Having endured the almost interminable legacy of Hollywood’s undernourished attempts to revisit Batman on film, not to mention the brutally campy Adam West TV serial from the 1960s, I must admit that when Warner Brothers announced a rebooted trilogy directed by Christopher Nolan I experienced everything from minor grunts and major groans to that panged ‘not again’ expression with the rolling eyes that generally spells imminent prejudice for anything I might see on the big screen. However, Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy is the exception to that rule; a stunningly handsome, narratively complex and visually engrossing masterpiece that puts all other woefully bad installments to rest. In hindsight, always 20/20, these aforementioned disasters – beginning with Michael Keaton’s 1989 debut and concluded by the resounding thud when George Clooney donned the cape in 1997 – now appear as something of the cinematic equivalent to foreplay, whetting the public’s appetite for the real deal that is Nolan’s tri-picture excursion into the decidedly darker and more realistic expressionism of a world gone mad. Bottom line: Nolan’s movies are about as far removed from the original DC comic books as one can hope, but remarkably faithful to the graphic novels that inspired them, and this is all to the good.
My admiration for Christopher Nolan extends beyond The Dark Knight Trilogy. Yet these three movies so completely exemplify Nolan’s creative agility as a filmmaker and storyteller that I suspect they will long be dissected by critics and fans alike as a textbook example of his prowess. The Dark Knight Trilogy is blessed by the luxury of time; Nolan pre-planning on Batman Begins (2005) for nearly two years, removed by eight from the very bad taste left in everyone’s mouth after 1997’s Batman and Robin. During this interim the Batman has evolved from cult superhero into a more realistic crusading vigilante. Bruce Wayne is still the fictional Gotham City’s man of the hour with enough disposable cash to fund a small revolution. But his motives are more questionable, his personal sacrifices and moral ambiguities more central to the narrative and perhaps best epitomized by the Biblical quotation “for what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”
Indeed, as The Dark Knight Trilogy embarks into a very bleak immediacy of adventure with Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) forced to endure many trials by fire, his self-discovery (and rediscovery in the last film) is guided by men who continue to ground him in the reality of his times; ever loyal butler, Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine), devoted business manager, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and Batman’s greatest champion by day, Sgt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman). The figure of ‘the dark knight’ is mostly misunderstood by the residents of Gotham who simultaneously admire yet fear his presence. Nolan explores this duality through Bruce Wayne’s chivalry. It is far more complex than being the mere protector of the city. Rather, it is rooted in painful childhood memories that have all but emotionally crippled the man and reduced his importance to that of a conflicted symbol. A social creature by forced necessity, Bruce keeps up appearances as one of Gotham’s high profile movers and shakers. Yet he experiences almost excruciating discomfort at playing this part; disassociated from the sycophantic and the wealthy, while realizing he can never entirely assimilate into their world.
Batman Begins (2005) is a compendium of themes and narratives gleaned from three separate classic comic books: Batman – Year One, The Long Halloween, and The Man Who Falls, superbly reconstituted as one cohesive story in a screenplay by Nolan and David S. Goyer. We are given the childhood backstory necessary to explain the man; something none – except for 1989’s Batman - superficially attempted to gloss over with only the briefest of flashbacks. But in Batman Begins we learn that as a child Bruce Wayne fell into a well where he was terrorized by a swarm of bats, thereupon developing an extreme phobia to these winged creatures. After witnessing the murder of his parents by mugger Joe Chill (Richard Brake) the heir to Wayne Enterprises is placed in the care of the family’s devoted butler, Alfred Pennyworth who emotionally adopts the forlorn and introspective child, rearing Bruce with great care, honesty and forthrightness.
Fast track fourteen years into the future. Chill is granted parole in exchange for his testimony against crime kingpin Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson). Bruce’s intent is to murder Chill at trial, a vengeance narrowly averted when one of Falcone’s hired guns finishes the job instead to ensure Chill’s silence. Bruce’s childhood friend, now assistant DA Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) chides him for his impulsiveness, a wound compounded when Falcone berates Bruce for his lack of comprehension towards the criminal element. Bruce decides to learn all he can about crime first hand. He makes pilgrimage to the Bhutanese prison where Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) offers to train him in the art of stealth and fear as a member of The League of Shadows organized by Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). However, when Bruce learns the League’s true intent is to end crime in Gotham he burns down their temple. Ghul dies but Ducard is saved by Bruce and left in the care of local villagers.
