The untold truth of the Dark Knight Trilogy

Ben Affleck had some big boots to fill when he agreed to don the Caped Crusader's cowl in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Batman's one of the most instantly recognizable characters in modern pop culture, after all—and the most recent Bat-films, the Dark Knight trilogy helmed by Christopher Nolan, stand among the most critically and commercially successful entries in the superhero genre.

After all these years, it's easy to assume we've learned everything there is to know about the Dark Knight trilogy—but just like Batman himself, these movies are very good at keeping their secrets. With a little research, though—and possibly some help from a utility belt—we've uncovered the untold truth of the Dark Knight Trilogy.

Batman Begins was inspired by Superman

Batman and Superman are often presented in stark opposition to one another. One is a dark figure who triumphs through technology and intimidation; the other is a bright figure who triumphs through superpowers and inspiration. This dichotomy served as the central drama underpinning the appropriately-named Batman v Superman. It might be surprising, then, to hear that Christopher Nolan's Batman actually owes quite a bit to Superman.

Nolan has said that, like many people, he was blown away by the Richard Donner Superman movie in 1978. Among its many brilliant features, he appreciated that it told the story of Superman's origin. Nolan contrasted this with Tim Burton's 1989 Batman, one in which the character is fully formed by the time the movie starts, and saw Batman Begins as his chance to do what he called "1978 Batman," a movie where he could have a setting "where the world is pretty much the world we live in but there's this extraordinary figure there" and explore the origin of the figure. While the shape of the modern DC Expanded Universe comes from the clash between Batman and Superman, Nolan's masterful trilogy could never have started without the inspiration of the big blue Boy Scout.

Bale auditioned in Val Kilmer's costume

One of the most notable aspects of Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy is how much Christian Bale made the character his own. He was, after all, the fifth actor to don the costume for the big screen, and he knew it was inevitable that he'd be compared to previous Batmen. All of which makes it that much more fascinating that when Bale auditioned for the role of Batman, he did so while wearing Val Kilmer's old Batman suit.

In fact, Nolan made every prospective Batman actor wear the old suit. Why go through all the trouble? According to the director, being Batman onscreen transcended concepts such as "chemistry" or simple "acting ability." Rather, he wanted an actor who could "project this extraordinary iconography from the inside" and "to project massive energy through this costume in order to not question the costume." Another interesting note about his audition is who Bale was reading lines with: Amy Adams, who was standing in that day. Later, of course, Adams would take her own place alongside a very different Batman when she reprised her role of Lois Lane in Batman v Superman.

The Joker's plan was influenced by The Killing Joke

In the Batman Begins sequel The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger gave such a powerful and singular performance as the Joker that it's still difficult to imagine anyone else in the role—even after seeing Jared Leto's Joker in Suicide Squad. Nonetheless, even Ledger's performance had its precedents: much of the Dark Knight Trilogy selectively draws from comics lore, with Batman Begins cribbing heavily from Batman: Year One and Dark Knight Rises exploring variations of themes in the "No Man's Land" comics. For Dark Knight, though, one major element of the Joker is taken from The Killing Joke, written by comics legend Alan Moore.

That comic is infamous for a number of reasons. The Joker cripples Barbara Gordon and kidnaps Commissioner Gordon, taking him to a demented funhouse where he's tortured with naked images of his bleeding and crippled daughter. Why do all this? As the Joker himself says, "I've demonstrated there's no difference between me and everyone else! All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That's how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day."

Sound familiar? It should. In Dark Knight, Ledger's Joker gives two boats (one filled with average citizens, one filled with prisoners) the capacity to blow each other up. He gambles that "when the chips are down, these…these 'civilized' people, they'll eat each other." In both cases, though, he's proven wrong: the comics Gordon retains his sanity, and the citizens and prisoners of the movie don't descend into murder.

Two-Face was almost much nastier

Without a doubt, our first glimpse of Two-Face's burned face is appropriately grisly. The amount of damage is horrifying, and it gives us a powerful glimpse of the monster he's become as he dispenses his brand of random, coin-based "justice" against those who've wronged him. Because of how utterly gross Two-Face ended up looking, it's surprising to hear Christopher Nolan admit that he was originally even more repulsive.

