On the occasion of The Dark Knight’s 10th anniversary, Polygon is spending the week investigating the comic-book blockbuster’s legacy. Why so serious? Because Christopher Nolan’s Bat-sequel gave us lots to talk about. This is the retrospective you deserve and the one you need right now.
Christopher Nolan’s Bruce Wayne wanted to inspire the people of Gotham — but he couldn’t do it himself. “As a man, I’m flesh and blood, I can be ignored, I can be destroyed,” he says in Batman Begins. “But as a symbol... as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting.”
He’d get there by 2008’s The Dark Knight would get him there — but the climb to the era of Peak Superhero was steep.
In the 1960s, Batman, the world’s most popular hero, was a camp icon portrayed by Adam West, whose Caped Crusader spent his days cruising around in a gray fabric suit sporting underwear outside his pants as the Boy Wonder cracked wise beside him. While Michael Keaton’s hauntingly obsessive take on the character — who got a wardrobe upgrade to galvanized rubber armor — in Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns was a blessed relief, the World’s Greatest Detective got goofy again under Joel Schumacher’s watchful gaze, which gave us Bat-nipples and Robin-nipples.
Batman Begins delivered a Bat-voice that launched a thousand memes, but only three years later, with The Dark Knight, did Nolan and Christian Bale’s take on a tortured, noble, super-rich vigilante, who terrified the world’s worst villains while clad in para-military gear and growling through his perfect teeth, catalyze the creation of an entire cottage industry. The Dark Knight offered physicality in excess.
Bale’s Bat-voice — derided though it may be by the best Batman of them all, Batman: The Animated Series voice actor Kevin Conroy — and The Dark Knight’s high-tech take on the Batsuit in particular may have been, along with Nolan’s midnight-seeped visuals, the most influential aspects of the film. After the film’s release, “grimdark” became a mode. Swipes by the competition were made in jest. And imitators big and small also followed — look no further than CW’s Arrowverse for proof. Here, we look back at how Batman’s two most identifiable traits evolved from Batman Begins, where they were choices, to The Dark Knight, where they were emboldened to the point of transcendence.
What is the Bat-voice? For Adam West, it was just his normal cadence, even when he voiced the character in the 1970s animated series Super Friends. But after Keaton took on the role, film actors performing as the masked vigilante added subtly different inflections into their voices when playing the dual parts of Bruce Wayne and Batman. Keaton, in fact, rarely spoke as Batman, and when he did, it hinted toward the guttural tones Bale would later employ. Val Kilmer’s voice as Batman was subtly deeper.
The true pioneer of the Bat-voice is Conroy, who has only voice-work as the Caped Crusader — and a whole lot of it. Cast by legendary voice director Andrea Romano to take up the cape and cowl for Warner Bros. Animation’s Batman: The Animated Series, Conroy initially wanted to perform two utterly distinct voices for Wayne and Batman, a choice Bale later made himself. And while he and Romano ultimately opted for his Bat-voice to simply be a harsher basso version of his Bruce Wayne’s mellifluous baritone, the distinction remained clear, and the sound became the standard to judge all future Batpersons.
“I’ll always hear Mark Hamill as the Joker or Kevin Conroy as Batman,” Romano has said. “And now you read a review for a live-action [Batman] feature and they all say, why don’t they listen to the voice of Kevin Conroy?”
Maybe Bale did. Either way, he caught flack for his take on Batman’s voice as early as Batman Begins; a review on MSNBC, for instance, said it “sounded absurdly deep, like a 10-year-old putting on an ‘adult’ voice to make prank phone calls.” But when compared to his Dark Knight vocal work, the actor’s voice in the trilogy’s first installment was downright subtle. Certain moments in Batman Begins come off as hammy — think of the infamous “SWEAR TO ME!” — often when Bale is also yelling in character. For the most part, Bale’s Batman Begins Bat-voice is simply a raspy, staccato exaggeration of his vocal performance as Bruce Wayne when he’s speaking openly — to Michael Caine’s Alfred Pennyworth, for instance, as opposed to while he’s schmoozing it up in public.
In The Dark Knight, Bale drops his vocal range significantly, deepening into to a throaty basso growl while upping the rasp factor and giving the impression that Batman is auditioning poorly for lead vocals in a metalcore band. His speech patterns are more staggered, too, and he seems to be exerting himself simply to keep up the act, often breathing heavily in between the growls: “This city...just showed you..that it’s full of people...ready to believe in good.”
Sometimes, Bale can’t help but let his natural voice leak in alongside whatever note it’s naturally hitting in his vocal register, making the Bat-voice sound almost similar to harmonics on a guitar, as in the famous “hockey pads” line.
Bale deserves a bit of a break from the legacy voice criticism. There’s logic to the choice: Bruce Wayne is one of the most recognizable people on the planet, and the idea that he’d dress up in a bat costume and snarl at criminals is ridiculous.