Returning to Gotham, Bruce takes an immediate proactive interest in his own company as well as a rival defense conglomerate run by the corrupt William Earle (Rutger Hauer). Confronting his fear of bats, Bruce adopts their predatory nature for his own and the Batman is born. He engages Wayne Enterprise’s leading scientist Lucius Fox who reveals the arsenal of prototype artillery and body armor that his own company has been developing over the years. Taking advantage of this special equipment, Bruce adopts the devil-may-care persona of a rakish playboy by day and the caped crusader known as Batman by night, instilling fear in Gotham’s rampant criminal underworld. Batman’s interception of a drug shipment provides Rachel with enough evidence to indict Falcone while Sgt. James Gordon embarks upon a litany of arrests that strike deep into the heart of organized crime.
Unfortunately Falcone and his mob are declared mentally incompetent by Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy); a ruse to mask Crane’s involvement in their drug trade. To ensure his own safety Crane exposes Falcone to a powerful hallucinogenic that makes him insane. Crane also tries out the drug on Batman. But Bruce is spared Falcone’s demise after being rescued by Alfred and given an antidote concocted by Fox. Instead Batman exposes Crane to his own toxin, whereupon Crane confesses that he has been dumping vast quantities into Gotham’s water supply. However, Crane also confides that the toxin is only harmful if inhaled.
The narrative becomes a tad spotty as we jump forward to Bruce’s lavish birthday celebration at Wayne Manor. Ducard interrupts the festivities with a small army of men and reveals to Bruce that he is the real Ra’s al Ghul. Now this motley crew has come to destroy Gotham by vaporizing its water supply, already saturated with Crane’s madness inducing toxin, employing a microwave emitter stolen from one of Wayne Enterprise’s cargo ships. To spare his guests, Bruce feigns drunkenness. Wayne Manor is torched by Ducard’s men and the toxin is vaporized, unleashing mass hysteria and violence upon the city. Bruce escapes this deluge with Alfred’s help and later drops hints to Rachel, whom he loves, about his true identity. But there is little time for such revelations. Batman confronts and kills Ducard aboard the city’s central train used to disseminate the toxin. In the film’s extended epilogue Batman becomes a public hero but loses Rachel in the process – unable to sacrifice his alter ego for his own happiness with her.
In retrospect Batman Begins seems much more the setup for the last two movies in the trilogy than its own standalone creation; the film’s ending already hinting at the emergence of The Joker (Heath Ledger) who comes to dominate the central narrative of The Dark Knight (2008). Indeed, the screenplay for this second installment (also written by Nolan and Goyer) manages to offset the importance of Batman. Christian Bale spends a fair portion of its story out of his black armor, entertaining notions of winning Rachel back as Bruce Wayne while the narrative evolves into a showcase for Ledger’s self-destructive haunting performance as the demented and terrorizing madman. The Dark Knight opens with a superb bank heist in which each of the robbers sporting clown masks has been instructed to kill his accomplices once their portion of the theft has been achieved. This leaves but one robber in control of the loot, The Joker who wastes no time fleeing the scene.
Batman and Lieutenant Gordon involve DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) in their plan to eradicate mob rule from Gotham City. Bruce is impressed by Dent’s pure motives. Truly, Dent is a man ‘of’ and ‘for’ the people. So Bruce decides to throw him a fundraiser. In the meantime, Sal Maroni (Eric Roberts), who has taken over Falcone’s mob, holds a videoconference with Lau (Chin Han), a Chinese accountant involved in the laundering of their money, but currently residing in Hong Kong. The Joker breaks into this meeting to forewarn that the dark knight knows no boundaries. He offers to assassinate Batman for half the mob’s loot. But the mob refuse these terms. Shortly thereafter, Batman skyhooks Lau from his Hong Kong penthouse, dragging him back to Gotham to face imprisonment.
