With The Dark Knight Rises concluding Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, I thought I’d go back and revisit the two films that preceded it, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.
Warning: contains spoilers for the four people who haven’t seen either of these yet.
Before Batman begins, Batman’s origin story hadn’t really been explored to great extent and the franchise in general was in dire need of an overhaul. As such, Batman Begins was the perfect Batman film for its generation. Taking a much darker and more realistic tone than previous films, it brought Bruce Wayne and Batman into our world rather than, as in the past, taking us into his.
There’s something special about an origin story. Maybe it’s because we get to see the normal person (us) transformed into something greater (what we aspire to be), but whatever it is, Batman Begins is the perfect example of how to go back to a story’s roots. Pretty much everything important gets covered; we see where Bruce’s fear of bats comes from, we see the death of his parents, and then his transformation into Batman. However, it’s this final point that is the film’s most intriguing storyline.
Bruce goes off around the world in hope of learning the skills to bring justice to Gotham and is taught a variety of martial arts and ninja skills by Ducard (who later turns out to be the mysterious and supposedly immortal Ra’s Al Ghul), a member of the League of Shadows. This is where it gets really interesting as we actually see Batman learning his skills. Before we have just had a Batman who is resilient, skilled in hand-to-hand combat and can seemingly disappear at will. Now we see how he apparently learnt all of that badassery.
Origin stories can be tricky to do in that the filmmaker needs to include how the superhero came to be but also a further storyline involving an antagonist (or in this case two). This can lead the film to be a little on the long side (looking at you The Amazing Spider-Man), but Batman Begins manages to balance the two distinct parts of the story perfectly without stringing things out unnecessarily.
The villains chosen for Batman Begins are also excellent picks. Batman has a substantial rogues gallery and the duo of Ra’s Al Ghul and Jonathan ‘Scarecrow’ Crane work superbly together; Ra’s symbolises the father that Bruce lost as a child whilst Scarecrow represents the theme of fear that runs throughout the film. Both villains are suitably different enough to provide variety in their characters and both Liam Neeson and Cillian Murphy play their respective roles very well indeed.
And then at the end of the film we get the tease of a certain someone’s calling card that, along with the anarchy ensuing throughout Gotham, sets up the following film perfectly.
The Dark Knight
The first Batman film to actually drop the ‘Batman’ from its title, The Dark Knight always promised to be something a little different. We knew from the end of Batman Begins that The Joker was going to be Batman’s key adversary but no-one really envisaged just how much of an effect the character would have on the film and the entire Batman franchise as a result.
Heath Ledger had been a controversial choice to play the Joker with many unable to see him in the role of Batman’s oldest and most famous enemy. However, Christopher Nolan clearly saw something in Ledger that most did not and it wasn’t long before it became clear that Nolan knew best. Whilst Jack Nicholson’s Joker was considered a near perfect take on the character, it’ll be Ledger’s portrayal that will forever be the benchmark.
Ledger’s death as a result of an overdose of prescription drugs prior to the film’s release was a tragedy and ensured an even greater air of mystery surrounding the part. There were reports that he had locked himself in a hotel room for weeks on end to prepare for the role and that the whole experience had had a detrimental effect on his mental state. Whatever really happened, Ledger gave a performance so absorbing that it will go down in history as one of the greats. Some have said he was overrated in the role, but he wasn’t. He simply wasn’t. Everything from his licking his lips facial tick (originally an irritation at the face paint, but Nolan liked it so have him carry on) to the variations in his vocal tone comes together to create a truly unsettling performance, but one that perfectly exemplified the Joker.
Elsewhere, The Dark Knight continues to carry on the excellent foundations laid by Begins. Michael Caine and Gary Oldman reprise their superlative supporting roles as Alfred and Jim Gordon respectively, and we get the introduction of district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). The only blot in the copybook in terms of continuity was Katie Holmes not reprising her role as Rachel Dawes, although Maggie Gyllenhaal did a fine job as her replacement.
Dent is a fine and necessary addition to the roster, although the Two-Face side of the character feels somewhat underused. It’s not until we near the end of the film does Dent transform into Two-Face but seemingly within the blink of an eye he falls to his death and the character doesn’t really get a chance to fulfill its potential. However, to incorporate that would require a longer story and with the film already feeling a little on the lengthy side, there wasn’t really much space to cram in any more.
Many have argued that The Dark Knight is the finest superhero film of all time and it’s hard to argue with that, although some have since passed that accolade onto Avengers Assemble. The Dark Knight Rises has a lot to live up to, but just as long as it doesn’t try to emulate its predecessor but rather try and build upon it, it should do just fine. Nolan has created two masterful comic book adaptations; who would bet against him doing it again?
Words: Chris Thomson