A Dark Knight to remember

The new Batman film is spectacular – and director Christopher Nolan is on a crusade to have it seen just as he wants it.

You don't want to watch The Dark Knight on your mobile phone. It is striking how diminished Christopher Nolan's Batman films feel on the small screen. Those sweeping shots of the Gotham City skyscape lose their impact. Christian Bale's performance as the Caped Crusader seems more mannered than heroic. The Batmobile looks like a glorified Dinky Toy as it bounces around on its huge wheels.

Nolan's Batman is designed as an experience to be savoured in the cinema, preferably on the biggest screen possible – one reason why a pair of tickets for the The Dark Knight Rises at the BFI IMAX was recently being offered on eBay for £300 and why the hype is building so intensely in advance of what might otherwise seem like just another summer superhero movie.

"As a film-maker, I am always trying to get back to the experience I had as a young boy, seeing larger than life creations on screen," Nolan commented of his desire to make his Batman films into Cecil B DeMille-like spectacles. The new film will feature 50 minutes of IMAX footage, more than double the amount in The Dark Knight.

In interviews, Nolan has adopted the guise of a crusader himself. He is not rooting out wrong-doing in Gotham City. His battle isn't against the Joker or Penguin but against digital technology and the corrosive effect he believes it can have on film-making.

"If you are looking strictly at production cost, then you would use digital. But for the best image, it is still film," Nolan stated at a conference in Hollywood last month and suggested that many digitally shot movies ended up looking like glorified TV commercials. He has been equally dismissive of the darkness of 3D, saying he prefers "the big canvas, looking up at an enormous screen and at an image that feels larger than life."

His argument is that as home entertainment becomes ever more sophisticated, it's up to film-makers to lure spectators into cinemas using every means at their disposal.

"The resources we have to make these films are colossal. I don't really hold with trying to strip down the technology. I think we should be using the resources to create the best possible image we can," he said. As yet, he clearly believes, nothing trumps the richness of old fashioned 2D film.

The most fanatical Batman fans will be turning up at the BFI IMAX in Waterloo, London, later this month for all-night screenings of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight before watching the new movie at dawn. Dennis Laws, general manager of the venue, expects many to be in full Batman costume. "It's a cult we've built up," Laws explains. "It's a real event when people come here... the steep rake of the seating is something lots of people mention to me. They love the fact they can sit back and enjoy the entire screen without having to keep moving in their seat."

The Dark Knight trilogy is film-making on an epic, Wagnerian scale. Nolan's movies are utterly stripped of the irony or tendency toward kitsch that ran through earlier Batman films whether by Joel Schumacher or Tim Burton. The early scenes in Batman Begins, in which we see the young Bruce Wayne travelling with his father into Gotham by train, are designed in a way that self-consciously evokes Fritz Lang's Metropolis. The debt to film noir is also apparent.

Nolan has said that there isn't any intentional political subtext to the Batman pictures. Nonetheless, one reason for their success is surely that they tap into the anxieties felt in a post-9/11 world. They appeal to audiences' sense of masochism at a time of political and economic uncertainty. Their world-view is resolutely pessimistic. At the same time, they have some of the same intellectual appeal as Nolan's other films, notably the mind-bending Inception and the shattered identity thriller Memento.

The villain in the new film, Bane (Tom Hardy) is a masked, mumbling, muscle-bound psychopath who seems part Hannibal Lecter, part Rasputin – and who has a clear loathing of the US. His name echoes that of the venture capital company where US Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney used to work. The fact that audiences couldn't understand a word he was saying in the six-minute teaser sequence that Nolan released before Christmas added to his mystique.

Christian Bale, for his part, continues to play Batman with a mercurial intensity more commonly found in villains than heroes. "For me, I just felt silly in a bat suit, just walking around like a regular guy off to a Halloween party or something. I felt like I can only really believe it myself if I view him [Batman] as a personality that Bruce Wayne created to channel his demons," Bale has observed of the extreme brooding quality he brings to the Caped Crusader.

For all their Sturm und Drang, Nolan's Batman films have their moments of clumsiness. The section of Batman Begins in which Bruce Wayne escapes from a Bhutanese prison, climbs a mountain and does a crash course in ninja training under the watchful eye of Liam Neeson is both preposterous and very woodenly acted. Some characters and situations could easily belong in a bad Bond movie. There is only so much Nolan can do with a comic book character who has already appeared on screen so many times.

What the films do have in abundance, at least when seen on the big screen, is (in the words of Dennis Laws) "the wow factor". They provide an utterly immersive experience. On one level, Nolan's approach is traditional to the point of being old fashioned. He is celebrating the idea of cinemas as picture palaces. Nonetheless, audiences clearly buy into it. The Dark Knight made over $1 billion at the box-office and the final film in the trilogy is expected to trump that figure.

Some may choose to wait until the film comes out on DVD or is available to download. Laws warns that these spectators won't really be watching the "whole" movie at all.

"For me, watching a film on television, you're not really watching it. You're hearing the story but you're missing 60 or 70 per cent of the experience. I've been shouting from the rooftops for the last 20 years for exhibitors to stop chopping cinemas up and turning them into these horrible little boxes."

We live in an age of digital distraction. With The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan is again banking on the fact that spectators want to pay attention: they still crave the age-old, collective experience of sitting in a huge, darkened auditorium and losing themselves in a movie.

'The Dark Knight Rises' is released on Friday 20 July. The BFI Southbank season of Christopher Nolan's films runs throughout July

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