Brendan Da Costa

Batman Begins (2005)

The Dark Knight (2008)

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Title: Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), The Dark Knight Rises (2012)


Directed by: Christopher Nolan


Written by: David S. Goyer, Christopher Nolan & Jonathan Nolan


Starring: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Marion Cotillard, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Katie Holmes, Heath Ledger, Cillian Murphy, Liam Neeson, Gary Oldman


Produced by: Larry Franco, Christopher Nolan, Lorne Orleans, Charles Roven & Emma Thomas

“… the wages of fear

and

the heroic strength

required

to overcome it.”

Reel Talk - Christopher Nolan's Batman Trilogy

November 28, 2021
by Brendan Da Costa

Batman is one of the lamest superheroes in comic book history. He’s a man in a rubber suit with a fancy fanny pack and, whereas other super-suited men such as Tony Stark/Iron Man can claim to have invented the tools they use with their super-intelligence, Bruce Wayne can’t even claim to have darned his own cape—he has Alfred for that. Maybe he’s the world’s greatest detective but outside of DC Comics, he has to settle for a distant second to the deductive prowess of Sherlock Holmes. Sure, Bruce Wayne is rich, but so is Jeff Bezos and he’s closer to the villainous masterminding of Lex Luthor than he is to heroic antics of Superman—suffice to say that money a hero does not make. And yet, Batman has some of the most iconic comic book stories and greatest films tucked up underneath his utility belt.

“[…] Batman has some of the most iconic comic book stories…”

One of the reasons that Batman, however lame, has made for such great narrative fodder, is that he is the quintessence of a hero. His vulnerability, both physically and psychologically, makes him relatable. For generations, ever since the Caped Crusader first appeared in Detective Comic #27 by Bob Kane and Bill Finger in 1939, children have donned his cape and pointy ears like a second skin.

 

Batman’s villains are the incarnation of true evil and his bravery in facing them is endearing—we fear for our hero as he plods out into battle each time. His dedication to the good within those he tries to save and those he tries to save them from—his incorruptibility—has made us root for him even when we know he’s fated to lose. The indelible battle within the heart of Batman is what has made him endure through the years, from the Golden Age of Comics to the Golden Age of Comic Book Movies.

 

Batman is the epitome of comic book writing and one of the greatest instances of writing across all media. It took Christopher Nolan and his command of and pioneering in the neo-noir film genre to elevate Batman on the screen to the heights to which he was accustomed on the comic strip.

Nolan’s Batman Trilogy, kicking-off with Batman Begins in 2005 and culminating with The Dark Knight Rises in 2012, is an ever-prescient story about the wages of fear. At the time of their respective releases, the fear permeating the cultural zeitgeist would have centred around 9/11 and the ensuing War on Terror and the 2008 financial crisis. In 2020, that same fear has been refocused squarely on the COVID-19 pandemic but the messages contained within the frames of Nolan’s Batman trilogy are nonetheless relevant and remedial.

 

Batman Begins is an origin story for the character that moves well beyond the familiar pulled-from-the-panes pearl snatching scene in which the young Bruce Wayne becomes the billionaire orphan we know.

Christopher Nolan and co-writer, David Goyer, gave us a cerebral and action-packed interpretation of the traditional origin story in which Bruce Wayne’s becoming Batman is the story of confronting and conquering one’s fears. It was in conquering his fears that gave Nolan’s Batman the power, not to kill his enemies, but to save them. This makes him a true hero—a hero of immense profundity that other comic book films have only endeavoured to recreate.

 

By the time we come around to The Dark Knight in 2008, we have a Batman who has overcome fear, so we might ask, “What’s left?” This is where the clear understanding that Nolan and Goyer have for this character and his story meets their talent for great—read: GREAT—writing.

“[…] it’s those practical effects that earn these films their technical merit stripes… they flipped an actual truck. Flipped it.”

What’s a hero who saves himself but loses those he tries to save? Batman may have conquered his fears, but the city he has dedicated himself to saving has not.

 

Where Batman struggles to get Gothamites to overcome their fears, to be their better selves, to end the crime and chaos and hand the care of the city back to its inhabitants, the Joker endeavours to do just the opposite. He doesn’t want a Gotham that has confronted fear and conquered it… he wants a Gotham consumed by it. This Joker is as at least as acquainted with fear as Batman and he uses it just as skillfully, albeit for very different purposes. As he is in the comics, Joker is the perfect antithesis and complement to Batman—his exact opposite and his perfect counterweight.

In a film with a villain as culturally monumental and psychologically deep as Joker—all the more because of Heath Ledger’s performance—and a hero/villain relationship as intricate and perfectly balanced as Batman and Joker, the inclusion of Two-Face might seem like overcrowding on the part of Nolan and Goyer. But then let’s consider the Two-Face they gave us in Aaron Eckhart.

