I’m embarrassed it took me this long to finally watch Batman Begins, but I was so content with The Dark Knight that I never sought out what came before. Moral of the story: I’m dumb. This movie is awesome. Batman Begins may hit some familiar origin story beats, but because of its darker, grittier nature, it feels unique and fresh within the genre, and gives some real weight to Bruce Wayne’s self discovery throughout. Christopher Nolan’s attention to detail serves the film well, especially with all the intricate gadgets and technology. Despite the film’s darker nature, Nolan finds ways to pepper in some great comedy and sentimentality throughout as well, especially with Michael Caine’s flawless portrayal of butler Alfred and Morgan Freeman’s delightfully witty Lucius Fox. The low point is Katie Holmes’ performance as Rachel Dowes and not enough of Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow, but those qualms still don’t drag the film down too much. An origin done so right, with a chilling final scene that ought to have everyone pissing their pants in excitement for what comes next.
Welcome back to The Christopher Nolan Chronicle, today we are discussing the Batman Era of Nolan’s filmography. In the seven-year span between and including 2005 and 2012, Christopher Nolan changed every nerd and neckbeard’s life by creating what has since come to be the definitive live-action Batman franchise. The first entry in the trilogy, Batman Begins, came out in 2005, introducing Christian Bale’s take on Gotham’s caped crusader. The Dark Knight was released three years later in 2008, featuring a now-immortalized Joker performance by the irreplaceable Heath Ledger. To cap off the trilogy, Nolan released The Dark Knight Rises in 2012, tying off some loose ends and feeding the audience just a few breadcrumbs to leave us wondering.
Once again, we will be featuring comments by Dylan R., a friend of the Chronicle, as a benchmark to gauge our own feelings about our Founding Father’s Filmography.
As we continue our quest to discover whether Nolan was better before or after he directed the Batman movies, we can’t ignore the inarguable turning point in his career as a director. First up, Batman Begins.
Batman Begins, 2005
Batman Begins is, first and foremost, an origin story. Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered outside of a theater, you know the drill. The real origin of Batman in Nolan’s Begins comes after Bruce’s time training with the League of Shadows with Liam Neeson’s Ra’s al Ghul. He’s gone for seven years, his childhood best friend thinks he’s dead, but then he comes back, intent on Fighting Crime™ and cleaning up Gotham’s mob problem. Meanwhile, a sinister psychologist, Dr. Jonathan Crane is testing an airborne version of a psychosis-inducing hallucinogen to put into the city’s water supply, eventually causing mass hysteria. Thus, The Batman is born.
Batman Begins is a strong introduction to a new take on a familiar hero, and while I don’t think origin stories are inherently uninteresting, there was a lot about this that felt underwhelming on this rewatch. Rachel Dawes is the only major female character in this story and she has very little autonomy. Katie Holmes gives a great performance, as she almost always does, but Rachel as a character lacks complexity. She is very simply a good person driven to do good things, but many of the good things she does are inspired or instructed by other (male) characters. The one time she might do something morally questionable (shooting a thug who is attempting to bully a child after mugging his parents), Batman swoops in and saves her before she has to sacrifice her ethics.
Overall, Batman Begins features strong performances, excellent production design and special effects, and a well-told story with tight pacing. Bruce definitely grows as a character but the simplistic motivations of his accomplices and the lack of a focused antagonist (no villain in the first act, and two different villains in the second and third acts) leave a few loosely-sewn threads.
We rate it: 7.5 / 10 | Dylan rates it: 9/10
The Dark Knight, 2008
In what in the age of the MCU feels like a long wait, the second installment in Nolan’s Batman trilogy came three years after its predecessor. The Dark Knight is easily the most-loved entry into the franchise, by and large because of a homerun Joker performance by everyone’s favorite 90s heartthrob, gay rancher, and fake knight: Heath Ledger. In The Dark Knight, Bruce has been romping around as Batman for a hot minute, but the streets still aren’t clean. While the Joker is cavorting around Gotham turning various mob members against each other, Bruce is struggling with his childhood best friend and former crush Rachel, now dating Gotham City District Attorney Harvey Dent. Harvey is a perfect match for Rachel because they both are just really good people™. Such good people, in fact, that when the Joker threatens to regularly kill people of Gotham until Batman reveals himself, Harvey falls on his sword for his city. And, uh, selfish baby Bruce (don’t worry, it’s part of his character development) just lets him.
The Dark Knight is beloved for good reason. The characters are strong and complex, the pacing is tight, the writing is excellent, the cinematography is beautiful, the list goes on. Heath Ledger gives such an astounding performance as the Joker that every scene without him in it pales in comparison. The sound design in this film particularly (but really in the whole trilogy) is impeccable, and the score, while standard Hans Zimmer fare, its used with intention. The best part, for me, is that The Dark Knight stands on its own as a Batman film. There are things for which we have added context having seen Batman Begins, but nothing about what happens in this movie absolutely requires that you know the last entry by heart. And that is what makes an excellent sequel. Oh yeah, and Rachel is now played by Maggie Gyllenhaal for…. reasons.
