The Dark Knight Trilogy: An Appreciation
BEWARE OF BAT-SPOILERS!!!
INTRODUCTION: I grew up on Batman beginning with reading the comics and graphic novels (my favorites of those being The Dark Knight Returns, Son of Demon and The Killing Joke). At a young age I also watched reruns of the 1960s TV series which starred Adam West as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Burt Ward as his faithful ward/sidekick Dick Grayson/Robin. That show was the definition of the word campy and nothing about it was serious. Batman and Robin were really closer to Superman in their personas, as in true blue, All-American boy scouts. Their foes were The Penguin, The Joker, Catwoman and The Riddler all of whom were as over the top and cartoonish as it got. That show was and still is alot of fun to watch for the laughs and colorful zaniness.
In 1989, Director Tim Burton (Beetlejuice) brought Batman to the big screen. His version was based on Frank Miller’s popular Dark Knight Returns graphic novel, a book that I owned and thought was a fantastic new spin on the character. This re-invention gave the story of Batman a darker, more serious tone, focusing on the fact that he really was really a damaged person haunted by his parent’s murder. On one hand, Wayne was a millionaire playboy, on the other a vengeful vigilante looking to protect the innocent from the scum in Gotham City like The Joker and a new wave of punk styled villains that were totally nihilistic. The aesthetic Burton injected was visually extravagant, taking ideas from German expressionism, gothic architecture/paintings/stories and recreating the entire world of Batman into a kind of hellish industrial atmosphere in the tradition of Blade Runner. While Burton, Michael Keaton (who took on the role of Bruce/Batman) as well as Jack Nicholson who played The Joker, did outstanding work, it actually still had a slight hokiness to it. When the movie was released, it was a huge smash and I loved it, but when I watch it today, I honestly don’t think it holds up well. It actually even seems closer to the comical and camp 60s TV show than it seemed back then.
After Burton departed the franchise following the sequel Batman Returns (even more outlandish and comical than the original) Director Joel Schumacher stepped in to do his own flamboyant take on The Caped Crusader. Lets just say that Mr. Schumacher basically turned Batman into a rubbery nippled, neon lit buffoon. The ridiculous sequels Batman Forever and Batman and Robin ultimately destroyed what we had loved about the character in the first place. At that point I had abandoned him, much like I did with Superman after seeing Bryan Singer’s unofficial sequel. That is until Christopher Nolan dug up what remained, dusted it off and ressurected The Dark Knight in the most respectful, intelligent and grandiose way.
BATMAN BEGINS (2005) For Christopher Nolan’s re-interpretation of the Batman story, he of course had to start with a new cast. Christian Bale, a very talented British actor took over the role of Bruce Wayne, heir to the Wayne Enterprises fortune. We are introduced to him as he’s in the middle of a kind of personal journey and learning about the criminal mentality. This all stemmed from his parents death at the hands of a thug which left him an orphan with only his faithful butler/guardian Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) to look after him.
While he is under the guise of being a thief in Asia, Bruce is caught by police and locked up in a very tough Bhutanese prison. Soon after he is visited by Ducard (Liam Neeson) a mysterious man who’s been tracking him and thinks he knows what the young man is really looking for. Ducard tells Bruce that if he truly wants to learn about the underbelly of society he must take a flower from the base of a distant mountain and carry it to a lair at the apex. Only then he will be accepted into a secret society: The League of Shadows headed by the enigmatic Ra’s Al Ghul. Bruce is successful on his goal and is trained by Ducard in the ways of the League, a kind of ninja themed cult. After many months, Bruce becomes an highly skilled expert at close combat but when Ra’s Al Ghul and Ducard then tell him of their plans to destroy Gotham City, Bruce’s home, he refuses to help them. Consequently there is a big battle in which Ra’s is killed and the League’s palace destroyed. Bruce only decides to save Ducard from death in return for his helping him.
When Bruce returns to Gotham he plans on killing the man that murdered his parents years earlier: Joe Chill, who is being put on trial. Bruce also learns that his childhood friend Rachel Daws (Katie Holmes) has become an assistant DA, who he confides in about Chill. Rachel is disgusted by Bruce’s need for vengeance and turns her back on him. In a twist of fate, before Bruce can carry out his own death sentence, Gotham’s main crime boss, Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkerson) has Chill killed so he can’t rat him out.
We learn that as a child, Bruce fell into a cavern near his home and was frightened by the bats who lived there, developing a serious fear of them. Now older, he decides to use that same phobia as a basis for his own alternate persona. The Bat will be a symbol that can strike the same fear in criminals who prey on the weak of Gotham. Bruce thinks that there is one man in Gotham City who he can trust enough in his fight outside the law: Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman) the same officer who had comforted him as a child the night his parents were murdered.
