Revisiting Batman Begins and The Dark Knight

And thus Bruce Wayne’s fate was set from the start.

When I think about my favorite genres of film I turn to noir, crime dramas and psychological thrillers. My least favorite genres of film would probably be musicals, romantic comedies and comic book movies. Hence, back in 2005, when one of my favorite up-and-coming purveyors of my favorite types of film decided to take on a reboot of a comic book movie franchise, my faith was tested. Not even I could predict then that Christopher Nolan would pull off the unexpected. He took the most obvious and surface level of modern archetypal stories and used its trappings as a vehicle to tap into a cultural zeitgeist and to provide commentary on our contemporary war against global terrorism.

We all fretted when we first heard the news…but fear not is what Mr. Nolan taught us.

I didn’t “get” Nolan’s full vision until 2008’s The Dark Knight, where the Joker (Heath Ledger) became the most outlandish of terrorists, a creator of chaos, an over-the-top maniac who tapped into the worst of human nature and spread fear amongst a populace of criminals and innocents alike. But the seeds of this allegory were there from the start, where early on in Batman Begins, R’as Al Ghul (Liam Neeson) tells Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) that his compassion will be seen as a weakness to his enemies. Wayne contends that, “Our compassion is what separates us from them.”

How do I look?

Despite the inherent flaws of the comic book genre, Christopher Nolan has managed to add layers of subtext and fully fleshed out character arcs. Yes, the symbolism is done with a sledgehammer – little Bruce Wayne literally has to fall down a well to find himself and Harvey Dent’s battle with his “light and dark” sides turn him into a literal “Two-Face” – but no one can misinterpret it. Also, in tandem with David Goyer and his brother Jonathan, Nolan has provided us simple, straight-faced dialogue full of platitudes of the Greek tragedy/Shakespearean kind. They might not be poetic…but they’re easy to understand and they stab at the heart of one of human kind’s greatest struggles – trying to maintain a civilized society.

Some of my favorites from the first two films are as follows –

  • “It’s not who you are but what you do.” – Rachel Dawes, Batman Begins
  • “The night is darkest just before the dawn.” – Harvey Dent, The Dark Knight
  • “You thought we could be decent men in an indecent time.” – Harvey Dent, The Dark Knight

Oh, and what an indecent time it’s been at the movies in 2012 so far. But I must have faith in Nolan. From the first film to the second film he evolved…he didn’t play it safe…he improved his technical skills with editing and staging action set pieces (essential for this genre) while adding even more subtext and memorable characters. He’s shown this evolution not just with the Batman films but with his whole oeuvre. Was there a more ambitious mainstream film in the past five years than Inception? I have to believe he will deliver the goods…up the ante…complete the character arcs…and deliver a closing to his trilogy worthy of the hype. The Dark Knight Rises has to be the movie we want and it has to leave no room for anything more.

As Bruce Wayne says at the end of The Dark Knight, “Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.”

Here’s to foreshadowing, Mr. Nolan…you’ve always been good at it.

Written by David H. Schleicher

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Below are my original reviews, unabridged, as they appeared on the IMDB:

Batman Begins Note the title of my review – I had no idea what the title of the final film in the trilogy would be at the time. Also note the reference to Mrs. Tom Cruise – everything must come to an end.

Dark Knight Rising, 16 June 2005
9/10

I’ve been wondering how director Christopher Nolan would handle a huge budget on a Hollywood film designed as a revisionist franchise launcher of a previously lucrative and iconic brand name. It had disaster written all over it. I’m overjoyed to announce, the young director has stuck to his auteur guns and delivered not another ho-hum comic book extravaganza, but a deep, dark, psychologically complex thriller. Nolan and his very capable team of writers hired by Warner Bros. have taken the simplistic and tired story from comic book land (your archetypal crime-fighting costume wearing hero) and through luxurious exposition and compelling character development, deliver a taut and suspenseful drama for mature adult audiences to savor.

In the lead role of Bruce Wayne, Christian Bale finally delivers on the promise of his compelling indie roles and has taken his cult status to mainstream audiences with a confident swagger that has “great actor/huge star” written all over it. Bravo to the studio execs in their risky casting. He works this role on every level, and the audience is rewarded at every turn under the skilled director’s hand of Nolan. The rest of the supporting cast is fantastic. Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Tom Wilkinson, Cillian Murphy, and an unrecognizable Gary Oldman as Gordon (what a great piece of stunt casting) are all perfect. The only complaint is the otherwise lovely Katie Holmes, who is as distracting on screen with her lack of acting chops as she has been off screen with her shenanigans as the new Mrs. Tom Cruise.

The only other distraction is some of the choppy editing in a few of the actions scenes. Early on, they are so darkly lit and badly edited that it’s hard to tell what is happening. This is all forgiven though with the white knuckle Batmobile chase sequence and the edge-of-your seat careening train car finale. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t care if Nolan didn’t focus on making the action scenes more perfect. He’s clearly a man more interested in setting a mood to highlight character development and ratchet up the drama. He’s quickly developing into a master of psychologically driven suspense. He just might be able to inject life into some other stale genres in the future.

