Nolan darkens the character for new film

For Warner Bros., making any Batman movie — even this summer’s “The Dark Knight” — is a balancing act as tough as anything by the Flying Wallendas.

Make the film into an edgy noir-ish crime tale, and you may upset parents and children. When Tim Burton went too far with “Batman Returns,” for example, he was soon off the franchise.

On the other hand, make a family-friendly romp that is safe for schoolboys, and you may infuriate the core comicbook fanbase that embraces the essential darkness of the Batman mythos. That’s part of what went wrong with Joel Schumacher’s 1997 “Batman & Robin,” which put the Batman movie franchise into an 8-year coma.

One reason the Caped Crusader can be so schizophrenic, even beyond the whole Batman/Bruce Wayne dichotomy, is that Warner Bros. Pictures and DC Comics are independent business units within the Time Warner family. They make their creative decisions separately.

DC president and publisher Paul Levitz reads Warners’ scripts and can object if he spots something extreme, but doesn’t routinely give notes or feedback. (In case you were wondering, Levitz was not running DC when “Batman & Robin” was being made.)

This time around, the studio has trusted the team of producers Chuck Roven and Emma Thomas, producer/helmer/co-writer Christopher Nolan and writers Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer to strike the right Batman balance.

So far, the new team has succeeded: reaction was positive to their 2005 reboot, “Batman Begins,” and fans are eager to see their followup, “The Dark Knight.”

The desire to explore Batman’s dark side initially drew Nolan to the property, so the studio and the filmmakers made a conscious decision to take the character back to his roots.

Well, mostly.

“Batman has very violent beginnings,” says Matt McNabb, owner of fan site LegionsofGotham.org. “In his early comicbooks he ran around with a gun shooting criminals. He’s very brooding, he’s very serious, he’s very self-loathing. He has a very complex psyche that’s never explored properly (in the films).”

McNabb thinks the 1990s “Batman: The Animated Series” came closest to nailing the character. And he hails “Batman Begins” for also capturing Batman’s vigilante psychology.

With this second Batman adventure, though, there’s a concern that “The Dark Knight” not go too dark, as Tim Burton’s second Batman film, “Batman Returns” did, or too comic, like Schumacher’s Batman films.

Burton’s 1989 “Batman” struck a popular Gothic note, but Bill Ramey, owner of Batman-on-film.com, complains that “Batman Returns” “was a Tim Burton movie that just happened to have Batman characters in it. It was a really strange movie. It upset a lot of the Batman fans, and it upset a lot of people because it was marketed to kids.”

Some 19 years later, Warner marketers seem cognizant of that risk. Heath Ledger’s Joker has been amply exposed, giving parents a clear idea of just how scary this movie might be. Company also points out that there are two strains of merchandising related to the character: general Batman merchandise, which may be aimed at younger kids; and “The Dark Knight” tie-ins, which skew older.

One element that will help determine just how dark “The Dark Knight” proves to be, though, remains hidden: The half-disfigured Two-Face, the movie’s second major villain, has been kept almost entirely secret.

Roven says Two-Face’s appearance won’t be as gruesome as some of the fan-art imaginings. “We walk that narrow line of making sure we were true to the character, but it’s not so gruesome. It’s not so utterly real that you turn away in disgust. You watch it and it’s one of the things that lets you know the film is not a real thing. We call it hyper-reality.”

That hyper-real quality should also rule out the campy extremes of the 1960s TV series and “Batman & Robin.” Roven recognizes that that the campier films “really alienated the core fans of the property who remembered what the Dark Knight, Batman, was, not only in the beginning but in some of the great, seminal comics like ‘Year One’ and ‘The Long Halloween.’”

The PG-13 “The Dark Knight” maintains the serious tone of “Batman Begins,” says Roven, who cautions that “every parent needs to be their own guide on a PG-13 movie. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to anybody under 10.”

And while “The Dark Knight” ends differently from “Batman Begins,” says Roven, it will be true to what fans want: “It’s still, in a wonderful way, uplifting.”

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