A Darker 'Knight' Takes Over

Perhaps it's best not to beat around the bush with the July 18 release of "The Dark Knight," director and co-screenwriter Christopher Nolan's hotly anticipated sequel to 2005's critically and commercially successful franchise reboot "Batman Begins."

The bat signal certainly won't be powered down anytime soon. As one of the few people outside studio personnel to view the film early, Peter Travers enticed the public with his warning in the pages of Rolling Stone: "Heads up: a thunderbolt is about to rip into the blanket of bland we call summer movies."

Nolan and Christian Bale, reprising his role as the Caped Crusader, sat down with "Popcorn With Peter Travers" on ABC News Now to discuss the duality of the Batman character, living up to lofty expectations, and the final haunting performance of co-star Heath Ledger as the Joker.

Christian BalePlay

In 2005, Bale and Nolan successfully revitalized the Batman franchise with "Batman Begins," which explained the hero's fractured origins. "The Dark Knight" elaborates on the film's cliffhanger ending when Wayne Manor was destroyed by a fire.

In the new movie, Bale's Bruce Wayne lives in a penthouse overlooking Gotham, and Batman springs from an underground lair with the Batmobile and the new Batpod. Nolan sought to convey a rougher and harsher environment for Batman this time around.

"By creating the Gotham that is a bit more based in reality by shooting in more real places, not just building sets, we would have a Batman who was an extraordinary man in an ordinary world," Nolan said. "He's as outrageous and extraordinary to the residents of Gotham in the film as he is to the people in the audience. And I think people in the audience are able to relate to the population of Gotham; being able to sort of see that from their point of view, to me, elevates the character."

But the outlandishness of Batman is trumped by a far more grim character, the diabolical element of the Joker.

Ledger's untimely death in January will forever be intertwined with "The Dark Knight." There's already early buzz about an Oscar for Ledger's consuming portrayal of the sinister arch-villain. Such predictions bear heavy weight, as a posthumous Oscar has not been awarded since 1976.

According to both Bale and Nolan, Ledger was eager to put a new and daring spin on the iconic role. Earlier protrayals of the character by Jack Nicholson and Cesar Romero are permanent legacies for both actors.

"We talked a lot about the concept of who the Joker would be in the telling of this story, that is a bit more real and gritty than what's come before," Nolan said. "The Joker in this world was clearly going to be somebody very different. We talked about creating a sheer force of pure anarchy, somebody that you could believe as a human being, but someone who really represents an absolute quality of somebody who wants to just tear down the world around him.

"That fear of anarchy is really what sort of drove the creation of the character, and so, I think it was sort of inherent in that it would be very different than what had been done before. Nevertheless, I think it took huge guts for Heath to take on such a great icon."

The manic brilliance of Ledger's Joker was already apparent on the first day of filming.

Bale and Ledger were shooting an integral interrogation film between their characters. "Batman resorts to violence and beating the Joker, methods that have usually worked for him," Bale recalled. "The more he beats the Joker, the bigger the smile is on the Joker's face. He sees a very unusual adversary and somebody who is almost impossible to beat because he's someone bent on destruction, chaos. He still wins, even if it means self-destruction. Ultimately, he wants to hold a mirror up and show Gotham its own hypocrisy."

Ledger utilized intense method acting to prepare for the role, which included living in complete isolation in a hotel room for one month and recording a diary of the Joker's thoughts in order to imitate the psychology, or lack thereof, of his character.

"I found it remarkable how much I wasn't looking at Heath. I was just looking at the Joker," Bale said. "He became invisible. He became the Joker completely."

Bale's own penchant for diving into a character is legendary. He notably lost 60 pounds for his role in "The Machinist."

"I enjoy immersing myself in something, and I think that I've recognized that in Heath, as well," Bale said.

Responding to criticism from some that the immersion in the Joker may have been what led to Ledger's death, Bale said, "I think in some ways I find it a little bit rude, because he was a better actor than that, than to be somebody who was not able to control this character. He had a wonderful time playing it and did a fantastic job with it."

As the title suggests, the film takes a more sinister tone. "We left the first film with this idea of Batman [creating] this figure to stand against the criminals of Gotham," Nolan said. "It's a very provocative gesture he's made. This film explores the criminal response to that, and so, it's going to go to even more intense, darker places. I think that's why we called it 'The Dark Knight.'"

Batman is a dark character who battles with himself, Bale added. "His very altruistic side wishes to do good, and that's born of his parents and wanting to uphold their legacy," Bale said. "But he has a great deal of rage which he channels into the creature of the Batman who he has created. There's a real duality going on throughout."

Despite the darker tone, Bale assures the movie is action-packed with emotional depth.

"It's a fantastic combination of the entertainment of a roller coaster ride, and the fun and spectacle of it, but it's very haunting, as well," Bale said. "It does leave you with a lot of thoughts. There's a lot of ethical questions that are raised in it. I think it's a real stunning kind of marriage that Christopher has achieved."

Nolan and Bale both had their respective reasons to put a new twist on the Batman franchise.

"Watching the old Adam West TV show, which, when you're young, you don't realize how camp it is. But I think, even in that incarnation, the sort of elemental appeal of the character comes through," Nolan said. "This idea of the richest playboy, the most unlikely person in Gotham actually being this great figure with the old stately home with the cave underneath where he spends all his time. It's a very evocative concept. Even through its more tongue-and-cheek presentation of it really grips the imagination when you're 5 or 6 years old."

Bale's interest was sparked by famed graphic artist Frank Miller's gritty rendition of the franchise in his 1987 comic book story arc "Batman Year One."

"I'd always considered Batman to be far less interesting than the villains he was dealing with, and suddenly, when I was introduced to 'Year One,' I thought this Batman is, to me, just as, if not more, interesting than the villains," recalled Bale. "That was the first time that I really thought this could be a great character to play. Then I met with Chris [Nolan], and I'd seen [his 2000 film] 'Memento,' [and] I knew that he was going to be making a very smart version of it, so I pursued it."

Nolan and his brother, Jonathan, who also co-wrote the script, use the film as a character piece to examine the complexities of heroism in the modern world.

"What we were trying to do with this film was explore, to some extent, the practical reality of a heroic figure trying to live up to everything," Nolan said.

"We're really sort of dealing with the inevitability of the disappointment that is bound to be there if people are pinning all their hopes and dreams on this one person. It's a huge burden for that person, and something that's, at the end of the day, impossible to live up to."