When Christopher Nolan rebooted the then-inert Batman franchise in 2005, his task was herculean, but his goal was simple: make a Batman movie that's actually informed by the Batman comics that fans love. Previous Batman movies were handled by people who didn't have much affection towards Batman comics, let alone respect (Tim Burton infamously said you'd never catch him reading a comic book, while Joel Schumacher's familiarity seemed to be limited to the Adam West TV show).
Whether or not Nolan was a big Batman reader before he took over the series is hard to say, but it's pretty clear from the movies that he did some meticulous researching. It helped that in plotting the movies, he enlisted the aid of screenwriter David S. Goyer, a comic book geek who has written a few comics for DC himself. The two of them looked at a bundle of Batman comics to inform their take, some heavily and some peripherally. Here are twenty that we think are the most pertinent when it comes to Nolan's end result.
CAUTION: Major spoilers for all three movies and some minor spoilers for the comics ahead. This is your one and only warning!
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The Man Who Falls (1989)
This short story is only 16 pages long and is not as well remembered (it was originally conceived as a bonus supplement, the only original story in the Secret Origins of the World’s Greatest Superheroes collection), yet it becomes the most important reference point for the first movie of Nolan's trilogy anyway. The non-linear structure of Batman Begins borrows heavily from Dennis O’Neill’s writing, which has a Batman readying himself before jumping into action, remembering all the paths he took that led him there, including all the years he spent overseas training to become who he is, as well as his childhood.
A number of imageries in Batman Begins are taken directly from this story, such as Bruce Wayne living like a derelict in foreign countries and being locked up in a rural prison. The main takeaway flashback, though, is one of young Bruce crashing through wooden planks into an old well and being frightened by the bats inside, until he’s rescued by his father. Batman Begins copied this scene nearly verbatim.
Blind Justice (1989)
The Henri Ducard character played by Liam Neeson in Batman Begins was introduced in Detective Comics #598, in a storyline that ended in #600. The three-issue story is notable for being a bit of a stunt to mark the landmark numbering of the conclusion. It was advertised as being written by screenwriter Sam Hamm, known at the time as the writer of the Tim Burton Batman movie. It’s a weird and ridiculous comic, involving an awful new villain Hamm created called Bonecrusher, but its treatment of Bruce's relationship with Ducard is what people remember most. In the story, Ducard is an old mentor Bruce trained with and then abandoned for wanting to involve him in the murder of criminals, who is then put at odds with Bruce when he shows up in Gotham years later, correctly deducing that Bruce is Batman. The relationship is pretty much the same in Batman Begins, but with the added twist that Ducard is actually Ra’s Al Ghul (in the comics, Ra's and Bruce only met years after Bruce has already established himself as Batman—more on that later).
Year One (1987)
Even if there isn’t anything in the Nolan movies that are directly lifted from Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s seminal retelling of the Batman origin story, it’s understood that any attempt to tell the modern Batman story owes a lot to Year One. While Gotham had always been portrayed as a city with a high crime rate (hence the need for a Batman), Miller portrays Bruce Wayne coming back to a city that is deeply corrupt, from the Mayor down to the Commissioner and all the beat cops. The Gotham of Batman Begins isn’t quite so dysfunctional, but it’s close enough.
One of the most glaring differences between the comics and the films is Commissioner Loeb, the man Gordon replaced. In Year One, Loeb is introduced as a slimy and corrupt guy who's in the mob’s pockets, whereas in the movies, he seems to be temperamental, but otherwise honest. Similarly, Nolan’s Detective Flass is an unpleasant cop paid to look away from the mob’s drug deals, but he doesn’t seem to be as amoral as Flass in the comics, a former Green Beret who would beat up children for kicks and even other cops if they don’t get in line and accept hush money.
Year One is also famous for being one of the most realistic Batman comics around. No James Bond gadgets, no Batmobile, no colorful villains. Just a guy with martial arts training going against common criminals and bent cops. Nolan’s Batman movies are praised for their attempts at realism, but they don’t have anything on Year One. The only thing remotely sci-fi in the book is Batman's use of a sonic device that summons bats, which is also used in Batman Begins.
