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'The Dark Knight Rises': Bring on the 'Knight'

The best superhero movie franchise of all time is about to end — and not with a whimper but a hell of a bang. We talked to director Christopher Nolan and star Christian Bale about inspirations, Oscar snubs, and why nobody in ”The Dark Knight Rises” ever mentions the Joker

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Christopher Nolan (Behind the Camera)

When is a superhero movie not quite a superhero movie? When it’s The Dark Knight Rises, the climactic chapter in director Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman films starring Christian Bale as the tragedy-forged Caped Crusader. The threequel (rated PG-13, out July 20) not only aspires to be the high king of the summer blockbusters but also seeks to say something meaningful about ”the things that worry us these days,” in the words of its director. What worries Nolan on this late-June day — just one week before The Amazing Spider-Man‘s $137 million six-day opening — is the prospect of his hotly anticipated film getting lost amid the glut of masked marvels clogging the culture. ”I don’t want to be just a superhero movie. I want to be our movie,” says Nolan, 41, sitting in a home office cluttered with books, DVDs, and mementos from previous filmmaking adventures, including artwork from The Prestige, three rubbery Joker masks, and various Batman comic books. ”But I don’t want to seem arrogant, either. I just want people to come into the theater with only the two previous [Batman] movies in their heads.”

Rises takes place eight years after The Dark Knight left off and finds Bruce Wayne living as a recluse in a Gotham City where peace and prosperity flourish anew — all thanks to a lie. At the end of the previous film, Batman had taken the rap for crimes committed by ”white knight” Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) so Gothamites would be inspired by Dent’s example of hope and heroism. (In truth, Dent was driven mad and bad by the Joker, played by the late Heath Ledger, who won an Oscar for the role.) Now new threats force Bruce back into the Batgame: high-society cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) and a malevolent terrorist named Bane (Tom Hardy) who lays siege to Gotham and targets the city’s corrupt and elite. Batman must liberate his hometown with help from old friends like Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and new allies like earnest cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), while his life is complicated by a new love interest, Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), and conflict with his father figure, Alfred (Michael Caine).

Nolan says his visual inspirations for the film reflect the themes of the movie. He looked to Metropolis, Fritz Lang’s sci-fi classic about a utopian city rotting from the bottom up due to top-down economic injustice; several David Lean movies, most notably the revolutionary war epic Doctor Zhivago; and, as always, Blade Runner, a personal fave. Nolan says that developing Rises was ”tricky,” and in fact after the critical and commercial success of The Dark Knight, he wasn’t sure he wanted to do a third movie, or if he even could. ”The last thing I wanted was to engage in a project where we felt we couldn’t make a film as good as the last,” says the director. What gave him confidence? Locking in Rises’ sure-to-be-talked-about climax; fleshing out the story with his writers, David S. Goyer and his brother Jonathan Nolan; and finding a tone that could blend the ”romanticism” of Batman Begins with the ”relentless crime thriller” of The Dark Knight. The director insists that Rises marks his final descent into the Batcave, and that he’d have no problem with Warner Bros. (which, like Entertainment Weekly, is a subsidiary of Time Warner) rebooting the franchise with another helmer. ”I loved doing these movies, but you can’t be creatively greedy about it,” says Nolan, who is one of the producers on director Zack Snyder’s new Superman movie, Man of Steel. ”It’s time to move on.”

Typically, when it comes to trilogies, the third film is the weakest. Why do you think that happens?

There are very few great third films. I think in some cases dissatisfaction with third films comes from the sheer exhaustion of the people making it. I can’t really imagine sustaining your passion for anything in that kind of time without taking a break. So I made the decision to do one film at a time, put everything into that film, but with some eye to what a trilogy could be. There are certain third films that exist to fulfill a requirement for a sequel. I wanted a third film that had something to say, that was a conclusion to a larger story.

Did you look at any trilogies, or third films, for inspiration on what to do or not do?

