A Cinefessions Series Review is a periodic column that sees one more writers watching and reviewing an entire film series. Cinefessions considers any film franchise that has two or more films a series, and thus available for review in this column. This is an excellent way to get a quick look at an entire collection of films in one column. Today, Ashe visits one of the most talked-about trilogies in recent memory: Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of Batman hitting the scene. Since I’m a huge Batman fan, I’d be remiss not to do something for the anniversary. Rather than do a series review of the Burton/Schumacher films, along with the trilogy of animated films, and then these, we thought it better to do each series separate. I honestly don’t know if I’ll have time to finish off the Burton/Schumacher set as I don’t own the films that were cobbled together after Burton left that series, and I’m going to have to find the animated films on DVD since I used to have them on VHS only. I did have all three of the Nolan films at my house, eager to be thrown upon my big screen in honor of the man the Joker would call ‘Batsy’. These will be a little more in depth as I’m going to throw in some Batman facts and history as well. It might get a little spoilery, so you have been warned. So here it is, my series review of the Nolan trilogy for Batman’s 75th Anniversary. Enjoy.
Batman Begins (2005, dir. Christopher Nolan)
Batman Begins is almost the perfect resurrection of the Batman franchise after the spectacularly bad Batman Forever and Batman & Robin nearly buried it in the ‘90s. A far more serious take on the characters and setting than even Burton’s films, Nolan is definitely borrowing from some of the better graphic novels for this one, but at the same time he’s put a very different spin on it. Specifically here we’re going for Batman: Year One, the Frank Miller graphic novel with a twist on Bruce’s training and by tying it into the League of Shadows and Ra’s Al Ghul, a villain we’d only seen realized outside the comics at this point in the animated series. The Man Who Falls, about Bruce’s early life and training, is used quite a bit here, and there’s a little bit taken from The Long Halloween (but the sequel would borrow from The Long Halloween far more heavily). It’s not the perfect Batman film, but it’s damned close to it. As an origin film and a re-telling to set the stage for the trilogy it works on a lot of levels.
The cast is extremely large for an action film and all of the actors do a fantastic job, save for a few. The only thing that hurts this one is the casting of Rachel, which is ok, but she’s just kind of there. On top of that is the science behind the device used later in the film that doesn’t work simply because of what it does. It looks good on screen and as a plot-moving device for the villain, but overall, it hurts the film as everything up until the revelation of what they’re doing has worked. The rest of the film is spot on, from casting to the acting, and the pacing. Yes, I like this one over Burton’s Batman films mainly because after almost ten years since it first hit the screen, it’s still a much better representation and introduction of the character. It is interesting that Batman Begins has more of the atmosphere of the Burton Batman films, while the other two go far more cold and modern with their look.
The Dark Knight (2008, dir. Christpher Nolan)
So when you’re making a sequel to one of the most successful reboots of a franchise that had been driven into the ground, you go to the material that would make a great follow-up to a Year One storyline, in this case, the graphic novel The Long Halloween. Then you tweak it enough that it works as a cinematic masterpiece. But if you’re going to put the Joker into the film as your lead villain, you go to one of the most twisted Joker stories told in a long time for inspiration: The Killing Joke. Heath Ledger is fantastic as the Joker, and while there are some questionable tech details, they’re far more plausible than in Begins, and it plays into something we’ve seen Batman do in the comics anyway. I would be remiss to mention the other actors in this, but I do have to say, while Ledger is fantastic, this wouldn’t have worked as well as it did if not for Aaron Eckhart in the role of Harvey Dent. There is one major deviation in this film over the other in that this feels very much like a “take down the mob” kind of film, just with a Batman spin. This is Batman versus the mob with a very healthy helping of his arch-nemesis the Joker thrown in.
