As long as there have been superheroes, there have been secret identities. These mysterious, carefully constructed alter egos allow the antagonist to save the day without exposing personal details that could be used to thwart the mission. Typically indulged by fans with a knowing wink, generations have looked down their noses at the notion that Clark Kent’s glasses or Robin the boy wonder’s tiny mask could realistically hoodwink anyone with half a brain.
This summer, however, the superhero got the last laugh, as moviedom’s most overzealous fans were knocked out of their seats by the top-secret revelation of a secret identity. If you’ve seen “Batman Begins,” you’re likely nodding your head in agreement, secretly admitting that you were punk’d by a grown man in a black leather suit.
If you aren’t yet among the nearly $200 million worth of fans to experience the reveal (and, if so, what kind of fan are you?), then you might not want to read any further. You might want to come back and read this after you’ve seen the movie, however, because as any geek behind the counter of your local comic-book store will insist, the best part of any superhero legend is the origin.
When Warner Bros. announced plans to revive the Batman franchise, the studio launched a feeding frenzy. While not quite on the level as, say, “Star Wars: Episode I,” “Batman Begins” was arguably one of the most anticipated films of all time.
“There are possibly millions of Batman fans around the world,” actor Liam Neeson remarked when asked about the pressures on those involved with the film.
Christian Bale said everyone involved knew the hazardous nature of the project. “We were reinventing Batman here.”
One by one, the names were rolled out. A few were met with enthusiasm (“Memento” mastermind Christopher Nolan as director), others with message-board whining (Katie Holmes as love interest Rachel Dawes) and a couple more received a wait-and-see attitude (Bale as the titular masked man). One question remained: Who was the villain?
“It’s been fun to sort of harbor this secret,” Holmes said, breathing a sigh of relief after the film’s debut. “It’s exciting to be involved in a project that has a lot of intrigue surrounding it.”
Fans were anxious for the name that would follow in the legendary footsteps of Jack Nicholson, Burgess Meredith, Jim Carrey and others, but Warner Bros. and a team including Nolan and screenwriter David Goyer were determined to bring some element of surprise to the story that fans thought they already knew. After much discussion, a plan was hatched that would instill jealousy in any supervillain: give the fans what they think they want to know, while handing out more red herrings than a Maine fishing boat captain.
“This picture, all the way through, including on the clapperboard when we were shooting, was not called ’Batman Begins,’ ” Michael Caine recalled of the secrecy surrounding the film and its plot points. “It was called ’The Intimidation Game,’ and reporters weren’t allowed on the set at all.”
Warner Bros. leaked the word that “28 Days Later” star Cillian Murphy had been cast as Scarecrow, and that Ken Watanabe would play Ra’s al Ghul — two lesser-known villains from the comic books who’d never been exploited by the previous Batman movies or classic TV program.
Oh, and by the way: Neeson had been cast in a small part as Henri Ducard, mentor to the young Bruce Wayne.
“In this day and age it’s so exciting to keep a little bit of mystery,” Neeson recently relished. “Certainly, when it comes to going to see movies.”
With only a handful of production people privy to Ducard’s Keyser Söze-like transformation into the real Ra’s al Ghul, cast and crew were sworn to absolute secrecy — and somehow they pulled it off.
“Let’s not talk about it,” Neeson coldly responded when asked for a simple “Batman” comment while he was doing publicity for “Kingdom of Heaven” in April. It’s a normal courtesy for actors to discuss their upcoming projects, and, frankly, Neeson came across as something of a jerk at the time.
“Well that’s good, right?” the Oscar-nominated actor would later laugh when reminded of what might have been his greatest performance. “We’ve been doing a good job on that. And even if people do now know, coming out to see the film, it’s still an incredibly exciting film.”
The deception was made a bit easier, Neeson insisted, by the true nature of Ducard’s conflicted villainy. “I hate the term ’bad guy,’ ” he reflected, “because it makes me think, ’Is Ducard bad?’ It has been hard [to keep the secret], and in the interviews I’ve been saying to journalists please don’t [call Ducard a bad guy], you’re just going to spoil it for your viewers.”
Now that the bat is out of the bag, moviegoers seem universally appreciative of the Ducard revelation. Like 10-year-olds sitting down with their parents for a revealing chat, they are both appreciative and shocked by the effectiveness of the Santa Claus-like fib that was fed to them for so long.
“We were under strict orders not to tell anybody anything about anything,” Caine said matter-of-factly, admitting that information was even kept from him at times. “I remember once I was talking on a show and I said, ’I’m doing “Batman,” ’ and they said, ’Don’t tell them you’re doing “Batman,” tell them you’re doing “The Intimidation Game,” it’s a gangster film.’ I said, ’Christopher, it’s “Batman.” I can’t tell them I’m doing “Intimidation Game.” ’ I didn’t even know it was going to be called ’Batman Begins’ until the end.”
“This guy Ducard that I play,” Neeson said, getting the final word on the biggest secret of the summer, “he is very much an international man of mystery. An Austin Powers, you might say.”
Check out everything we’ve got on “Batman Begins.”
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