To be the best ever, there are often many qualifications before such an honor is bestowed. For the medium of film, it is no different. Sure, awards are great, and often help the cause. Most importantly though, I believe, is the test of time. There are so many films of yesteryear that have either been nominated for or won awards, yet aren’t ingrained in those today. Even more so, there are plenty of films that never had award recognition, but are classics nonetheless. So when it comes to withstanding time, these questions must be asked: Will this movie or series be remembered by its audience years down the road? Will the next generation, those who aren’t even born yet, hark back, and enjoy it as those in the past did? Simply put, will what is on screen still resonate and remain relevant? When it comes down to Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy, I believe the answer is yes to all those questions. It is my opinion that this series will surely go down as the best comic adaptation ever, and one of the best series of its time or next. Keep reading to see why.
The Nolan factor: Writing and Directing
As a child in the 90’s, I was never an avid comic reader. I enjoyed some respective cartoons/games that characters had, and owned many of the action figures. 1989’s “Batman” by Tim Burton was a childhood favorite of mine, due to Jack Nicholson’s Joker. But that was as far as my comic familiarity went. When the millennia had approached, Warner Bros. was still searching for a way to bring Batman back to relevance after 1995’s lackluster “Batman Forever,” and the catastrophic “Batman and Robin” in 1997. Countless sequel/reboot efforts had failed to come to fruition, with writers and directors acting as revolving doors in the process. Then, along came this guy named Christopher Nolan. A UK native, he had 3 films under his belt: His self funded debut “The Following” in 1998, the indie classic “Memento” in 2000, and “Insomnia” in 2002.
He approached Warner with a new take on the Batman character; stressing a more realistic, gritty feel. Dark is the popular phrase now attributed. Warner bought into it, and Nolan was off. With a script written by himself and David S. Goyer, the result of “Batman Begins” was better than expected. It became a critical and commercial success, taking in a healthy box office. It was in large part due to the strength of Nolan’s script and direction. He took a character that in actuality, dresses up as a bat and fights bad guys at night, and made him a tortured man. Bruce Wayne was a lost soul; a man dealing with anger, hurt, and fear. These are some of life’s most powerful and wrecking emotions. Nolan brought to life a man on screen who everyone could relate to; someone searching for a purpose, for meaning in life. Batman was human. The following clip is of Bruce’s training, a wonderful scene filled with life sentiments and demonstrating all I just discussed.
By the time Wayne uses his massive wealth to don the Bat suit and gadgets; there are no smiles and laughs at silliness. There is only a man devoting himself to an ideal, a greater cause. And for this, we watch in awe as he returns from the unknown. As the ultimate threat approaches, our character is then faced with confronting those who saved him. His trainers arrive in Gotham, planning destruction based off nihilistic thinking and terrorist like action. But Wayne, in his new-found skin, fights for what he believes. It is inspiring. To give a guy who dresses up at night emotional depth and complexity, and memorable dialogue is no easy task. It isn’t about the costume and the crazy resources. It is about the man underneath and what he represents.
Nolan followed up this movie with “The Dark Knight.” It was a massive success, shattering box office records at the time and reaping universal critical acclaim, even garnering recognition from the Academy. It is widely assumed that this film is the reason the Academy expanded its best picture field from five to ten films in 2010, after having snubbed Nolan and co of a nomination the previous year. “The Dark Knight” again was brilliantly penned, this time with Nolan’s brother Jonathan chipping in. It was the story of a man torn between identities and his own code, being pushed to question and perhaps break everything he was and stood for. In the end, our hero makes a life altering choice rooted in ethical dilemmas and philosophies; revolving around the meanings of truth, justice, and virtues.
Nola then completed the trilogy with “The Dark Knight Rises” last summer. Though not as highly praised as its predecessor, it still received acclaim and made huge money. (Both it and “Dark Knight” grossed over 1 billion dollars worldwide) It was an effective culmination of a journey; a man rising from the ashes to make one final stand before riding off into the night. Though some criticized it for length and plot holes, and too open of an ending, that misses the heart of this film and series. “Rises” gave us closure, whatever your interpretation of the ending is. Plus, the two previous entries had become so adored, it all but spelled impossible for a loved third entry, as is usually the case with trilogies. But we don’t go to the movies to nitpick. We go to the movies to get away, to escape. We go to watch other people’s conflicts and lives. And on top of that, we go to be entertained. These movies all do just that.
Nolan successfully combined the blockbuster movie with the soul of an indie film; something some thought could never be done. His spectacular direction is entertaining if you think nothing else, and this series has made him the future of Hollywood. It established him as a top flight writer and director. For my money, he is the best director Hollywood now has to offer. Only in his early 40’s, with an astounding resume and track record to his credit, there’s no reason to believe otherwise. The guy can do whatever he wants, on any stage, on any budget. Thankfully, he’ll be around for a long time coming.