I looked at different third films — and I’m not going to mention any of them. I will cop to this: The Lord of the Rings trilogy was in the back of our minds the entire time we were making these. What Peter Jackson did was completely different. He had the whole story for all three films; he was physically capable of shooting it all at once. I can’t imagine doing it myself. It’s one of the great achievements in movies.

If you never had a master plan for all three films, what was the theme that guided you in creating the feel of a unified work?

It all comes back to Batman Begins, and the scene between Bruce and Alfred on the plane, when Bruce explains what he’s going to do. It’s not about beating up criminals one by one. It’s about being a symbol. Bruce sees himself as a catalyst for change, and only ever thinks of this as a short-term thing. I talked about this idea a lot with Christian during the making of all the movies; it was the only way we knew to understand the reality of Batman.

In The Dark Knight Rises, you revisit themes and characters from previous films and build upon them. And yet there’s no reference to the Joker, who was imprisoned, not killed, in The Dark Knight. Why not?

I felt very strongly that the Joker was off-limits. I don’t want to trivialize a tragedy like that by explaining it away in some fashion. I made the choice, immediately, that talking about the Joker was off the table. It’s just the way I feel about it, based on my relationship with Heath. Other people might have handled it differently. But that’s what felt right to me.

You’ve said in the past that Bruce Wayne is very meaningful to you personally. How so?

I find him to be a very aspirational figure. He’s a human being. He’s not Superman. He has no superpowers. Yes, he has extraordinary wealth, but on a very basic level, the ways he tries to push himself, physically and mentally, and dedicate himself ruthlessly to a cause, setting rules for himself — there’s something obsessive about that. Even disturbing. But there’s something admirable about it, too.

You’ve also spoken about Gotham serving as a cracked-mirror representation of America. Your three Batman movies, especially the third, show a society that’s letting its people down, economically and culturally. Do you believe that about the real world?

This isn’t something we ever talked about too consciously while making it, but what I see in the film that relates to the real world is the idea of dishonesty. The film is all about that coming to a head. Gotham looks like a better place than it was in Batman Begins. But is it? I see that in the world. I worry about that in the world. The notion of economic fairness creeps into the film, and the reason is twofold: One, Bruce Wayne is a billionaire. It has to be addressed. We’ve never done that before. But two, there are a lot of things in life, and economics is one of them, where we have to take a lot of what we’re told on trust, because most of us feel like we don’t have the analytical tools to know what’s going on. So in making a movie about dishonesty, really, it’s one of the things we think about. What’s fair?

There’s a political reading of the trilogy as an allegory for heroism in our post-9/11 world. The individual rocked by catastrophe; a society rocked by terrorism; a righteous pursuit of justice that goes too far, producing a culture that lacks integrity…

But is that a ”political” point of view? I don’t feel there’s a left or right perspective in the film. What is there is just an honest assessment or honest exploration of the world we live in — things that worry us, as I like to say it. Looking back, there’s no question that in popular culture Batman is the most interesting figure for dealing with the theme of ends justifying the means. It’s something I’ve always been interested in. Since 9/11 those issues have been a national and global concern.

Many people believed The Dark Knight deserved Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Director. Did you feel snubbed?

This is how I honestly feel: I’ve been nominated for an Oscar three times. My films have had more than 20 nominations. The Academy has honored my films in spectacular fashion, and I couldn’t be happier.

Do you have Oscar hopes for The Dark Knight Rises?

You don’t take on Batman as a character because you think you’ll win a prize. That’s absurd. We want this to be the most exciting, emotionally engaging, and enjoyable blockbuster an audience can see this summer. I’m happy with it. It’s the film I wanted to make. I look at what everyone has done, and I think they’ve done a good job. [Laughs] And I think I’ve done a good job of not obscuring it.