There’s not much else to say about The Dark Knight that hasn’t been said. Heath Ledger is absolutely astounding and might give my favorite performance of all time, though I do feel the rest of the ensemble deserves their due as well: Christian Bale commands the screen once again, especially in his newly improved Bat-wear; Maggie Gyllenhaal is an improved casting choice as Rachel Dawes; Aaron Eckhart shows a great emotional journey as Harvey Dent; standouts from the last film like Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, and Michael Caine all give fantastic performances once again. It’s my favorite Batman film, my favorite DC film, and my favorite comic book film. I’m pretty sure after this Nolan binge is over, it’ll remain as my favorite work of his as well. It’s the film that made me see movies beyond entertainment, examining them through deeper lenses. I find the same excitement now as I did the first time, and every rewatch since.
We rate it: 8.5 / 10 | Dylan rates it: 10/10
The Dark Knight Rises, 2012
In yet another excruciatingly long wait by today’s comic book adaptation standards, The Dark Knight Rises came out a brutal four years after its genre-defying predecessor. This film – as would any film – suffers in perceived quality largely because it immediately succeeded one of the best superhero films ever made, and almost undoubtedly the best Batman film ever made (sorry, George Clooney). Unfortunately, even when viewed without The Dark Knight tinted glasses, there’s still a lot working against this film despite all it has going for it.
It’s been seven years since the end of The Dark Knight and Batman has all but abandoned Gotham because new legislation allowed the city’s law enforcement to get rid of organized crime once and for all. But then some dude with a voice modulator kidnaps a nuclear physicist and threatens to blow Gotham off the face of the in-universe Earth. Time for the Batman to come out of the cave. We’re set up to believe that Bane, otherwise known as The Mercenary, is the primary antagonist of this film, but really, Batman has a lot of little enemies to fight on his come-up. Selina Kyle, a.k.a. Catwoman is working with various baddies to get access to a technology known as the Clean Slate, which has the ability to completely erase someone’s identity from all databases. Dr. Crane (yep, he’s still here) has taken over the courts and is sentencing people to death and/or exile and/or death by exile, and oh yeah, Ra’s al Ghul is involved in this, somehow. All the while, we’re following a fresh-faced young Gotham City Police Officer who just really wants to do the right thing! This film is …. a little distracted.
The Dark Knight Rises comes in at twenty minutes longer than its two predecessors but feels about 45 minutes longer than it needs to be. It’s very clear that Nolan knew what he wanted to do with all the characters he featured, but the problem is that he probably featured too many things, and therefore, none of these various interwoven storylines got the attention they deserved. The editing is messy, the pacing is inconsistent, and score feels like Zimmer composed it in his sleep. The Dark Knight would always be a tough act to follow, but Rises didn’t do itself any favors.
I can acknowledge the obvious criticisms of The Dark Knight Rises, but still feel incredibly fulfilled every time I watch it. It is heavily overstuffed, and its brisk pacing rarely gives time to breathe, but there is something so admirable about the scale of the film. Its style feels more like an “epic” than any of Nolan’s other Batman films, and Hans Zimmer’s anthemic score fits like a glove. Anne Hathaway follows Michelle Pfeiffer’s footsteps in making Catwoman the absolute best part of the film, as she steals every scene she’s in. Tom Hardy had the difficult task of stepping up as the new Batman baddie following Heath Ledger’s legendary turn as the Joker, but he gives a really grounded, menacing performance as Bane, another true highlight of the film. The action is the best of the trilogy, and there is some truly rich emotion throughout, particularly with Alfred’s character and in the film’s final moments. Batman himself isn’t as present as the previous films, but it’s intriguing to see Bruce Wayne’s rise from “zero to hero,” and when Batman returns, he is better than ever. The film is messy, it’s heavy, it’s a bit chaotic, but Nolan really transformed the world of Gotham into something so special and new, and gritty as ever, and there’s no denying how impactful his trilogy was to the future of comic book cinema. I thoroughly enjoy it.
We rate it: 7.0 / 10 | Dylan rates it: 8 / 10
That’s a Wrap!
We now know that the Pre-Batman Era of Nolan’s filmography started off quite strong, with an average rating for his first three features coming in at 8.16 / 10. The Batman Era showed what might be considered, up to this point, the maximum potential of what Christopher Nolan has to offer, but it also showed how creativity may stagnate when he spends too much time working on one property. Batman Begins gave us a character study on Bruce Wayne as he became the Batman. The Dark Knight showed us how engrossing and genre-defying a one-shot superhero film can really be. The Dark Knight Rises provided a lot of spectacle, courtesy of Heinz Field and the City of Pittsburgh, PA, but ultimately felt like it was in a hurry to wrap certain things up and still tell a cool story, when it probably should have just picked one.
The average rating for The Batman Era of Nolan’s filmography comes in at 7.67 / 10.
Stay tuned next week as The Christopher Nolan Chronicle tackles the inbetweeners, the films that came out while the Batman films were being released, the Peri-Batman Period.
Randazzo, D. (2020 August 10). Nolanography: The Road to Tenet (?) #4 [Review of the movie Batman Begins, by director C. Nolan]. Retrieved from https://letterboxd.com/dylan_randazzo/film/batman-begins/
Randazzo, D. (2020 August 15). Nolanography: The Road to Tenet (?) #6 [Review of the movie The Dark Knight, by director C. Nolan]. Retrieved from https://letterboxd.com/dylan_randazzo/film/the-dark-knight/2/
Randazzo, D. (2020 August 18). Nolanography: The Road to Tenet (?) #8 [Review of the movie The Dark Knight Rises, by director C. Nolan]. Retrieved from https://letterboxd.com/dylan_randazzo/film/the-dark-knight-rises/