The Joker publicly issues an ultimatum; that innocent people will die each day unless Batman reveals his true identity. To prove his point he murders Commissioner Gillian B. Loeb (Colin McFarlene) with a poisoned bottle of scotch and blows up Judge Surrillo (Nydia Rodriguez-Terracina) who had begun presiding over the mob trials. The Joker also targets Dent at Bruce’s fundraiser and Mayor Garcia (Nestor Carbonell) during the public funeral for Commissioner Loeb. Gordon takes the sniper’s bullet meant for Garcia and fakes his own death. The ruse flushes the Joker out of hiding. He is captured by Batman and taken to jail while Gordon is promoted to Commissioner. However, during his interrogation the Joker explains to Batman that he has deliberately allowed himself to be taken prisoner; a diversion while his men secure the imminent death of both Rachel and Dent in separate buildings rigged with explosives.
Forced to choose between Rachel and Dent, Batman races to the abandoned warehouse where Dent is bound to an oil drum. Gordon is too late to save Rachel and Dent is horribly scarred by the resultant explosion meant also to kill him. His disfigurement, coupled with a belief implanted in his mind by the Joker – that Gordon and Batman have both betrayed him – turns Dent toward the dark side. He becomes the vigilante, Two-Face. Meanwhile, the Joker has escaped from the police station with Lau, whom he later kills, taking hostages as he blows up the hospital where Dent has been recuperating.
Dent goes on a rampage, avenging Rachel’s death by murdering everyone he believes has been complicit in her kidnapping. To escalate the pandemonium, but also to prove his point, that people can be corrupted regardless of their social status in life, the Joker rigs two ferries with explosives; one full of ordinary citizens, the other containing Arkham Asylum inmates and prison guards. The Joker gives each ferry a detonator belonging to the other and suggests that if one of them makes the choice to blow up the other before midnight, he will let the survivors go unharmed. Otherwise everyone will die. After some harrowing debate amongst the passengers, both ferries refuse to partake in the Joker’s experiment.
Batman exploits a technology developed by Lucius Fox to create a city-wide tracking prototype to help find the Joker. Fox, who is reticent about using this technology as a tool to spy on ordinary individuals, reluctantly agrees to monitor all incoming calls, but tells Bruce he will resign once the Joker is apprehended. The Joker dresses up hostages to resemble his men, thereby luring Gordon's SWAT team to assassinate them. But Batman uncovers this ploy and thwarts their annihilation, capturing the Joker instead. Dent takes Gordon’s wife (Melinda McGraw) and young son (Nathan Gamble) hostage inside the building where Rachel died, intent on murdering all of them once Gordon arrives. But Batman confronts Dent, the latter using a coin toss to decide their fates. Dent shoots Batman and then attempts to kill Gordon’s son. But Batman’s protective armor has shielded him from the blast. He tosses Dent to his death off the top of the building instead. To ensure that all of Dent’s previous good works – including the passing of the new crime bill legislation – endure, Batman tells Gordon that he cannot allow the public to ever know Dent was swayed to evil by The Joker. Instead Batman proposes that Gordon publicly blame him for the murders, thereby giving the citizens of Gotham a symbol to hate while the good in Dent’s master plan is allowed to proliferate.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012) picks up our story eight years later, but not in an altogether successful way. Unable to accept Rachel’s death and still believing that she would have eventually left Dent to be with him, Bruce has become a recluse inside Wayne Manor. The years have been unkind to both him and his crumbling empire. Wayne Enterprises is on the verge of bankruptcy following a botched investment in Miranda Tate’s (Marion Cotillard) fusion reactor project that was supposed to provide Gotham with a new and cheaper energy source. But Bruce’s financial woes are the least of his worries. He is a shell of his former self, with a body rapidly deteriorating from the various internal wounds sustained during his crime fighting days.
Alfred confides in Bruce that his one lifelong hope has always been that Bruce would find personal contentment in the love of a good woman. In fact, Alfred confesses that for the past eleven years he has taken his holidays in Italy he has often imagined seeing Bruce with wife and child happily lazing about the piazza. Bruce tells Alfred that it is too late for such daydreams to take hold and Alfred, believing he has failed his master once too often, decides to leave his employ for good.
