Christian Bale is – for now, at least – the only actor to star in three live-action Batman movies. That allowed Bale to really own the role and develop his incarnation of Bruce Wayne in a way we haven’t seen before or since. This may not be the perfect Batman – especially for anyone who craves a little humor from their Caped Crusader – but it is the most well-rounded and fully realized version we’ve gotten to date.
In Day 5 of our recurring look back at the various live-action Batman actors, we dig deeper into the Dark Knight trilogy and why Bale's intense, deeply burdened version of Bruce Wayne has become the standard by which all others are judged.
The Physicality of Bale's Batman
Prior to Batman Begins, there was never really an expectation that actors needed to get into true superhero shape to prepare for the role. That's what the sculpted rubber Batsuits are for. But by the time he was cast as Batman in 2003, Hugh Jackman's Wolverine had already set a new standard for superhero movie muscles. Bale, already building a reputation for extreme physical transformations, seemed only too happy to oblige. The fact that Bale managed to morph from the disturbingly skeletal Trevor Reznik in 2004's The Machinist to the sleek, toned Bruce Wayne of 2005's Batman Begins makes this particular transformation arguably his most impressive.
Begins covers rich storytelling ground that had only ever been alluded to in past Batman movies – the long, arduous process of transforming a disaffected, wayward billionaire into a one-man crimefighting machine. 1989's Batman gives us a vague sense that Michael Keaton's Bruce has traveled the world and picked up a few tricks along the way. Begins actually shows us a Bruce Wayne who puts himself through a gauntlet and acquires the skills necessary to become a costumed vigilante. This sort of origin story simply doesn't work without an actor willing and able to to put in the physical homework.
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Bale's Batman was also the first who actually looked and moved like a real fighter. Keaton's Batman was brutally efficient in his movements out of sheer necessity. With a suit that constrictive, it's easier to backhand a goon in the face than take the time to turn around and face him. Bale's Batman is a legitimate martial artist, one who employs a very practical, defense-oriented fighting style inspired by Wing Chun and Keysi.
There is an argument to be made that the Dark Knight movies go a little too far with their emphasis on realism here. Practical though Batman's combat moves may be, a hero who specializes in clubbing opponents on the head with his elbows doesn't always result in the most dynamic fight scenes. This Batman is a brawler, but not a superhero. That's one element that wouldn't be perfected until the next Batman came along.
The Emptiness of Bruce Wayne
Director Christopher Nolan makes his thesis on the Bruce Wayne/Batman dichotomy abundantly clear in the ending of Batman Begins. Katie Holmes' Rachel Dawes tells Bruce, "This is your mask. Your real face is the one that criminals now fear. The man I loved, the man who vanished, he never came back at all."
For comic book readers, the notion that Bruce Wayne is the mask and Batman is the real person was hardly a revolutionary one. But as far as the movies go, this was new, fertile ground to explored.
One of Bale's greatest strengths in these movies is his ability to portray Bruce as a disguise to be used and discarded at the earliest convenience. There are echoes of Bale's American Psycho character in his Bruce Wayne. Bale famously modeled closeted serial killer Patrick Bateman on Tom Cruise's public persona – all outward charm and smiles and nothing but coldness underneath. His Bruce Wayne isn't so overtly sinister, but he is a very hollow persona all the same.
We see Bruce Wayne the playboy billionaire at various points in the trilogy, and it's almost always as a tool for Batman to acquire something he wants. Need to shoo away the annoying socialites before your former master burns the mansion down? Out comes Bruce Wayne the drunken oaf. Need to do some recon before exfiltrating a corrupt Hong Kong businessman? Set up a lunch meeting with Bruce Wayne the naïve businessman.
Rachel is right. There's a stark contrast between how Bale plays Bruce in those early flashback scenes in Begins vs. how Bruce comes across in the remainder of the trilogy. In the flashbacks, Bruce is a withdrawn, wounded child still angry at the world for robbing him of his happiness. He's unhappy, but at least his emotions are genuine. After his failed bid at vengeance (easily among the film's most inspired changes to the traditional Batman mythos), Bruce retreats from the world, never to be seen again. The person that eventually returns to Gotham is nothing more than a soldier with a mission.
Letting Go of the Dark Knight
Bale's Batman is a hero very much in line with the protagonists of Nolan's other films. Like Leonardo DiCaprio's Cobb in 2010's Inception or Matthew McConaughey's Cooper in 2014's Interstellar, Bruce Wayne is a man blessed with unique abilities but weighed down by profound loss and a terrible sense of purpose. Adam West and George Clooney's versions of Bruce Wayne seem like they actually enjoy being Batman. Bale's Bruce is burdened by it. The Dark Knight trilogy ultimately develops into a story of Bruce learning how to shrug off that burden.
2012's The Dark Knight Rises is hardly a perfect film. The plot is unwieldy, and even Bale's performance suffers under Nolan's increasingly bewildering approach to sound mixing. Bale's raspy Batman voice – always the weak link in his otherwise stellar performance – devolves into full-blown parody at times. But thematically, Rises is an essential counterpoint to Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. It provides a definitive ending to this hero's journey – something no Batman movie had attempted before.
Rises opens with a chilling look at Bruce's life eight years after battling Joker and becoming the pariah Gotham needs. Gotham has moved beyond its need for Batman, or so they'd like to believe. But rather than take that as an excuse to move forward and try and build a real life, Bruce retreats into his sterile mansion and becomes a Howard Hughes-esque recluse. Without Batman, Bruce may as well not exist. Only the prospect of a renewed war on crime rouses Bruce from non-existence and coaxes him back into the world.
Rises unfolds like a true Greek tragedy. We see a man who continues to suffer under the burden he's chosen for himself, driving away his adoptive father and inadvertently damning Gotham to death by nuclear fire. Bale's demeanor and quiet facial work is frequently haunting as the final battle looms. He's a man increasingly ready, even eager, to die if it means saving his city one last time. The last time we see Bale as Batman, he's seemingly resigned himself to a heroic death. It's what the Batman of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns would call "a good death," but not the one this Batman deserves.
Just as the heroes of Nolan's movies are eventually rewarded for their struggles and obsessions, Bale's Bruce is finally allowed a happy ending after sacrificing his health, his fortune and his reputation for the good of the city. Rises concludes with a scene showing Alfred's faith in his master has been rewarded. Bruce has finally found the motivation to leave his city and his crusade behind. Batman died when the bomb went off, and this time only Bruce Wayne came back.
Jesse is a mild-mannered staff writer for IGN. Allow him to lend a machete to your intellectual thicket by following @jschedeen on Twitter.