Casting Christian Bale as the Caped Crusader in the early 2000’s was a gamble. He had a long career going since the 80’s, but by no means was he a star. He was the headliner in several low key, unconventional films. Most notably, he was the lead in the 2001 cult classic “American Psycho,” a film that showed just how talented this guy was. He was also in “The Machinist,” a film that showed how dedicated he was to his craft, as he lost significant weight to play the suffered character. But Bale more than lived up to the part. He put on all the muscle he needed, and effectively brought Nolan’s pages to life. As great as the writing is, it is up to the actor to find all the subtext and what lays beneath those words, and to then transfer that to the screen. Bale’s Bruce Wayne is definitely the best portrayal so far, and may never be topped by any future Batman. The character’s journey over the three films could not have been captured and showcased any better. Let’s not forget legend Michael Caine’s masterful Alfred, and Morgan Freeman’s enjoyable Lucius Fox. The two of them meshed so well with Bale, and the relationships displayed were all so genuine.
When it comes to the villains, this is where the real juice is. Usually, comic villains are often cheesy, stereotypical “I want to rule the world,” types once on screen. But Nolan’s world had men that were much deeper. These are men that all truly believed in what they were fighting for. These are all men that had a set of beliefs and did whatever necessary to see them through. Liam Neeson as Ra’s Al Ghul in the first film was fresh for the genre. It was a man who led a group of individuals fighting against what they believed was injustice, decadence, and evil. Neeson portrays a man who doesn’t see his methods as extreme at all, but simply as what must be done to combat what he believes is the enemy. As Bruce Wayne’s trainer, he comes off as an inspiring, wise figure. (As shown in the clip earlier) Some of the words he speaks actually make sense, even though his eventual methods of execution do not. I’d argue this was the quiet beginning for Neeson and his bad-ass action phase that exploded with 2008’s “Taken.”
Then, of course, was Heath Ledger’s superior Joker in “The Dark Knight.” His tragic death in January 2008 left everyone in heavy anticipation to see his final work. It did not disappoint. He far exceeded expectations, even posthumously winning the Oscar for best supporting actor. (Unheard of for a comic book role to garner) Some think it was only awarded to him because of his death. Had he lived, he still should have received the award. He was the face of the next generation of actors. His Joker was absolutely mesmerizing, and still is five years later. Ledger created a twisted, psychotic counter to Bale’s stern, righteous Batman. It was a character who strictly wanted to push Wayne to his limits, by showing him that they might have been more similar than he would have liked. The Joker tested Wayne throughout the film with his madness and chaos. And all throughout, you could never take your eyes off the scene stealing Ledger; or wait until he popped back up in the next scene. A quick reminder of the best villain brought to life since Anthony Hopkins’ turn as Hannibal Lecter in “Silence of the Lambs.” This scene ends up being an accurate foreshadowing of our hero’s future, as Batman ultimately is outcasted, a testament to both the writing and performance.
In “Rises,” we are introduced to the imposing Bane, played by Tom Hardy. Hardy emanated exactly what Bane is supposed to be: a brilliant militant strategist, and physically dominating force to Batman. The fight scenes between him and Batman are choreographed and executed very skillfully. I think his performance was actually underappreciated. One, he had to follow the hypnotic performance of Ledger, which was still looming. Two, he had a mask covering his face all movie. An actor’s tools are his body and voice. Those critical tools were handicapped for Hardy, as his voice was muffled, and only his eyes visible. But he commanded the screen with his piercing eyes, and still held his own with demanding speech. His body language and movement all brought the character to life. One of the coolest, underlying themes is that Bane is pretty much Bruce Wayne had he bought into the League of Shadows. They were both trained in the same fighting styles, and same ethical beliefs. But Wayne’s morals drove him down the morally correct, non-violent path. Bane is the evil Bruce Wayne. In this clip, Hardy’s very effective, intense performance is center stage. He seizes Gotham preaching to the people to take back the city from their corrupt system. The conviction in his voice and eyes are in full effect.
Hans Zimmer has long been a master at his job of scoring music for films. His work can be heard in all genres, going back years. Music is often one of the more overlooked features of a film. But it is so important in setting themes, moods, and story. Zimmer’s score for this trilogy is nothing short of awesome. Whether it is an intense sound as Bruce Wayne trains; a chilling, eerie sound as the Joker looms; or a driven, motivating score in a harrowing setting like the pit our hero climbs out of in “Rises,” Zimmer’s stamp is all over this trilogy. And who can forget, the Crusader’s theme itself.
Not for nothing, but even the menu music is riveting. Yes, the home media menu. When ever has a disc menu got you going for what lies ahead? Thank Hans Zimmer for that.
Summing up, this is why I believe this series is one of the best ever, and will remain so. Whether it is the genius writing or direction of Christopher Nolan, the impactful performances of the cast, the engrossing score of Hans Zimmer; there are many reasons why my claims can be validated, or at least argued. The themes of this series will always remain relevant. Bruce Wayne’s journey to self discovery and actualization is our own. Society will always be split and troubled. And all the barriers around, the obstacles, the battles; those will always present themselves. If nothing else, just look at the gross of all these films, and the critical ratings across the board. You’ll find above average grades for each entry, and that is no small feature. The impact on Hollywood itself is evident. The “Nolan approach” is now seemingly the basis for a comic movie. Marvel has tried to take more serious approaches with its entries, especially the Spiderman reboots. And Nolan oversaw the new “Man of Steel,” which also had a darker, more emotional take on Superman. “The Dark Knight” trilogy has become the standard by which to follow in the superhero genre. No matter who takes up the cape and mantle next, it is safe to say Nolan’s series will be the final test of comparison. Any superhero movie will be held up to it. And I simply believe none will ever match this set of films.