Bruce of course needs to create an arsenal of weapons and gadgetry to assist him with the many dangers and obstacles he will face as a vigilante on the cities’ mean streets, so he goes to Wayne Enterprises’ chief of operations Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) who introduces him to alot of the companies experimental defense technology. He soon comes across some tough body armor which he tells Lucius he’s gonna use for “spelunking” and the “Tumbler” a suped up army tank-like vehicle that has all kinds of great tricks including rocket boost and stealth capability. It’s just what Bruce is looking for as his new “Batmobile”. Along with Alfred and Lucius (who doesn’t yet know his true motivations), Bruce begins to design what will be his alter ego, The Batman, a demon-like protector/detective/enforcer who will spread fear to the criminals but will never kill to keep the citizens safe from harm.
Batman’s first target is Falcone and a successful drug bust finally leads to his arrest. He does still have another unseen enemy (and one who is not your average baddie) a smarmy criminal psychologist Dr Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy). His criminal persona being a macabre creation called The Scarecrow. Crane has been using Falcone’s resources to import a special toxin into the city which can psychologically break any of his victims by using their inner fears against them. A ratty burplap mask he wears helps cause a heightened shock effect when people under the toxin’s effects look at it.
At Bruce’s big birthday bash, he is surprised by none other than Ducard who he soon learns is actually Ra’s Al Ghul himself. Ra’s tells Bruce of his plans to destroy Gotham and proceeds to burn the Wayne mansion down and leaves him for dead as his own revenge. Luckily, Bruce is saved by good ol’ Alfred and learns Ra’s is using The Scarecrow to get the fear toxin (made from the same flowers Bruce had to bring to Ra’s mountain lair) into the cities water system. The city goes into a frenzy as Ra’s, The Scarecrow as well as freed Arkham Asylum inmates and other henchmen begin their grand scheme of destruction and terror leaving only The Batman and Gordon to try to stop it before its too late.
Thankfully, Nolan’s first expedition into Bat territory succeeded wonderfully and thus gave the beloved character a new life on the big screen. The tone he set with his re-invention brought the caped crusader back to being the deadly serious vigilante that was not being played for laughs. Of course there are small moments of humor sprinkled liberally here and there, but nothing like the constant goofing off in the previous incarnations. The main obstacle was the fact he had to break down what had been built before and start from scratch with the origin to re-establish a strong relationship with the fans. Wayne had an equal amount of inner pain, vulnerability and fierce determination and was someone who had to forge his beliefs in the furnace of his soul first before he could unleash The Batman on the world.
THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) – Since his first appearance in Gotham City, The Batman has become so popular with its citizens that he actually has vigilante imitators who are trying to help him do his job Death Wish style, but it’s clear he’s not impressed. There’s surely only one Batman and he swiftly takes the unaffiliated wannabes out along with his old nemesis The Scarecrow during a crime related exchange, like the schlubs they are.
Batman’s newest arch-enemy is a grungy, scarfaced creep called The Joker (Heath Ledger) a guy who might look like a refugee from a Michael Allig rave party, but is, at his core, a psychopath who has no desire to become wealthy and powerful. His sole interest is the total destruction of Gotham and its residents. On that level, Batman really can’t play his game and can’t kill him either since its against his own rules. Therefore with The Joker loose, it all becomes one big circus of mayhem with the Clown Prince of Crime and his gang of schizoids doing whatever they can do to turn the city to ruin.
While Batman works outside the law, District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) is Gotham’s one true savior who wants to keep it from totally sinking into a corrupt haven. Batman sees that Dent can help to get the city back on track and be an ally in his crusades as well. Meanwhile, a new mob boss who took over from Falcone, Sal Maroni (Eric Roberts) along with his partners Gambol and The Chechen are contacted by Lau, their Chinese accountant. He lets them know he has hidden their money and decided to leave for Hong Kong because of Batman and Dent’s ongoing pressure to bring them all to justice. As stated by The Joker to Maroni’s gang, Batman has no jurisdiction, so he takes it upon himself to travel to China and kidnap Lau (in an adrenaline charged action sequence) bringing him back to Gotham to testify against Maroni and the mob. Meanwhile, The Joker sees his chance to get in on the action and offers to kill Batman in exchange for half the mob’s money. Maroni and his crew flatly refuse and put a contract out on Joker, but since he can’t be bargained with, he takes over part of the underworld crime operation after killing Gambol.
