BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - This Batmobile is for real.
It was parked outside the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel the other day, looking like the mutant spawn of a Lamborghini and a Hummer with its low profile and fat monster truck tires. You could reach beyond the red velvet rope and touch it - a palpable object, at last, in a summer movie season packed with digital effects (see: Star Wars).
For Batman Begins, the $150 million film that brings the Dark Knight back to the big screen tomorrow, Warner Bros. wanted director Christopher Nolan to use computer graphics to create the Batmobile. But Nolan resisted the digital and insisted on the real as much as possible.
"What I'd never seen in superhero movies, or comic book movies, if you will, is a naturalistic, more realistic, grounded tone to the film," Nolan said. "As in the comics, Batman is an extraordinary figure against a relatively ordinary and recognizable contemporary reality."
Audiences are tiring of films that look unreal, he says, and so he built from scratch a Batmobile - five of them, in fact - with 340 horsepower and misshapen black body panels that belong in a modern art museum. The windstorms in the film are also real, as are the car chases and a fight scene on a frozen lake.
The realism extended to the batsuit, said Batman Begins producer Charles Roven. It could not be a rigid plastic structure. It had to be tough enough to stop a knife and most bullets, but also flexible enough that Batman could run and leap and crouch.
"Everything came from Chris' mantra of reality," Roven said.
The young British director was an unexpected, but inspired, choice to take the reins of the Batman franchise. In the four Batman films released between 1989 and 1997, the franchise had become goofy and overblown, culminating in Batman & Robin, which featured a batsuit with nipples.
Batman and his alter ego Bruce Wayne, however, were never supposed to be funny. Wayne is racked with anger and guilt over the murder of his parents, and his motives can be as good (fighting crime) as they are questionable (vengeance).
"We wanted to tell the story realistically and explain how and why Bruce Wayne, a man with no superpowers, transforms himself into this extraordinary icon," Nolan says. He has called Wayne a normal person like the rest of us - except he does a lot more pushups.
In telling the origins story - from Wayne's scary childhood encounter with bats to his travel to Bhutan, where he learns the ways of the criminal mind and is tested physically and morally - the creators of Batman Begins were trying to humanize their subject.
"That was our task: to get the audience to really care about Bruce Wayne," says David Goyer, who co-wrote the screenplay with Nolan. "If they care about him, then they care about what happens when he's in the costume."
To play Bruce Wayne, Nolan chose the Welsh actor Christian Bale, well regarded for his work in American Psycho and The Machinist, but not a leading man. That may change after Batman Begins, in which Bale's rugged good looks (and well-defined biceps) are on display.
Bale, 31, is something of a chameleon. For The Machinist, the 6-foot-2 actor dropped his weight to 121 pounds to play a tormented insomniac. He put on 80 pounds in seven weeks to achieve his Batman physique. He is the fourth actor to play Batman in the recent movies, following George Clooney, Val Kilmer and Michael Keaton.
"I don't feel like Batman's ever really been defined in any portrayal," Bale said in an interview. "I felt this was an opportunity to finally do that. ... He's intended to be a dark and terrifying and intimidating character. It kind of ended up being spoofed more."
He adds, "We wanted to take it back to the basics and have everything being practical, no nipples or anything like that."
And so Bale didn't complain when on the first day of filming, he found himself dueling Liam Neeson's character on a frozen lake in Iceland - a lake that was melting and cracking. Much of the film's crew had to stay off the ice to prevent its collapse, and Bale and Neeson had to work quickly.
"It added an extra sense of urgency and tension to the scene," Bale says. By the next day, the ice was gone, completely melted into the lake.
A 75-mph windstorm depicted in the film also was real, and Nolan directed his crew to keep filming in the face of the cold, driving gales. The film's key car chase, in which the Batmobile dances through traffic with police in pursuit, was shot on Lower Wacker Drive in Chicago's Loop.
In Batman Begins, the mythical Gotham City looks most like Chicago, where many of the exteriors were shot. Much of the film was also shot an hour north of London, in a former World War II airship hangar called Cardington. The facility - which is 812 feet long and 180 feet high - allowed the filmmakers to construct a filthy Gotham slum where Batman battles the bad guys.
He is aided in the fight by Katie Holmes, who plays Bruce Wayne's best childhood friend and adult love interest; Morgan Freeman, the Wayne Enterprises inventor who outfits Batman with his gadgets; Gary Oldman, an honest cop; and Michael Caine, the butler Alfred and a surrogate father after Wayne's parents are killed.
Bale noted there are three sides to Bruce Wayne. There's the private Wayne, who is tormented by his parents' deaths and who the audience follows on a journey out of the darkness. There's the public Wayne, a playboy with slick sports cars and a pretty girl on each arm.
And then there's Batman.
"Batman is [Wayne's] hidden, demonic, rage-filled side that if he didn't have some kind of a channel to let that side out, then he would not be able to function in regular society," Bale says. "He is somebody who is so volatile and has such questionable motives that he could very easily become the kind of thing that he's trying to fight."
He does not, of course. But in showing that internal struggle, the film is dark and more frightening than its predecessors. In focusing on the human side of the Batman story, though, the film also feels more a part of this world.
"We were looking for the texture of today's world, exaggerated in some way, a heightened reality, yes, but fundamentally grounded," Nolan says.
As far as the Batmobile goes, Holmes said she wasn't allowed to drive it because the filmmakers thought she would crash it.
"You could have crashed it," Caine piped in. "No one would have noticed."