When all is said and done, the greatest achievement of “Batman Begins” is that it makes you forget the weird dystopia of Tim Burton’s iconic original from 1989, and totally wipes from your memory the abhorrent Joel Schumacher directed sequels that sank the series in the late 1990’s. Thanks to Nolan, the writers, and Bale, this film stands tall on its own, and should weather the test of time as inevitable sequels will come to pass.

The Dark KnightNote the comparisons to Hitchcock – this was before I developed my Fritz Lang theory.

Terror in the Knight, 22 July 2008
9/10

Director Christopher Nolan has tapped into a cultural zeitgeist with his soaring “Dark Knight.” No other director has shown so much ambition while working within the context of such an iconic name brand belonging to popular culture. By building upon the excellent framework he set with “Batman Begins” and adding in the chaos of the Joker (Heath Ledger, legendary) and the tragedy of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, admirable), Nolan, like Hitchcock before him, utilizes a B-level genre flick to tap into our shared cultural fears. Along with his co-writer brother, Jonathan Nolan, the director crafts a tightly wound tapestry that explores our archetypal fears of losing our identity and becoming that which we hate, while tuning into post 9/11 fears of terrorism, cowboy diplomacy, wire-tapping, and vigilante justice run amok.

The cast assembled falls right into place with Nolan’s epic and relentlessly dark vision of our current superhero mythology. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are again perfect in their supporting roles of wisdom and gadget providers, while Gary Oldman receives a surprising amount of screen time and delivers a sterling Oscar-worthy performance as the tormented Commissioner James Gordon. Replacing the dreadful Katie Holmes, Maggie Gyllenhaal is spry and feisty as assistant DA Rachel Dawes, but still seems out of place in her role. Bale is again brooding and effective as Bruce Wayne, though he gets overshadowed by the sly trickster that is Heath Ledger’s Joker. Ledger is everything he’s been hyped up to be. He’s scary good and his insanely nuanced and subversively humorous performance haunts the film while his character terrorizes Gotham with a feverish intensity that is divinely married to Nolan’s amped up tempo of thrills.

The opening moments of the film fall victim to the typical trappings of a sequel as it tries to reintroduce us to the cast regulars while setting the stage for new conflicts. However, once the Joker starts playing his games, Nolan ratchets up the tension to a nightmarish effect that will leave your pulse pounding for two hours. With each terrorist act of the Joker and ensuing catastrophe, Nolan ups the ante, resulting in a film that is enormously entertaining while also making the obvious bloated runtime seem oppressive and nerve-wracking…almost as if the film is a terrorist attack against the audience…

…and maybe that’s the point. With the opening camera swoop between skyscrapers zeroing in on a single window taken straight from Hitchcock’s opening shot from “Psycho”, Nolan tells the audience what they are in store for. Two more images, along with Ledger’s ghastly scarred and make-up covered visage, seep into the viewer’s subconscious. The first is after a building is exploded we see an image of firefighters spraying water over the scalding steel left behind that is eerily reminiscent of scenes from Ground Zero. The second is after a hospital is demolished, an image of the building’s carcass on the television seems taken straight from the Oklahoma City Bombing. As we watch the harrowing Joker-less climax involving Batman, Dent, and Gordon, and knowing in the back of our minds what became of Ledger in real life, we realize that terrorism can not only come from without, but from within. Sometimes we are our own worst victims.

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5 comments on “Revisiting Batman Begins and The Dark Knight

  1. I share your spirit on this one. I can’t wait for July 20th to dawn on us–that’s when it releases in India.

    BTW, Nolan might not be done with Batman, yet. Rumors of a Batman reboot with Nolan holding the pen (Writer) and Darren Aronofsky donning the Cap (Director) are rife on IMDB.

    • July 20th is the magic date, here, too, Prakash. I really hope those reboot rumors are not true. Let it rest for crying out loud. How many versions do we need? I guess when the bottom line is money for the studio, you can’t really blame them for cooking up something before the dust has even settled on the current version. And Nolan needs to stear clear of any comic book adaptation in the future. He’s put in in his time with the studio and made his name – now it’s time to move on and show us what he’s really capable of with more original ideas.

  2. Chris Tait says:

    Oldman’s speech at the end of “Dark Knight” always gives me chills. I honestly feel that Oldman doesn’t get nearly the amount of credit he deserves for what he’s done with the character of Jim Gordon. Oldman has played some wired, off-the-wall characters in his career, yet he more-than-believably pulls off this everyman-type character. It’s a testament to Oldman’s ability.

    I plan on rewatching both movies before the 20th. This comic book fan from way back is anxiously awaiting Nolan’s icing on his 3-layer cinematic cake.

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