Bruce is unaware that his longtime love Rachel Daws (Maggie Gyllenhall) has fallen in love with Harvey Dent. When The Joker learns of this he targets them both and uses it to tear the plans of Gotham’s bright future apart like a rabid dog. Dent and Rachel are both placed in separate warehouses filled with explosives and Batman is given two different locations by The Joker. He must choose who to save, since he can only get to one himself. Tragically, Rachel is killed, but Dent survives, only to have half his face burnt off giving him a hideous, gory Two-Faced appearance.
Things take another unexpected twist when an accountant at Wayne Enterprises shocks Lucius by claiming he thinks that Bruce is really Batman and then tries to blackmail him. After hearing this news, The Joker puts a bounty on the accountant’s life to keep Batman in business, then gets rid of Lau and The Chechen and plans another terrorist attack on a hospital, not before paying a visit to Harvey Dent, who he discusses his theories about chaos with. This has to be one of the greatest parts of the film, two of Batman’s classic foes having a strange meeting of the minds. The hospital is swiftly blown up but Dent survives and proceeds to randomly kill those who considers responsible for Rachel’s death, whether they’re good or bad. It all depends n the flip of his coin. Heads or Tails spells their fate.
The Joker isn’t satisfied with his exploits yet and plans a new attack, another twist on his earlier one with Dent and Rachel. He plants explosives on two city ferries, one holding Arkham inmates, the other regular passengers and gives each of them the chance to blow the other one up, if neither do, they’ll both be detonated by him. Using a tracking device that can see every cellphone signal in the city, Batman puts Lucius in charge of helping him. Lucius is disgusted and sees this as the ultimate invasion of privacy, but agrees to help after which he’ll resign. Batman finally finds The Joker and arrests him, thus saving both ferries from being destroyed. Even though The Joker’s final terrorist plan is stopped, Batman, Gordon and Dent ultimately lose their battle because of Dent’s own psychosis. Now the only thing that can bring the city back from the brink is if Dent is portrayed as a hero and The Dark Knight himself becomes the villain…
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012) Eight years after The Dark Knight dissapeared due to the death of Harvey Dent (who was thought to be murdered by him), Commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman) has kept the public in the dark over the true events of that night for good reason: The Dent Act. This was a law passed in tribute to the late Harvey Dent which put all of the cities known criminals away and basically wiped out organized crime completely. During this time, Bruce became a recluse in classic Howard Hughes fashion, turning into a kind of myth to the people of the city. We are reintroduced to him not with a grand entrance but a subtle one when a woman masquerading as a house servant at a Wayne function, Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) steals his mothers precious pearl necklace from a safe. Meanwhile, a new threat is rising in the form of a terrorist named Bane (Tom Hardy), a baldheaded brute who wears a customized mask which is a really a pain reducing respirator that keeps him alive. It also gives him the appearance of some kind of ferocious creature. Tom Hardy’s portrayal of Bane is surely one of the film’s highlights. Since his face was almost completely covered, he had to use physicality, his eyes and a strange sounding voice to convey the performance. He did a tremendous job and makes Bane one of the most memorable of characters in the series.
Gordon and his officers find out that the Bane is actually operating out of the city’s sewers (not very secretive) and he leads a bust but is caught in the process. Before Bane’s men can kill him, Gordon jumps into the drainage line and escapes. A patrol officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) rescues him and takes him to the hospital. Blake is then given special duty status and reports directly to Gordon from then on. We soon find out Bruce Wayne has been so out of touch with his business dealings that they are now damaged. This is mainly due to a large investment in a clean energy project with entrepreneur Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) that was unsuccessful. The core of the special reactor for the project could also be used as a nuclear weapon and if it fell in the wrong hands would be catastrophic.
Bane’s next target is the city stock exchange where he kidnaps several workers and uses Bruce’s stolen fingerprints to completely bankrupt him turning his life to shambles. Batman then makes his first appearance after years of exile as the police pursue Bane and his men. Deputy Commissioner Peter Foley (Matthew Modine) and Officer Blake see Batman and turn the entire Gotham Police Force loose on him as payback for Harvey Dent’s murder. Their plan is wrecked when Batman dissapears down a dark alley on his Batpod then emerges in a new aircraft (dubbed “The Bat” by Lucius Fox). When Bruce gets home he makes it known to Alfred that he plans to restart his work as The Batman. Alfred tries to convince him to give it up and uses the fact that Rachel really wanted to be with Harvey Dent not him in an attempt to keep Bruce from returning to his vigilante life. Alfred then resigns as butler when Bruce doesn’t relent on his mission. This actually seemed rather odd seeing that Alfred dedicated himself to taking care of Bruce, but like all big stories, there has to be changes to forge a new path. Due to Bruce’s unsteady condition, he appoints the shrewd, beautiful Miranda Tate CEO of Wayne Enterprises and the core reactor is entrusted to her with Lucius as her aid in hopes to get the corporation back on track. They also have a fling outside the business featuring one of the film’s more tender moments.