The ending of Batman Begins, with Gordon on a rooftop telling Batman of the coming of the Joker, is ripped from Year One’s final panels.
Its influence is still present in The Dark Knight. The film’s final scene, with Gordon’s young son being kidnapped and Batman rescuing him from a fall, is taken directly from Year One’s climax, down to Gordon telling him to run as the cops come.
Year Two (1987)
This mostly panned story is the reintroduction of Joe Chill in the modern age as the crook who murdered Bruce Wayne’s parents, and his fate in the comic is similar to the one in Batman Begins, with Bruce about to shoot Chill with a gun, but someone else beats him to it on the spot. The movie version is superior, however, for placing the event during young Bruce’s teenage years, before he embarked on a journey to become Batman. That saves us from Year Two’s awful and ridiculous premise of Batman and Joe Chill working together and Batman walking around carrying a handgun. Not just any gun, but the actual gun that murdered his parents, which apparently at some point he stole from police evidence and kept in a drawer in his living room. I mentioned already how terrible this comic is, right?
The best thing one can say about Year Two is that it became the primary inspiration for the excellent Mask of the Phantasm animated movie, though a lot of the details were changed for the better. Year Two was so intensely hated by fans that DC made use of the Zero Hour event to wipe the story out of canon only a few years later. Nevertheless, its existence is acknowledged in Batman Begins through the character Rachel Dawes, who seems to be partially inspired by the Rachel Caspian character from Year Two. In the story, Bruce falls in love and decides to settle down with Rachel, only for her to dump him at the end to become a nun.
Collected with two other one-shot stories by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale in a book called Haunted Knight, this Halloween special featuring the Scarecrow contains several moments that ended up in Batman Begins. The upside-down interrogation in the rain is one. Alfred rescuing an unconscious Batman who’s been hit by Scarecrow’s fear gas and hallucinating his parent’s deaths is another.
One of Scarecrow’s lines even made it into the movie. David Goyer, who broke the stories for all three movies with Nolan but only co-wrote the screenplay for the first one, admitted that for his draft, he cut and pasted a lot of dialogue from his favorite Batman comics into the script. While many of them were rewritten by Nolan, this one remained intact.
Dreams in Darkness (1992)
Scarecrow’s plan in Batman Begins, however, didn't come from a comic at all. The idea of Scarecrow pumping his fear toxin into Gotham’s water supply is from a particularly chilling episode of Batman: The Animated Series, where Scarecrow does precisely that. The movie even took the concept of him doing it from Arkham Asylum's basement.
"An entire city... Screaming in fear. I wonder if I'll be able to hear it."
Into the Den of the Death-Dealers! (1971)
The idea of doing the Ducard/Ra’s Al Ghul switcheroo actually comes from the comics, in Ra’s Al Ghul’s first appearance, though the twist came in a different form. An early version of the League of Assassins (renamed the League of Shadows in the Nolan movies) was originally created by Neal Adams as the people responsible for the superhero Deadman’s origin. Their leader was a Chinese kung fu master named The Sensei (yes, a Japanese moniker, but let’s just move past that, shall we?), whose appearance resembles Ken Watanabe’s portrayal of Ra’s.
For a couple of years, the League made a few appearances in Batman comics, but it’s not until this story printed in Detective Comics #411 that writer Dennis O’Neill began to build the Ra’s Al Ghul version of the League as terrorists and manipulators. Following O’Neill’s tendency to comment on real-world issues in his comics, Batman learns here that the League were responsible for fanning the flames of the Colombian Civil War in the 1960s. This is, of course, the type of society-sacking plot that the League tried to enact in Batman Begins, when Ra’s tells Bruce that they engineered Gotham’s economic recession.
Ra’s does not appear in this story, but his daughter Talia does and tells Batman about him. Batman rescues Talia from League of Assassins members led by a man named Dr. Darrk. Since this is before Ra’s introduction, Dr. Darrk is hinted to be the head of the organization, with the reveal of Ra’s true power over the League in the following month’s issue of Batman being a bit of a twist (more on that later). Though the circumstances are vastly different, Batman Begins does honor O’Neill’s storytelling flow with the reveal of Liam Neeson being Ra’s, which doubly serves as a more realistic explanation of the comic book counterpart’s immortality.