Meanwhile, guilt has overtaken Commissioner Gordon. He drafts a resignation letter confessing his complicity in covering up the truth about Harvey Dent. At a fundraiser inside Wayne Manor cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) masquerades as a maid to gain access to the upper floors where she steals a string of pearls belonging to Bruce’s late mother from his safe. The real prize, however, is a set of Bruce’s fingerprints that Selina uses to kidnap a congressman on behalf of Phillip Stryver (Burn Gorman) who is working for Brue’s business rival, John Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn). Stryver attempts to double-cross Selina who, in turn, alerts the police to their whereabouts while she gets off Scott-free. In an unrelated incident Commissioner Gordon is captured by Bane (Tom Hardy); a mercenary excommunicated from The League of Shadows. Rescued by rookie patrolman, John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), long an admirer of Bruce Wayne, Gordon confides the truth to Blake about Batman.
Connecting Daggett to Bane, Bruce asks Miranda to take over the daily management of his company to ensure its protection and Bane retaliates by killing Daggett. In an agreement to obtain some computer software that will effectively erase her criminal past so that she can start anew, Selina lures Batman to Bane’s lair where both his spirit and body are mercilessly broken, presumably beyond repair. Bane exiles Bruce to Ra’s a Ghul’s Bhutanese dungeon where he once endured unspeakable torture at the League of Shadows behest. One of the current inmates takes pity on Bruce, healing his cracked and protruding spine and telling him about Ra's al Ghul's love child, born inside the prison walls many years ago. As told, Bruce’s natural assumption is that the child became Bane.
While Bruce continues his recovery, Bane traps most of Gotham's police inside the city’s subway by detonating various explosions that transform the tunnels into their underground tomb. He blows up Mayor Garcia inside his private box at the stadium during a scheduled sporting event and forces physicist, Dr. Leonid Pavel (Alon Aboutboul), to convert Wayne Enterprises’ reactor core into a nuclear bomb. Bane then exploits Gordon’s resignation letter to reveal to the citizens the cover up about Harvey Dent, suggesting that the institutions they have placed their faith in for so many years have betrayed them. In response to this declaration anarchy breaks out and a new warped sense of justice prevails. Dr. Crane becomes the city’s magistrate, releasing the convicted from their prison cells while exiling the wealthy and once powerful to certain death.
From here on in the film’s timeline and various plot elements become increasingly problematic and fanciful. After months of recuperation a penniless, but miraculously restored Bruce Wayne escapes. Without passport or funds for that matter, Bruce somehow manages to return to Gotham City where he employs Selina, Officer Blake, Miranda, Gordon, and Lucius in a counterplot to stop Bane from detonating the bomb. However, the overall arc in Bane’s master plan is never entirely or satisfactorily fleshed out. Having brought about the dissolution of Gotham’s core values and transformed its citizenry into a fairly obvious facsimile of Nazi Germany, he has decided to decimate everyone with a cataclysmic nuclear explosion. Only he is also trapped in Gotham!
After subduing Bane, Batman is wounded by Miranda who reveals herself as Talia, Ra's al Ghul's love child that escaped the Bhutanese prison aided by her protector, Bane. Fortunately, Gotham’s demise is delayed yet again when Talia’s remote detonation of the megaton bomb is thwarted by Gordon who manages to block her signal. Talia departs in search of the bomb and Bane, already weakened by his assault on Batman, is murdered by Selina instead who has turned coat and come to Bruce’s aid. Batman intercepts Talia but not before she manages to destroy the reactor moments before dying. Unable to stabilize the bomb by reattaching it to the reactor, Batman flies it out to sea where it explodes far away from the city limits, but presumably kills him in the process.
Alfred and Lucius mourn Bruce in private and Batman is given a monument inside Gotham’s city hall. Wayne Manor is transformed into a home for orphaned children. However, not long afterward, while on a tour of Italy, Alfred sees Bruce and Selina together at a fashionable outdoor tratoria. Bruce regards Alfred with a nod, thus restoring his faith in the man who used to be his employer. Blake resigns from the police force and inherits the Bat-cave as Robyn.
The Dark Knight Rises is an imperfect last hurrah on several levels. Firstly, during the two previous installments the fictional city of Gotham was cleverly photographed in and around New York to conceal that city’s more obvious landmarks. But in The Dark Knight Rises we see New York in all its glory, with obvious glimpses of Wall Street and the Freedom Tower and a pivotal plot point played out atop the George Washington Bridge. So either the U.S. has renamed New York, Gotham City or the entire story has always been taking place in New York. We can’t have it both ways!