In an interview, Nolan characterized the final choice for Two-Face's appearance to be one of the ones least likely to disturb fans. Why is that? Call it the Uncanny Valley effect. According to Nolan, they tried "less extreme versions," and the end result was that "they were too real and more horrifying." He made the apt comparison to the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, noting that the undead of those movies were rendered via "very fanciful, very detailed visual effect" that ultimately made the imagery "more powerful and less repulsive."

No one can agree on Dark Knight's politics

It's easy to miss amidst all the butt-kicking, but The Dark Knight has deep political subtext. In between the expected scenes of swashbuckling and derring-do, Harvey and Rachel debate the role of citizen, state, and vigilante; other characters, like Lucius Fox, question how much power is too much for one man to have, while the Joker's anarchy forces us to question many of our assumptions. The Dark Knight 's politics are definitely there, in other words—but no one can agree what they are.

Some people think Batman's role as a "reluctant warrior" who wants to turn the job over to someone else makes him a stand-in for then-Vice President Dick Cheney. Other parallels to conservative administrations include Batman's willingness to hack every phone in the city to find Joker, something that seems to evoke the notion of warrantless wiretapping. At the same time, Batman is willing to destroy his privacy-violating technology and willing to walk away from his own "war on terror," which throws a wrench in the analogy.

Nolan himself has stated that the movie isn't explicitly political, but he understands where people get these ideas. For instance, some wondered if Batman's beating a captive Joker was a commentary on the so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" of the US military, but Nolan said that all he wanted to do was explore "a paradox: how do you fight somebody who essentially thrives on aggression?" Clearly, The Dark Knight is a mirror for the politics of whoever stares into it.

Dark Knight gave Ledger sleepless nights

In all of superhero cinema, there has yet to be a performance that tops Heath Ledger's as the Joker. His work was provocative, frenzied…he seemed to embody the very chaos that his character channeled into tormenting Batman and the rest of Gotham City. What few people know, though, is that his powerful performance played a role in his tragic death.

It's well known that Ledger died of an accidental overdose—specifically, a combination of drugs meant to combat anxiety, ease pain, and help him sleep. However, it turns out that some of his restless anxiety was due to the very film he was helping bring to life. In an interview before his death, Ledger claimed that stress related to his work on The Dark Knight led to him relying on Ambien to sleep. "I couldn't stop thinking," he explained. "My body was exhausted and my mind was still going." After his death, friends said he also fought his insomnia through all-night parties. While it's impossible to know how much of this goes back to The Dark Knight, it seems clear that embodying madness personified took a toll on Ledger's health.

Dark Knight Rises took its cue from Charles Dickens

Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan, who co-wrote The Dark Knight Rises, admitted they were inspired by Charles Dickens' classic A Tale of Two Cities, and in retrospect, it seems a bit obvious—at the end, Commissioner Gordon even reads from the book at Bruce Wayne's funeral.

In A Tale of Two Cities, one man about to be executed, Charles Darnay, is saved when his doppelgänger Sydney Carton takes his place—but not before Carton waxes philosophic about the "beautiful city" and "brilliant people" who are "rising from this abyss." Sounds a bit like Gotham, right? Except the death ends up being more symbolic in the movie, as it's Batman who dies so Bruce Wayne can lead a happy, normal life. Furthermore, A Tale of Two Cities focuses on the promise as well as the chaos of the French Revolution, and Bane's bizarre social experiment ends up highlighting both the best and worst of humanity. Or, as Dickens famously put it, "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

Dark Knight Rises puts comic storylines in a blender

In addition to drawing from Dickens, The Dark Knight Rises combines several different comic storylines. It borrows one basic concept from Dark Knight Returns, in which an aging Bruce Wayne sees his city succumbing to gang violence and decides to don the cape and cowl once more. And while Bruce Wayne isn't eligible for the senior citizen discount in this movie, the earlier narrative does make a big deal of what it's like for Wayne to return to the role of hero after eight years of retirement.

