Most moviegoers pinpoint Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” as the film that changed the superhero genre, but it was Nolan’s “Batman Begins” that laid the groundwork three years earlier for the genre’s move toward “dark and gritty” realism. Released on June 15, 2005, “Batman Begins” jumpstarted Nolan’s superhero trilogy by adding layers of psychological character drama onto a genre that had been largely defined at that point by the eye-popping spectacle of the “X-Men” and “Spider-Man” movies. “Batman Begins” was Nolan’s first major Hollywood tentpole and to pull it off he looked to two of his favorite films of all time for inspiration: Richard Donner’s “Superman” and Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner.”
“I wanted to try to do it in a more realistic fashion than anyone had ever tried to a superhero film before,” Nolan told The Guardian in 2005 on the eve of “Batman Begins'” theatrical release. “I talked a lot about films I liked, particularly the 1978 ‘Superman,’ which is the closest thing to what I proposed. Obviously, some of it is dated, but it’s an epic film, with a certain realistic texture. I wanted to make the Batman epic you expected to have been made in 1979.”
Nolan was adamant about presenting Batman’s world as realistically as possible, so he turned to Chicago and not gothic miniatures (a la Tim Burton’s “Batman”) for his version of Gotham City. For Nolan, a big success of Donner’s “Superman” was how it heightened the greatness of its extraordinary protagonist by placing him in the ordinary world.
“They never did the sort of 1978 Batman, where you see the origin story, where the world is pretty much the world we live in but there’s this extraordinary figure there, which is what worked so well in Dick Donner’s ‘Superman’ film,” Nolan told THR in 2015 to mark the 10th anniversary of “Batman Begins.” “And so I was able to get in the studio and say, ‘Well, that’s what I would do with it.'”
While Nolan shot the majority of “The Dark Knight” on location in Chicago, he had to rely much more on building Gotham City sets for “Batman Begins.” Chicago and London exteriors were used to set the visual tone for Gotham, but the majority of shooting had to be done on film stages. That’s where Nolan’s love for Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” came in handy.
“From a pragmatic point of view, ‘Blade Runner’ is actually one of the most successful films of all time in terms of constructing reality using sets,” Nolan told Forbes. “On ‘Batman Begins,’ I immediately gravitated toward the visual treatment that Ridley Scott had come up with, in terms of how you shoot these massive sets to make them feel real and not like impressive sets. And immediately we started looking at the rain, the handheld cameras, and the longer lenses.”
Nolan once called Ridley Scott “the absolute master” of making sets look like reality, and so he worked with production designer Nathan Crowley and cinematographer Wally Pfister to ensure “Batman Begins” could maintain that same level of believability.
“We aimed to create a texture to a shooting style that maximizes the impact of the set, and minimizes the artifice — the feeling that this world has edges to it that you would see at the edge of the frame,” Nolan told Forbes. “‘Blade Runner’ is one of the examples of how you can take a camera and get down and dirty…and really envelop your audience in the atmosphere of the world you’re trying to create. We definitely tried to emulate that style, and I think in doing so we actually created homage, particularly where we used the rain very much.”
“Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight” ushered in the era of “dark and gritty” genre movies, but Nolan was simply pulling from the grounded aesthetics that impressed him while watching “Superman” and “Blade Runner.” Fifteen years later, these films’ commitment to presented a cinematic reality not unlike the real world remains a lynchpin of Nolan’s cinematic eye.