This will be a minor quibbling for some. But more disconcerting is the way certain time honored characters from the first two films have been allowed to aimlessly float in and out of the narrative structure of this third installment; particularly Michael Caine’s Alfred, who merely serves as emotional bookends to The Dark Knight Rises. Also, we are introduced to Selina ‘Cat Woman’ Kyle during the first third of the story. But after her double cross of Batman we see very little of her, a curiosity further exacerbated by the fact that, after professing a strong desire to run away and start a brand new life obscurely elsewhere, we find her still skulking about Gotham’s back alleys and stone and concrete byways, awaiting Bruce’s return in the third act; ready and willing to defy Bane at his request.
The Dark Knight Rises timeline is all over the place, particularly after Batman’s initial confrontation with Bane. Just how Bane manages to exile Bruce to the Bhutanese prison thereafter remains a mystery. How Bruce gets back to America without money or a passport is an even greater curiosity. But perhaps the most problematic element in this final chapter is Bruce Wayne himself. When first seen he is wrecked man, so crippled by paralytic arthritis that Selina is able to knock him to the ground simply by kicking out the cane he uses for a crutch from under him. It’s only been eight years since Bruce’s retirement. Is he as physically destroyed as he pretends to be? A cursory doctor’s examination suggests as much. So how does he manage to don the Bat suit in time to confront Bane with all the agility of a jungle cat? And what of Bruce’s miraculous resurrection after having his spine broken and reset by blunt force trauma? We are given a montage of highlights showing Bruce working out in preparation for his escape from the Bhutanese stronghold. Just how he has managed to rebuild himself into a muscled machine under the most primitive of circumstances, despite being ravaged by life-threatening injuries is perhaps the greatest daydream of them all.
Finally, there is the movie’s finale to contend with; too contrived and much too convenient to be appreciated. How does Batman escape nuclear annihilation, or at the very least, exposure to massive amounts of radiation poisoning? Not sure. Never explained. How and why should Bruce come to trust Selina and vice versa? Arguably, each gets what they wanted all along by their association – total anonymity from their former lives and a chance to restart a life shared together. But how does Bruce know where to take Selina so that Alfred can observe their serene happiness together?
There will be those who poo-poo my deconstruction of these various dangling threads as nitpicking tomfoolery at best. But they speak to a level of narrative construction, or absence thereof that leaves the movie to cling together in spite of itself. Does The Dark Knight Rises work. As pure entertainment, the answer is ‘yes’. It will most definitely amuse and distract. But is it solid storytelling? Hardly, and that’s my chief problem with it.
Warner Home Video’s Dark Knight Trilogy is impressive on Blu-ray, though not perfect. I will assume that the transfers included in this gift set of the first two movies are identical in quality to their standalone counterparts released individually several years before – particularly since I detected the same edge effects on The Dark Knight in exactly the same scenes. Overall, the image on all three films will surely not disappoint. These are 1080p hi-def masters and the results speak for themselves: refined colors, natural flesh tones, superior contrast and deep saturated blacks that never look crushed. Film grain has been accurately reproduced. Contrast is bang on perfect. If it weren’t for the edge effects scattered here and there the ‘wow’ factor on these transfers would rate a perfect 5 score from yours truly. The 5.1 DTS audio is explosive, although I detected a more aggressive bass in the last two films. I still can’t make out all of Bane’s dialogue in The Dark Knight Rises, an auditory problem I remember having during my theatrical viewing experience too. In some scenes he’s clean and articulate; others, just a garbled mess of syllables that I remain unable to decipher in any meaningful way.
Extras are plentiful. Batman Begins gives us an in-picture commentary, an IMAX prologue, a spoof called ‘Tankman’ and various extensive featurettes charting the making of the film. The Dark Knight offers more involved featurettes, including a psychological evaluation of Bruce Wayne – odd, but cool. We also get featurettes dedicated to the film’s gadgets and a deconstruction of shooting live action sequences with minimal CGI technologies applied. The Dark Knight Rises plumps out the goodies, including a minute long bio on the Batmobile with all five prototypes shown together for the first time, plus the extensive documentary on the making of the trilogy that covers the films from every conceivable angle. Each disc of extras also includes behind the scenes galleries with hundreds of photos and theatrical trailers. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
Batman Begins 3.5
The Dark Knight 4
The Dark Knight Rises 3