Christian Bale (Behind the Mask)

In a quiet restaurant in Los Angeles, Christian Bale takes a sip of carrot juice as he tries to make sense of the gigantic billboards for The Dark Knight Rises bearing his masked mug on either end of the street outside. ”It’s just begun, hasn’t it?” says the English actor, 38, sporting scruff and looking gym-ready in shorts and an athletic shirt. He uses the word monster a lot when talking about Batman, both in terms of the character and the marketing machine that’s about to bring his last stint as the Caped Crusader to the world. ”These movies always start as small affairs, just me and Chris, sitting across a table, talking,” says Bale. ”By this point, it starts to become this monster, just kind of roaring. For me, it’s kind of exciting, but don’t get too close, because it might devour you with its jaws.”

Not that Bale isn’t grateful for the beast that’s been Batman. He credits the three movies with bringing him career opportunities he yearned for but that eluded him prior to Batman Begins. Indeed, over the past eight years, in films like Rescue Dawn and The Fighter (for which he won an Oscar), Bale has established himself as one of Hollywood’s most adventurous actors: focused and dedicated to the extreme. The current beneficiary of Bale’s total-immersion approach is director Terrence Malick, who is shooting his newest top secret project, about which Bale will say nothing. He says working on the Malick film has already been a refuge from the overwhelming pop culture moment at hand. ”I was on the beach the other day,” Bale recalls, ”and a surfer was sitting next to me, and he said, ‘Big summer for you.’ I was like, ‘Why?’ I was so in the midst of my work, I forgot. And I think that’s a healthy place for me, when all of this is going on.”

Batman Begins arrived at a pivotal time in your career. You were 30. You had distinguished yourself as an adult actor with American Psycho. You had just shot The Machinist after taking a year off from acting.

People are always very generous in the way that they put that: ”Oh, he took a year off.” It sounds wonderful when people say, ”Oh, he just didn’t find anything he liked.” Yes, that may well have been true, but there’s also the fact that you’re not being offered anything that you like. So it’s not necessarily a sabbatical that was planned.

Why do you think you were not being offered the parts you most wanted?

I don’t really have the answer to that. It’s movies, so no matter how low-budget it is, it’s expensive. A million dollars is a huge chunk of change, no matter who you are. These people who put up that money, they’re not charities. They want to know they’re going to get a return on their investment. If you’re not the likely candidate, you’re not going to get the part, no matter what your talent is.

Playing Batman was certainly going to enhance your marketability. But it also meant wearing a mask, and many actors worry that can be bad for business. Did you?

You have to have actors who can overcome those costumes — who don’t let those costumes bury them completely.

How did you approach the challenge of not getting buried by Batman?

It was playing the idea of there being three Bruce Waynes. The public, vacuous billionaire. The private Bruce Wayne who is still a child. And then the vengeful one who is a monster. Remembering that, I was no longer playing a guy who was dressing up and looking silly. It was a man playing multiple parts, and a man who dressed up as a monster for a reason, because he feels monstrous, and so he must become a monster in those moments.

You were never concerned that playing Batman would end up defining you?

I always enjoyed that. Because I felt like it was a challenge to overcome. I always felt like if I was unable to overcome that, if I became ”pigeon-holed”…well, then I deserved it. But I certainly was not going to make any choices because I was fearful that I wasn’t going to be able to do something afterward.

In fact, you’ve been prodigiously busy between Batman films. You’ve starred in 10 films over the past seven years. What drove you to work so much?

Just variety. Just gut instinct on scripts and people you meet. And there was also that element of — how did you put it? That I ”chose to take a year off before The Machinist.” Suddenly I didn’t have to ”choose to take a year off.” Suddenly there were possibilities of working. I had options. So I took them.

Do you watch or pay attention to other superhero movies?

Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any. At all. I see kids’ movies. I don’t see anything else. Animated movies have gotten so much more advanced in recent years. I said recently to one producer, ”The problem is, no matter what we do, we can never compare to what they’re doing in animation.” He laughed, and I said, ”I’m not joking.”

What was the last great kids’ film you saw?

I have a daughter, so it becomes very important to me, more and more, to do things like making sure there’s a female artist playing on the radio. Just making sure that she’s aware that she can do anything. Therefore: Brave. That’s just a wonderful example.

