Batman Begins Broke a Batman Movie Villain Rule
Ahead of Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan and Cillian Murphy get nostalgic about that time Murphy became Scarecrow in Batman Begins.
There once was a moment when playing the villain in a Batman movie was a status symbol in Hollywood. Jack Nicholson famously was paid in the ballpark of $80 to $90 million after his back-end deal to do the original Batman movie of 1989; Jim Carrey was officially marked as an A-lister when he got cast as the Riddler opposite Tommy Lee Jones, who was fresh off his Oscar win for The Fugitive (1993), in Batman Forever (1995); and Pulp Fiction’s Uma Thurman beat out Julia Roberts at the peak of her America’s Sweetheart superstardom to be Poison Ivy to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze in Batman & Robin (1997).
That kind of glitzy—and what some might call stunt—casting came to an end with Batman Begins (2005). As the first hard reset of a popular movie franchise in the 21st century, this is the film that put “reboot” in the lexicon with Christian Bale assuming a brooding, melancholy Batman mantle eight years after George Clooney donned it with a smirk. It was a sharp reimagining that threw out the rules of what audiences thought they knew about Batman movies… and their villains.
The film would also mark the beginning of a fruitful collaboration between Christopher Nolan and actor Cillian Murphy, the Irish actor who has appeared in six Nolan films since ’05, including this summer’s eagerly anticipated Oppenheimer. That film will tell the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the nuclear bomb. His creation ended World War II and ushered in a frightening new era in geopolitics. The film is also the first time Murphy has taken the leading role of a Nolan picture. Yet while promoting the film together in a chat with Entertainment Weekly, the two recently reflected on how Murphy auditioned for the title role in Batman Begins… and why that allowed Nolan to break an unspoken Warner Bros. rule about Batman villains.
“I remember I was up in San Francisco writing Batman Begins and there was something in the San Francisco Chronicle about 28 Days Later,” Nolan told Murphy and the magazine. “I saw a picture of you with your head shaved and your crazy eyes—no offense. I remember being struck by your presence, literally from that one photograph, and then started to look into who you were and what you’d done, and got very excited about the idea of meeting you and having you screen test for Batman.”
Those screen tests, which also famously included Eion Bailey and of course Christian Bale, were done with full-on sets and lighting before 35mm cameras, with each actor wearing Val Kilmer’s suit from Batman Forever. Amy Adams (before her breakout roles in June Bug and Enchanted) even read lines as Rachel Dawes opposite the potential Bruce Waynes. Looking back at it now, Murphy told EW that he always knew he was the wrong choice for Batman but went ahead and did the audition anyway. Nolan agreed Bale had a certain quality in the Batsuit. However, Murphy’s showcase of undeniable talent was useful in other ways.
“When we had our first conversation, I think both of us knew that you weren’t going to wind up playing Batman,” Nolan said, “but I really wanted to get on set with you. I wanted to get you on film… and I made sure that executives came down and watched what you were doing on set. Everybody was so excited watching you perform that when I said to them, ‘Okay, Christian Bale is Batman, but what about Cillian to play Scarecrow?’ there was no dissent.”
This was a bigger risk than might be obvious. While Nolan took a page from Richard Donner by casting his Batman origin story with a lot of prestigious talent like Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Ken Watanabe, and Liam Neeson, viewers would not know ahead of time that Neeson’s familiar mentor persona would actually turn out to be the surprise main villain of the film. In other words, the trailers and marketing would be selling Cillian Murphy, a relative unknown actor, as the main antagonist. This is a major departure from how only a year earlier, Michelle Pfeiffer and Jones were playing these roles at the peak of their popularity.
“All the previous Batman villains had been played by huge movie stars,” Nolan pointed out. “Jack Nicholson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Carrey, that kind of thing. That was a big leap for them and it really was purely on the basis of that test. So that’s how you got to play Scarecrow.”
Ironically, it led to Murphy becoming the only Bat-villain to also appear across all three of Nolan’s Dark Knight films. While the subsequent The Dark Knight certainly got an A-lister in Heath Ledger to play the Joker, that role was pretty contentious too, and Nolan was soon back to getting relative unknowns, like Tom Hardy as Bane, and turning them into superstars.
When asked which appearance of Murphy’s Scarecrow is their favorite, both told EW it was when he popped up as the judge of a kangaroo court in The Dark Knight Rises (2012).
“I just think, in a world of anarchy, the last judge you’d want to come in front of would be Jonathan Crane,” said Nolan.
Oppenheimer opens July 21.