Writers on Writing: Revitalizing the Batman Franchise with Batman Begins

David Goyer, who co-wrote Batman Begins with director Christopher Nolan, reflects on the creative choices he and Nolan made in bringing the darkest of the DC Comics’ characters to life.


Christian Bale stars as Batman in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action-adventure Batman Begins, written by Bob Kane (characters), David S. Goyer (story, screenplay) and Christopher Nolan (screenplay). PHOTOS: David James ©2005 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

THE FALSE FACES OF BRUCE WAYNE

There were essentially three basic personalities within Bruce—the public Wayne figure, the private Wayne figure and finally, the persona of Batman. All three personalities needed to be balanced in order for the story to work. In a sense, the public face of Bruce Wayne (the billionaire playboy) is as much a secret identity as Batman is. It is an equally false face, designed to misdirect the world at large. To some degree, the private Bruce Wayne is the darkest character aspect of all.

Because Batman is the darkest of the DC Comics’ characters, Christopher Nolan and I felt strongly that we didn’t want to let the audience (or Bruce) off the hook in a facile way. Bruce’s main conflict in the film is his struggle with his desire for revenge. He is torn between justice and revenge. This is a theme that is repeated throughout the movie—in scenes with Rachel (his childhood sweetheart), in scenes with Ducard (his mentor), and even in a scene with Falcone (the mob boss of Gotham).

Batman Begins is definitely the darkest depiction of Bruce Wayne yet seen on film. It is also the most realistic depiction of Bruce. He contemplates first-degree murder. We felt we needed to go there in order to justify Bruce’s donning the Batman costume. Fortunately, Warner Bros. was very supportive of this approach. I think they knew that in order to revitalize the franchise, they were going to have to take a different approach to Batman. (This was not a film written by committee. By and large, Chris and I were left alone.)


Character Evolution – Therapy for Your Character


Despite the film’s dark tone, we found a few places in the story to inject some moments of lightness, but we didn’t feel pressured to force those moments. It’s a serious film—a mythic film about serious subject matter. To inject too many light moments would diminish what we were attempting to accomplish. We also employed a great deal of backstory for Batman Begins. To a large extent, the first act of the film is backstory. In order to understand Batman’s origins, we needed to show more than just his parents dying at Joe Chill’s hands. We needed to experience them (particularly Bruce’s father, Thomas Wayne) as real characters. In order to have the audience believe someone would actually put on a cape and cowl, we had to lay significant character groundwork. That included spending time with Bruce’s childhood friend, Rachel. That also included spending time with Alfred.

A SUPERHERO IS NOTHING WITHOUT HIS VILLAINS

Ken Watanabe as the dangerous but honorable villain Ra’s Al Ghul.

Because we were telling a new kind of story, I felt very strongly that we should use a Batman villain (or villains) not yet depicted on film. Fortunately, two of my favorite Batman villains were still virgin territory—Ra’s Al Ghul and the Scarecrow. Both were popular in the comic books, and both had been depicted in the various Batman cartoons. The Scarecrow was a natural because he’s so damn creepy. Ra’s was also a natural choice because he is the most realistic of the Batman villains. We also wanted a villain that was older than Bruce, that could function as a perverse kind of father figure—and in the comic books, Ra’s certainly fits the bill. Ra’s is also one of the only Batman villains who is somewhat sympathetic. He’s not a nutcase, like the Penguin or the Joker. At heart, he’s an environmental terrorist— someone with very lofty ideals, albeit extremely brutal methods for pursuing those ideals. The one significant departure from the classic depiction of Ra’s was his inclusion in Batman’s origins. We have Bruce meeting Ra’s before he adopts the Batman persona. Fortunately, this felt like an organic addition to the mythology.

The other character who is depicted differently is Gordon. In the previous films, Gordon is already Commissioner Gordon. But, because our film needed to portray Batman and Gordon’s first meeting, we knew we would be telling Gordon’s origin as well. We took a cue from Batman: Year One. In Year One, Gordon is depicted as a put-upon sergeant—one of the few honest cops in Gotham. We liked that approach because it provided a natural opening for Gordon and Batman to begin working with one another. If certain elements of the Gotham Police Department were corrupt, then it made the existence of a character like Batman a necessity. Gordon works with Batman because he has to.

BRINGING BACK THE BAT

Because the popularity of the Batman franchise had been dwindling, we were under enormous pressure from the fans and Warner Bros. to revitalize DC Comics’ crown jewel. I remember going to a comic book convention with Cillian Murphy (who plays Jonathan Crane/the Scarecrow). The first question from the audience was: “How can you guarantee us that you guys will save the franchise?”

Cillian Murphy as Scarecrow

I pointed out that I hadn’t been involved in the previous franchise, but it didn’t seem to matter. The fans were pissed, and the onus was on us to deliver the definitive Batman film.

In order to please the fans, we knew we had to go back to basics—back to Batman’s darker roots. My personal feeling is that the latter Batman films declined in popularity because they were out of step with how Batman was then being depicted in the comic books. As the films progressed, they became lighter in tone—almost approximating the old 60’s TV show by the time Batman & Robin was released. The problem with this approach was that in the comic books, Batman wasn’t being depicted that way at all. So, there was a gap between the latter films and the popular depiction of the Dark Knight.