The movie also brings in elements of Knightfall, the story arc in which Bane discovered who Batman really was and, after weakening him by unleashing Arkham Asylum's residents on the city, broke into Wayne Manor and broke his back. In the comics, Batman was out of commission for quite awhile, with Caped Crusader duties being taken over by the unstable character of Azrael.

The final comic inspiration was No Man's Land, a story that saw Gotham City impacted by an enormous earthquake. In response, the government (who one can only assume was just waiting for a chance to do something like this), destroyed all bridges into Gotham and prevented other access to it, declaring the entire city a "No Man's Land." Citizens can't get out, and the villains decide to take over. The movie inverts this, of course, with Bane and his crew cutting the city off, but the narrative of trying to survive in isolation (and surrounded by psychopaths) remains.

Dark Knight redefined movie marketing

Few fans of any media are quite as passionate as comics readers. That is part of what makes adapting their favorite heroes and villains into a movie so exciting and scary: filmmakers have to adapt the nature and spirit of fans' favorite characters while adding new dimensions to the source material. However, many of the most passionate Batman fans knew they were in good hands with Dark Knight well before the movie came out. Why? It had some of the most involved and insane marketing ever created.

Some of the weird marketing included skywriting numbers that fans could call, and even providing phones ostensibly left by the Joker inside unexpected places (including birthday cakes that fans had to race around the world to find). One part of the campaign involved leaving defaced Joker cards inside select comic stores, with the cards directing fans to a special Harvey Dent election website. Over time, the image of Harvey was defaced into something more like the Joker, and the website then gave fans the ability to remove individual pixels. The result after everything was removed? The world's first public image of Heath Ledger in full Joker make-up.

The list goes on. Fake Gotham City newspapers were printed and distributed, voter registration cards were mailed, and rallies were held to elect Harvey Dent. They even created fake websites, including a GCN site (Gotham City News) and a "Citizens for Batman" site to support the vigilante hero. Ultimately, the campaign won the Cannes Lions Cyber Grand Prix Award and the Cannes Lions Silver Cyber Award.

Dark Knight Rises was impacted by a real-life villain

The death of Heath Ledger is, sadly, not the only tragedy associated with the Dark Knight movies. In 2012, a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises was disrupted by a gunman who ended up killing 12 people as part of a premeditated mass shooting. Apparently, the choice of which movie to strike was not a coincidence, as the shooter described himself to at least one federal official as "The Joker," which was ostensibly tied to his decision to dye his hair into a bright and unnatural color (though his was bright red rather than green).

The effects of this shooting rippled outward. In addition to becoming part of the national dialogue about gun control, the shooting prompted Warner Bros. to cancel the film's Paris premiere and caused police across the nation to view movie theaters as potential venues for more of such terrorism. Several stars canceled promotional events out of respect for the dead. Overall, the grisly affair turned into a stark reminder of the kind of real-world troubles that many fans flock to comics and movies in order to escape.

The trilogy almost never existed

It's tough at this point to imagine a world without Nolan's trilogy. However, before he brought that world into focus with Batman Begins, there were a number of false starts while Warners spent a decade trying to figure out where they wanted to take the franchise. An explicit live-action adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns was scrapped, and Batman: Year One was nearly adapted twice (more on that in a minute). Amusingly, one of these scrapped movies included Batman vs. Superman, which very nearly came out in 2004 and may, according to the rumor mill, have had Christian Bale attached.

Perhaps the weirdest movie planned was the studio's second stab at an adaptation of Batman: Year One. It would have been directed by Darren Aronofsky, famous for movies such as Requiem for a Dream, with a screenplay by Aronofsky and Batman writer Frank Miller. In the story, Bruce Wayne is a poor kid taken in and raised by a mechanic on the wrong side of the tracks. He becomes an unhinged vigilante in the style of Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle; the story also features Selina Kyle as a black prostitute as well as an unhinged, violent, and somewhat suicidal Jim Gordon. Our first view of Gordon would have been of him sitting on the toilet with his gun and preparing to kill himself.

Fortunately, the only trigger pulled was one that killed this project, paving the way for our familiar Dark Knight trilogy to unfold.