Plus, while Batman Begins was all him, in The Dark Knight, Nolan and his sound engineers altered his voice in post-production. Initially, his voice in Batman Begins was going to be produced through a vocal distorter — similar to the one Stephen Amell uses in Arrow’s first few seasons — but they ditched it in the final film. (That said, keen-eyed viewers might be able to see the mics and speakers, which, while unused, were left in the cowl during filming.)
The voice, regardless of how you feel about it, took practice. An audition tape, included in The Dark Knight Trilogy: Ultimate Collector’s Edition, shows that Bale had already begun experimenting with his Bat-voice before even being cast.
Per Nolan, on one of the extras: “Christian, somehow, figured this out before the screen test, that you could not give a normal performance, that you could not give an ordinary performance. You had to project massive energy through this costume in order to not question the costume. So it’s about feeling and a voice, and I think Christian’s voice was a big part of the impression he made in the test. He decided that Batman needed to have a different voice than Bruce Wayne; he needed to put on a voice that supported the visual appearance of the character.”
Bale’s first Batsuit looked similar to suits worn by previous Batpersons, including designs for Keaton, Val Kilmer, and, yes, even George Clooney’s benippled monstrosity from Batman & Robin. It was vengeance! It was the night! It was meant to strike terror into the hearts of criminals!
Indeed, despite the militaristic bells and whistles that defined Batman’s suit in The Dark Knight, the suit in Batman Begins remains a bit more imposing. The cowl, made of molded rubber, had a very thick neck-piece and covers about two thirds of Bale’s face. It only extended to the neck, rather than the shoulders as with previous Batsuits, but the solidity of that neck-piece still made it nearly impossible for its wearer to turn his head — something Bale was not terribly fond of. The cape, just below the cowl, was, as Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox explains, made of “memory cloth. Notice anything? Regularly flexible, but put a current through it — molecules realign, become rigid…. It can be tailored to fit any structure based on a rigid skeleton.”
The suit itself was, in the film’s lore, a prototype military infantry suit sprayed with a rubber composite in order to mask its wearer’s heat signature. In reality, Welsh costume designer Lindy Hemming — who also ran costume design for Casino Royale and, later, Wonder Woman — used a neoprene wetsuit, to which she added molded latex to give it its sheen. And those nifty razor blades on the gauntlets? Wayne lifted them wholesale from the ninja outfit he wore earlier in the film as part of the League of Assassins run by Liam Neeson’s Ra’s al Ghul.
The suit in The Dark Knight, on the other hand, was much busier and more technical — it looks more like semi-realistic military-grade armor than a superhero’s costume, with its chainmail-meets-kevlar look. And yet it was lighter and faster than the rubber suit, as Fox explains: “Hardened kevlar plates over titanium-dipped tri-weave fibers, for flexibility. You’ll be lighter, faster, more agile…. Now, there is a tradeoff. The separation of the plates makes you more vulnerable to knives and gunfire.” That satisfied both Bruce Wayne, who requested more mobility, and his actor, who begged for more comfort.
The face mask in The Dark Knight was similar to its earlier cousin, but the cowl is less thick around the neck, allowing Batman to move his head from side to side — a first for a Batman movie cowl. The cape was also retractable, unlike the cape in Batman Begins, neatly sidestepping The Incredibles suit designer Edna Mode’s firm “no capes” rule.
The chest emblem (which, like the emblem from Batman Begins, appears molded onto the suit) also changed, in order to reflect the film’s logo directly — another first. The blades on Bats’s gauntlets also became projectiles, adding a deadly flourish. The utility belt, on the other hand, remained effectively the same as the one from Batman Begins, which Wayne used to belay himself down into the Batcave while setting up his lair. Sometimes you’ve just got to stick with tradition.
But it was the ways Nolan and Hemming stuck it to tradition, rather than sticking with it, that became unstoppable forces in the world of live-action superhero adaptations. While Zack Snyder ultimately chose to return to a rubberier look for Ben Affleck’s suit in Batman v Superman and Justice League, The Dark Knight’s Batsuit influenced the entirety of CW’s cash cow Arrowverse, from the shows’ technical explanations of how the heroes’ armors are made to the armor worn by Manu Bennett’s Deathstroke — who was initially, of course, a Batman villain.
In The Dark Knight, Nolan expected that the pieces, and their origins, mattered, because Batman was nothing without them: without flexibility, he’d be outpaced; without armor, he’d be wounded with ease; without a glider, he’d fall. They took one of the most important aspects of Batman’s character in the comics and made it impossible to forget onscreen: his mortality and his limits, and the importance of protecting the former and working around the latter.
For Bale’s Batman, the suit wasn’t just built to strike terror into the hearts of the villainous, but to protect and enhance the very human individual who wrought that fear — to make him as close to an immovable object as a mere mortal can get, and to show that how that’s done matters.