My favorite depiction of Batman has always been Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One. We knew we wanted to draw a lot of inspiration from that. But, the flip side of that dilemma was Warner Bros. They were understandably nervous. They didn’t want us to tell a Batman story that was so dark it would alienate the larger, non-comic book audience. It was definitely a balancing act.

I am an avid comic book reader. I’ve been reading comics for over 30 years and have had letters to the editor printed in various books. Because of that background, I’d like to think I have a fairly good handle on what the hardcore comic fanbase will like or dislike. Chris used me as a fan barometer. Having said that, it’s a trap to write merely for the fans. Inevitably, we had to write our own Batman film—one that was influenced and inspired by the great comics—but forged new ground.


The Transition from Writing Comics to Writing Novels


To that end, we did take certain liberties with the Batman mythology. The inclusion of Ra’s Al Ghul in Batman’s origin was something we added, as was Jonathan Crane’s involvement with Arkham Asylum. We were nervous about doing this—but Paul Levitz, the head of DC Comics, gave us his blessing. He felt these changes were in keeping with the spirit of Batman.

(Although we tried to keep the script under lock and key, it did eventually leak onto the Internet. We were pleased when the script was met, by and large, with very positive response.)

Christian Bale stars as Batman, the caped crusader of Gotham City, in ‘Batman Begins.’

IT’S GOOD TO BE BATMAN

Batman is an enormously popular character— probably one of the most recognized fictional characters in the world. That existing popularity allowed us a certain amount of latitude in terms of telling his origin story. Because filmgoers are generally familiar with Batman’s superhero exploits and trappings, we were able to have a certain amount of fun with various “origin” scenes. Consider the moment when Bruce Wayne is test-driving a vehicle that will eventually become the Batmobile. The audience knows they are seeing the Batmobile prototype— they know where the movie will eventually be going—and they laugh when Bruce asks, “Does it comes in black?” The joke only works because the audience is one step ahead of the characters. I didn’t have that advantage when I was adapting Blade.

Another advantage of working on the film was having a large budget at our disposal. This was definitely the highest budgeted film I’ve yet been involved in. It was an amazing experience to be able to realize whatever we could imagine. The action scenes needed to be spectacular and Chris was given the resources to make that happen. You almost never get that chance. To that end, we knew that the action scenes needed to be spectacular.

One of my personal pet peeves of the other Batman films is that the Batmobile never really did much. Most of the films felt like they were shot on backlots. Inevitably, you would see the Batmobile race down a few streets—but in terms of an honest-to-goodness car chase, the sequences felt lacking. To that end, we decided to redesign the Batmobile and make it more practical. We wanted to film one of the biggest car chases ever put on screen, and we knew we would need to film that on a real location.

Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne.

The production ended up building an actual Batmobile that was capable of attaining very high speeds … then Chris filmed on the streets of Chicago for nearly a month. The result was spectacular. Over the course of production, I would occasionally see some griping on the Internet—people complaining that the new Batmobile looked like a tank. Having seen the finished sequence, no one will be questioning the new Batmobile’s design once they see what this thing actually does.

Because the film dealt with Batman’s origins, we were also introducing Batman’s arsenal for the first time—the costume, the car, the cave, the utility belt and grappling gun. We wanted these tools to be as realistic as possible so we did a fair amount of research. The origins of the Batmobile were definitely expanded from the comic books. In our film the Batmobile was originally an offensive, bridging vehicle developed for the Army by Wayne Enterprises. The cape was also expanded. In the comic books, Batman can’t glide via his cape—but we felt that was something he would want to be able to do. That led us to the idea of memory fabric (a fabric which becomes rigid when an electrical current is applied to it)—something that the Department of Defense is already developing.


How Do Writing Partnerships Works?


… BUT IT ISN’T ALWAYS EASY

So how was the script actually written? Chris and I spent a number of weeks together, talking through the basic story before I headed off to write a treatment. Once I finished the treatment, Chris and I met again for a number of weeks, going through detailed discussions. We worked at a partner’s desk (a desk with two sides), facing each other. Nathan Crowley, the production designer, came onboard while we were hashing out the first treatment. He worked out of Chris’ garage in an ad hoc art department (just next door to where we were working). From time to time, Chris and I would discuss various design elements with Nathan while I was writing. It was a back-and-forth process with lots of give and take.

David Goyer

Ultimately, I had to leave the project because I was prepping Blade: Trinity (which I was directing). Chris knew that this would be the case from the get-go—I really only had a few months to get the initial work done. After that, Chris did any subsequent writing (although I continued to give him notes). It was actually a great experience in terms of collaboration.

I think my single biggest challenge was trying to make Bruce Wayne a truly sympathetic character—one in whom the audience would really be invested. In the previous Batman films, I always got the sense that the audience was simply marking time until Bruce donned the cape. With this film, I knew we needed to accomplish something different.

In terms of craft, I used a slightly different voice for this screenplay. Because I wanted this version of Batman to be epic, but also grounded, I tried to stay away from any flowery prose. The script was very minimalist, very sober. Very real. I didn’t write it like a superhero film. My points of reference were classic adventure films like The Man Who Would Be King and Lawrence of Arabia. I felt that if I could channel some of that epic sense, then I was on the right track. Looking back on it now, I’d like to think we accomplished just that.

More in the series of Writers on Writing

Want to learn how to write a screenplay? Register for Screenwriters University’s online course, Beginning Feature Film Writing

REGISTER NOW! 

You might also like:

COMMENT