed to him as a sort of 1970s James Bond villain. Ra’s al Ghul could serve as Bruce’s sole mentor, collapsing several such figures in the comics into a single character, only to return as the film’s climactic villain. Scarecrow would seem to be the major villain in the second act, but this would only be a ruse before revealing the true villain.

Nolan and Goyer visited DC Comics in New York to run their ideas past the publisher. Of particular concern was using Ra’s al Ghul as Batman’s mentor during the hero’s training period, as well the burning of Wayne Manor. “We wanted their stamp of approval and to know if there was anything we were doing that was dramatically altering the canon,” Goyer recalled. It was a smart move: movies praised as honoring their comic-book source material had reaped favorable press as well as box-office success; other films that strayed more radically from the comics had received bad press and flopped. Hollywood had realized the importance of keeping the fans content. As the director and screenwriter explained their decisions, they found DC supportive.

Goyer produced a draft of the screenplay in quick order, but there wouldn’t be much time for revision. Goyer’s duties on 2004’s Blade: Trinity called him away, and so the script was left to Nolan to tweak. Nolan would telephone Goyer about changes and casting, getting advice and the perspective of someone familiar with the comics.

In pre-production, Nolan worked with the storyboard artists. The storyboards, to Nolan, were mostly useful for him to show other people as a visual description of what he had planned – something that could only be communicated verbally with much difficulty. When it came time to shoot, however, the director reportedly rarely referred to the storyboards. Nonetheless, the film stayed remarkably close to those same storyboards – because they expressed the director’s intentions, which he knew well.

Christopher Nolan publicity still

Nolan’s style of direction contrasted with the way Hollywood expected big-budget blockbusters to be filmed. He refused to use a second unit – another crew shooting secondary, less critical footage while the director shoots simultaneously – because he wanted to enforce his vision of the film rather than parse through copious footage shot by someone else for material he wanted to keep. Moreover, Nolan eschewed computer-generated special effects, preferring to use stuntmen and elaborate sets in order to keep a realistic feel for the film.

Warner Bros. was very supportive, according to both Nolan and Goyer. Despite Nolan’s somewhat unconventional choices, the company was convinced it needed a new direction for the film and the franchise. It was, as Nolan has said, a wonderful opportunity – not only to play with a major franchise and the big budget that comes with it but to do so with more artistic freedom than most directors would have in such situations.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

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