So while a lot of the mystique is thrown out in favor of providing a tonally different story, Batman is more the detective here, trying to piece together who the Joker is and what his gameplan is. The biggest problem is that he doesn’t have one. On the other hand, he does have some great ploys to get what he wants. The Dark Knight is the second time we’ve gotten the Joker and Two-Face on screen. This is also the second time they’ve gotten the Joker pitch perfect, but only the first for Two-Face. Well, the modern version of Two-Face anyway. This is one of those films that hits the ground running, and keeps things moving at a steady pace while building us up to a final showdown. It plays off the relationship between Batman, Dent and Gordon to deliver a rather epic conclusion. It has some great dialogue, amazingly shot visuals, and a great cast that make The Dark Knight not just a great Batman outing, but a stellar film period.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012, dir. Christopher Nolan)
Where The Dark Knight is based off a story early in the Batman’s career, the end of the trilogy borrows from several years later in his career, including Knightfall, No Man’s Land and one that had Batman coming out of retirement, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. The film puts Bruce in as a recluse, having retired not due to old age, but guilt, and wear and tear, as well as most of the city being cleaned up with all of the bad guys behind bars. While this works for the Nolan films, the only time I’ve ever seen Bruce stop doing what he does is because he can’t anymore. There’s always something going on in Gotham. It’s what drives him. So while this works in the film, it immediately puts me off at the start. It’s kind of a terrible way to begin, to be honest, after the way the second film ended, even with the time jump.
Compared to both other films, The Dark Knight Rises has a fairly slow and meandering start, and despite some rather well done shots, it rarely picks up the pace. Yes, I’m even including the opening plane sequence, which set us up for something amazing, just to hit the brakes for far too long. The tech is a bit more believable, but the twist in it is one that’s not well played. Bane isn’t quite the villain from the comics, mainly because his origin was changed to make him more realistic, but he’s still definitely the brutish-but-brilliant schemer. He’s also a far cry from the abysmal on-screen version of Bane we got in Batman & Robin. I also really liked Catwoman in this, as she’s far closer to the one from the comics, and this shows that it can work. The banter is great between the two.
Dark Knight Rises is a decent enough end to the trilogy, but isn’t a satisfying Batman tale, especially given how amazing No Man’s Land and Knightfall played out in the comics. If they’d not decided to throw in the monkey wrench that was the bits from Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and maybe tied Knightfall in with Cataclysm and No Man’s Land on their own, it would have been a stronger film. I mean the city being leveled by an Earthquake, and the League of Shadows coming in after to clean up the rest would have worked amazingly well. As it is, the film kind of limps along and tries to throw some symmetry at us to cover the big gaping plot hole that is the prison Bane is from. It looks great, but is amazingly out of place with a Gotham cut off from the rest of the world. The biggest reason this one rates as high as it does is because it sat better with me on a second viewing, and is still a really well-executed film, even with some pretty big holes that get glossed over instead of filled.
The CSR Awards
(The Cinefessions’ Series Review Awards)
Best Picture: The Dark Knight
Worst Picture: The Dark Knight Rises
Favorite Scene/Moment in Series: The Post-Joker Interrogation (The Dark Knight)
The Joker is on the floor while Batman and Gordon are off to save people, and the Joker has decided to engage one of the detectives in the room. He’s talking about how you really only know a person when they’re about to die, so he of course knows the detectives friends better than he does. Then he asks if the detective wants to know which of them are cowards.
Best Actor: Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight)
While Nicholson kind of redefined the character for a generation, mixing in the over-the-top of the ‘60s Joker with the insane cruelty and tendencies of the ‘70s and ‘80s Joker in the comics, Ledger made the character a bit more plausible within the limits of the Nolan Batman universe and made us believe that this guy could be out there, and that was even scarier.
Best Actress: Anne Hathaway (The Dark Knight Rises)
I have to admit I crushed on Michelle Pfeiffer hard when Returns came out in 1992, but Anne Hathaway brings something totally different to the character. She fits more of what I think the character would be like from the comics, and has the “take no bullshit” attitude from the start.
The average film rating for the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight series is 3.5 stars.