 

If Batman and Joker are perfectly balanced, then Two-Face is the scale. If Batman and Joker are opposites that are identical then they are the opposite and identical sides of Two-Face’s coin. And, just as a tossed coin flips in the air when in free fall, so too does Two-Face in The Dark Knight, showing us the true faces of Batman and Joker as he descends into madness. He is the razor’s edge that separates these two star-crossed enemies.

 

This phenomenally written film ends the only way it could (or should) have ended—in a kind of stalemate between Batman and Joker that leaves the city saved but the symbol destroyed. As Ledger’s Joker said, “I think you and I are destined to do this forever.”

 

The Dark Knight Rises came out four years later to high expectations, both critically and commercially. It would have been understandable if writers Nolan and Goyer had run out of creative space, with Batman and his beloved Gotham City having conquered their fears.

But where, in The Dark Knight and Batman Begins, Nolan and Goyer largely focused inwardly—on personal demons—in The Dark Knight Rises, they focus on external anxieties.

 

As such, the villain Bane was the perfect adversary for Batman. Bane is Batman’s greatest physical nemesis—his greatest test of strength—and Tom Hardy was the perfect actor to cast for the role. Bane, and his plot, represent a very real threat. If Batman and Joker tussled for Gotham’s soul, then Batman and Bane brawled for its very life.

 

Our hero and his supporting cast of side-kicks had to muster every ounce of courage they had accumulated in the previous two films to face down Bane and the villain’s defeat at the end of the film was a perfect full-circle to this trilogy-treatise on fear. To see Bane, the mammoth monster who embodied terror and instilled fear throughout the film reduced to a sad wretched creature, writhing on the ground in pain was Nolan’s and Goyer’s way of demonstrating that fear only ever had the power that we gave it—that it was not a monolith standing in our way, but a weed to be stepped over and trampled on.

“It took Christopher Nolan and his command of and pioneering in the neo-noir film genre to elevate Batman on the screen to the heights to which he was accustomed on the comic strip.”

As films, beyond the commanding writing and direction that span this epic story, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises are all tremendous standalone accomplishments.

 

Christian Bale as Batman set a standard of gravitas for comic book characters on the screen, showing us what comic book characters could be when subjected to the powers of a thespian. Other actors have readily adopted that standard and audiences have come to expect it. Hugh Jackman in Logan and Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man (and the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, really) come to mind. Bale’s mic-drop wasn’t just picked up by the good guys either. In fact, some might argue, with good reason, that the villains have stolen the show.

Liam Neeson’s Ra’s al Ghul is masterful. Tom Hardy’s Bane is formidable—and the actor rose to some heights to overcome the challenges presented by this role. Heath Ledger’s Joker is legendary, permanently etched into our cultural stone tablets as one the greatest instances of screen acting of all time. The amount of life, depth and realism that Ledger brought to the Joker is almost unfathomable. A cursory read of the script will show you how much of the character Ledger created while the cameras were rolling. Even Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow was a joy to have menacing the subplots within Nolan’s and Goyer’s grotty-Gotham. It was experimental performances such as these that cleared the way in the cultural space for villains such as Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker in his own eponymous outing and even Josh Brolin’s Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame.

The action sequences are equally iconic. The Dark Knight has one of the greatest and most memorable opening sequences in film history that serves as a fitting introduction to one of the greatest film villains of all time. Similarly, while bigger on spectacle and slightly slimmer in substance, The Dark Knight Rises’ opening sequence is one instance of the technical wonders that have earned Nolan his place in the annals of great film directors. Indeed, the CGI—which in true-to-Nolan form is only used when necessary and appropriate—still stands up today but it’s those practical effects that earn these films their technical merit stripes… they flipped an actual truck. Flipped it.

 

Hans Zimmer’s and James Newton Howard’s score in the first two films is great but really only steps up to the same level as the other elements in this franchise in the third film when Zimmer goes it alone. Katie Holmes and Maggie Gyllenhaal received moderate-to-less-than-favourable reviews for their turns as Bruce Wayne’s love interest, Rachel Dawes, but they never take away from the viewing experience. If anything, their shrug-inducing performances allow the spotlight to shine brighter in the other areas where the focus should be anyway.

 

All of that is to say that if there are individual elements of these films—a supporting character here or there or an original piece of music that plays underneath a bridging scene—that don’t qualify for a Top 5 Greatest of All-Time list then… so what? They’ll make the Top 50 cut.

“In a film with a villain as culturally monumental and psychologically deep as Joker—all the more because of Heath Ledger’s performance…”

Audiences have largely turned to apocalypse-themed films such as Contagion in these trying times as the world continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic. But the real lessons to be gleaned from the stories that underpin our culture are from less on-the-nose films. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy, for example, is a reminder of the wages of fear and the heroic strength required to overcome it. If you’re feeling in the grips of fear, turn to this trilogy for a little cinema-inspired courage.