Batman knows he needs to confront Bane and goes to Catwoman to help him find his location, which leads to a truly thrilling face off between the two in Gotham’s underground sewer. It is here, in the cave-like atmosphere which both characters were born from that Bane reveals he is an ex-League of Shadows member like Batman and also knows his true identity. In this electrifying battle, Bane brings a world of hurt with his powerful fighting style concluding with breaking Batman’s back and leaving him to watch Gotham’s downfall from the same underground prison he lived in years before. While in captivity, Bruce slowly recuperates from his injury and tries several times to escape by climbing out of the prison’s treacherous wall and fails. After making one last adjustment to his methodology, the prisoners chant in unison and Bruce finally succeeds to climb to freedom and sets the other men free.
Back in Gotham, Bane ambushes a Gotham Rogues football game in midplay and creates a massive spectacle in front of the citizens in the process, killing the reactor’s creator Dr. Pavel, (the only one who could stop it from exploding). Bane also clues the people in that one of them holds a hidden trigger, that, if moved past a certain point should they try to leave the city, will detonate the bomb. What he doesn’t tell them is that it will go off regardless after 5 months. To make matters even worse, Bane reads a statement by Commissioner Gordon professing the lie about Dent’s death at Batman’s hand to the people, after which he turns the Blackgate prisoners loose and sets off bombs all over the city including the bridges so people can’t leave. Bane also begins his own mock trials on the members of the upper class, with the sole judge being none other than Dr. Jonathan Crane (aka The Scarecrow) (Cillian Murphy). They are given two choices when convicted: death or exile. If they choose exile they must make it to land by walking across the city’s thin ice covered harbor to the mainland. Needless to say, most of them don’t survive.
With Bruce not around, Gordon, Blake, Selina Kyle, Lucius and others band together to try to face Bane and his army of prison escapees who have taken control of the city. After his prison escape Bruce returns to Gotham and uses The Bat to help the others stop Bane’s plan of detonating the bomb and has a climactic face off with Bane, this time he succeeds in taking him down after breaking his special anti-pain gas mask. This triumph is suddenly thwarted by Miranda Tate who reveals herself to actually be Talia Al Ghul (the biggest shock of the film and one fans were hoping to be true from the beginning!). Talia is Ra’s’ estranged daughter who used Bane, her protector since childhood, as a decoy while she disguised herself to slowly get back at Bruce for killing her father years earlier. Talia immediately proceeds to flood the underground stabilizing structure where Lucius is waiting for the core reactor to be placed, then decides to take over driving it away herself while Gordon tries to get inside the truck carrying it. In the nick of time, Batman is saved by Selina Kyle from being killed at the hands of the newly recovered Bane after she shoots him. I have to say, Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle or Catwoman (she’s actually never called that in the movie) was very intriguing because she never made the character completely evil or too emotional. She played her as someone who was all business but who, like Bruce, had yearnings to become a normal person again which I really liked.
A FINAL FAREWELL?
In The Dark Knight Rises, it’s clear to us that Bruce has changed during the period he was absent from fighting crime. He’s been out of action of course but he seems mellowed and almost like he’s happier or at least a more content human being in his skin. Only when he is faced with deadly opposition like Bane does his other angry, animalistic side reappear. Even The Batman has finally become less fierce and more forgiving in many ways. It shows in his belief that the manipulative Selina Kyle, the master burglar, wants to start her life over (maybe like him). It’s even in his new flying Bat aircraft that morphs from the likeness of a macabre creature into a beacon of hope that is used to free the city of impending doom. This was a unique departure from the previous films, it felt different due to Christian Bale’s performance which for me was the most sincere and heartfelt. I guess it was because he knew he would be saying goodbye to Batman as well all along and it really showed through.
The scope of this finale is the greatest of the three movies, I didn’t see it in IMAX so I can’t speak on how thrilling it must be in that format. Still, even in 35mm the atmosphere and story is just a magnificent work of old school pure cinema. There is no massive CGI sequences like in The Avengers, since this tale is rooted in reality not the supernatural. Nolan goes beyond SFX and is always able to keep the viewer on a continuous rollercoaster ride of emotions moving from melancholy to heartbreak to thrills to utter anguish and despair to elation to humor and he does it with his usual cinematic elegance. It’s safe to say I really will have to see this film a few more times to get the full impact, once just isn’t enough.
Running at nearly three hours, Director Christopher Nolan surprises us with shocking revelation after revelation that will have longtime Bat fans gasping and cheering in exuberance and disbelief. This is a truly epic finale to the legend of The Caped Crusader that is as emotionally resonant as it could ever get. Bravo!