One of your past movies is now a hit Broadway musical: Newsies. Have you seen it?

No, I haven’t.

Are you surprised that this early flop in your career has had the cultural life that it’s had?

Of course! Yes! These things never make any sense. I’m incredibly happy for them. They’re having the success our movie never had.

Do you have any interest in seeing it?

I’m not really into musicals. But I wish them the best. And I’m sure the person playing the character I played exceeded whatever I did, and congratulations to them.

Would that be hard for you? Watching another actor play a role you played, possibly with greater success?

No, no, no. That wouldn’t be hard. I’m going to have to do it with Batman. They’re going to rejuvenate it soon, and I’ll have to be watching someone else play it. I’ll be fascinated. I’ll be fascinated to see which way they go, which choices that actor makes.

When people talk about you as an actor, they talk a lot about your willingness to transform yourself physically. Where does the drive come from? Do you ever see that drive abating?

There’s a story — I don’t know if it’s true, and I don’t particularly want to know if it’s true — that Jimi Hendrix played guitar until his fingers bled, and he didn’t even feel the pain because he had the ecstasy of what he was creating. That was always my model. Imagine applying that to acting. So yes, I still have that drive. But I apply it only when it’s appropriate. If it’s not going to damage me. I’m a father; I have to be responsible to my family. It’s nice to go through that pain without feeling it. I hate to sound pretentious, but reaching some kind of ecstasy — I assume we all want to experience that in what we do. It’s not the only way, but it’s mine.

In short, your feeling about the ride that’s been Batman is…?

Gratitude. It afforded me a change in my life. And it’s up to me to make a hash of that. Most actors — ones like me, who have had to ”take that year off” — desperately hope for work to come their way. Batman has given me the ability to say, ”I don’t have to.” I can choose, and choose wisely, and make the most of it.

When you read the script for The Dark Knight Rises, what did you think of the ending Nolan came up with for Batman?

[Pause] Can I take a rain check on that one? I don’t know how to answer it without ruining the ending for people.

Okay. Did you like it?

[Pause] Yes.

When Christopher Met Christian …

Believe it or not, there was a time before these guys knew each other

Bale on Nolan

”I’d been working with Wally Pfister [Nolan’s longtime cinematographer, who shot Bale’s 2002 drama Laurel Canyon], and he’d say, ‘I think you and Chris would work very well together.’ We met before I went to shoot The Machinist. With Chris, I finally found somebody who has the rare ability of making large movies that have personal resonance, and who doesn’t slough off the details.”

Nolan on Bale

”Bruce Wayne is such an extreme character. You needed someone who could project that quality. Christian had that fire. I also realized, selfishly, I had met somebody who was effortless. I was dealing with the largest scale of production I had ever taken on; it was great to know I had somebody who could take care of his end of things. He screen-tested a few weeks after finishing The Machinist. He had lost so much weight, but he managed to turn up looking like someone who could fill a Batsuit. I still don’t know how he did it. A lot of pizzas, I think.”

The Batpages

Two new collectible books let fans immerse themselves in the caped crusader’s dark world.

The Dark Knight Manual

Handle with care. This exhaustive look at Christopher Nolan’s trilogy comes with more features than the Batsuit: pullout documents, maps, even stickers. It’s a serious scrapbook for adults.

Notes and drawings from Bruce Wayne himself shed light on how, exactly, he becomes Batman. Turns out our hero has a Bluetooth-like transmitter in his cowl — and every Batsuit costs Wayne about $300,000.

Batmobile: The Complete History

It’s car porn for geeks and gearheads alike. A blend of narrative and visuals tracks Bruce Wayne’s favored set of wheels from its comic-book roots to big-screen glory.

These drawings for 1992’s Batman Returns detail the Batmobile’s weapons arsenal. Director Tim Burton’s design called for muscularity and menace; a junky 1974 V-8 Chevy Impala chassis was its starting point. —Stephan Lee