‘Dark Knight’ Origins: Filmmakers, Stars And Comic Creators Explain Their Take On The Well-Known Characters

Several modern Batman books set the movie's tone.

“I believe in Gotham City.”

“I believe in Jim Gordon.”

“I believe in Harvey Dent.”

Any of those phrases sound familiar? One of them is repeated in the latest Batman movie, “The Dark Knight,” and was used in the viral-marketing campaign for the flick. All three of them originate from a Batman graphic novel called The Long Halloween.

Certain comics — what “Dark Knight” producer Charles Roven calls “the seminal great ones” — are the backbone of the latest Batman movie, “not in story, but in tone.”

“If you look at the whole evolution of the comics, there are lots of different incarnations of Batman,” Roven said.

And it’s the most modern versions — those written by Frank Miller, Jeph Loeb, Alan Moore and Grant Morrison — that grabbed the filmmakers’ imagination. “We’ve gone to great pains to give them as many shout-outs as we can,” said David Goyer, who came up with the film’s story along with Christopher and Jonathan Nolan.

While not all members of the cast are comics fans — Christian Bale, for instance, says, “I just read ‘Batman’ for work” — they did consult them to figure out their characters.

“I look pretty close to [Jim Gordon in Frank Miller’s ‘Year One’],” Gary Oldman said. “But all it takes is you open it — ‘Oh, that’s what he looks like’ — and there’s your research.”

Others delved more deeply, such as the late Heath Ledger , who read up on the Joker in Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke” and Grant Morrison’s “Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth.” “I looked to them for reference too,” Bale said.

“The story, the narrative wasn’t the risk for us,” Roven said, “but our interpretations of those characters — now that was the risk,” primarily with the Joker and Harvey “Two-Face” Dent .

“The triad of Gordon, Harvey Dent and Batman teaming up against the underworld, we drew that from The Long Halloween,” Goyer said, as well as the idea that organized crime in Gotham is going through a power struggle, which the Joker and other “freaks” exploit.

Since his first appearance in the comics, the Joker has had a habit of revealing his hand by announcing on television that he’s planning to kill someone at midnight (in Batman #1, it started with Henry Claridge). But despite this supposed advance notice, whoever the Joker targeted was already doomed, usually thanks to a slow-acting poison. The Joker wasn’t announcing he was about to kill — he was announcing he had killed. Thus, Batman and/or the police’s scrambling to protect that person or persons would turn out to be pointless — a “joke.”

In The Man Who Laughs, the Joker skips a step by killing the newscaster first and then announcing Claridge’s life will be over at midnight (yep, him again). Heath Ledger’s Joker plays the same game — although he likes to up the ante. Instead of just one person, he’ll kill three. And he’ll continue killing until he gets what he wants — in this case, for Batman to take off his mask and surrender.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking the Joker is consistent, however. For one thing, he never has a completely fixed origin story — in either the comics or “The Dark Knight.” There’s all this business of whether he was a failed comedian, whether he’d been a thief known as Red Hood and whether a family tragedy forced him into that position. Ledger’s Joker dispenses with all that.

“Want to know how I got my scar?” he stops to ask people while he’s in the middle of terrorizing them. Regardless of whether they say yes, he launches into a tale of trauma that changes every time he tells it.

“The Joker has no real origin,” said Loeb, who wrote The Long Halloween. “He’s the antithesis of Batman, who is all about how and why and order. The Joker is only about anarchy. And he doesn’t exist. He has no value without Batman.”

In Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, the Joker asks Batman, “What is it with you? What made you what you are? Girlfriend killed by the mob, maybe? Brother carved up by some mugger? … Something like that happened to me, you know. I … I’m not exactly sure what it was. Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another.”

“The central relationship between Joker and Batman in ‘The Dark Knight’ was definitely inspired by The Killing Joke,” Goyer said. “Especially the part where the Joker says that if he could choose his own origin, he would choose multiple choice. That’s something we embellished on in this film.”

It was embellished by taking away the one fixed assumption in Joker’s origin: that he fell (or dived) in some vat of acid or toxic waste that turned his face white, his hair green and gave him a permanent smile. Ledger’s Joker wears makeup for that creepy effect — no acid required.

“Acid is just an easy way of dealing with something we don’t understand,” said Tim Sale, who teamed with Loeb on The Long Halloween. “It’s like radioactivity — how is that supposed to give someone spider-powers or turn you into the Hulk? It won’t. Acid’s more likely to eat away and kill you. But it’s comics, so it works. Everyone’s scared of it, so it makes sense emotionally.”

“The Joker wasn’t wearing clown paint,” Loeb said. “He was turned that color, so there was no way to heal him. The Joker was and is insane. But Heath’s performance is extraordinary, because really, insanity is not something you can wipe off with the makeup. If the idea is to present the anarchy of it, his actions do that. He’s already gone ’round the bend.”

“Whether or not the Joker’s skin is white or it is makeup is silly to me,” Sale said. “What matters is that here is a scary guy who is visually scary.”

No acid required for Dent either. While “The Dark Knight” erases any origin story the Joker might have had, it builds a new one for the golden-boy district attorney.

“There hadn’t been a whole lot of in-depth work done on Harvey Dent,” Loeb said. “He was basically an enigma. We knew he got acid thrown in his face while he was prosecuting a mobster, and away he went. To me, the story is interesting because he believed in the justice system and it betrayed him.”

Dent getting attacked in court is alluded to in one beginning courtroom scene in the movie — only this time, it’s a gun — but from there, “The Dark Knight” changes the script. Whether what happens to him instead is a more satisfactory story remains to be seen. But the basic relationship he has with Gordon, Batman and Bruce Wayne in The Long Halloween remains the same.

“What I liked is that Gordon had basically been at a very arm’s-length relationship with Batman,” Loeb said. “He could not come out and embrace what Batman was doing. He had to be wary. But Harvey could just talk to him: ‘This is what I need you to do.’ It changed the dynamic of who they are. And the idea that Bruce was not somebody Harvey respected, because he’s a wealthy playboy instead of someone who cared about the city, that Bruce was outside the group, but when he was masked, he was very close with them, that’s good stuff.”

Add in a love triangle with Rachel Dawes (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal in “Dark Knight”) — who’s now dating Harvey (who is usually married in the comics) — and Batman’s even more conflicted than ever.

“To me, the best Two-Face stories are the ones where Batman tries to save him,” Loeb said, “because Harvey is still in there, and if he could just get him to come out, things might go back to the way they were. Things would be OK.”

“I hope the fans are satisfied with what we did,” Gyllenhaal said. “I hope they’re pleased.”

Check out everything we’ve got on “The Dark Knight.”

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