A year ago o July 20th I saw one of my most hyped up movies: The Dark Knight Rises
The conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy or – as it is now know – the Dark Knight Trilogy.
Only a year?
After some initial uncertainties with The Dark Knight Rises as a final installment I went back to rewatch the trilogy and see it as a whole. And the more I thought about it, the more all the pieces fit together.
Many problems I had with the plot – especially the idea of legacy – were because I was expecting a different take on Batman but it is undeniably clear that Christopher Nolan has had a vision for a story and never compromised. We can agree and disagree but it is truly a sign of a storyteller expressing his vision of a character.
And because of this Nolan’s trilogy is the measure stick for superhero trilogies and movie trilogies in general. And it will probably remain for quite some time.
To celebrate a fantastic and unique run for 7 years in the theaters I listed 3 moments from the 3 movies – as well as a special mention – to highlight why I think that this trilogy stands tall above most blockbusters
Special mention: flipping the truck
The entire idea of this blog was to search for other movies similar to The Dark Knight. I had hyped up this movie for what personally seemed an endless amount of time and even went so far as to fly to another country to watch the movie in true IMAX. My expectations were so incredibly high there was no way the movie could be as layered, complex AND exciting at the same time. So when Nolan not only delivered a Batman movie but a fantastic drama with a completely unexpected ending I was swept away.
- There are many movies that can be very entertaining.
- There are movies that are spectacles.
- And there are movies so complex you can spend hours pondering about the tiniest details.
But very few movies combine all this while effortless passing by…
And even fewer movies can be hyped up for years and still delivering all this.
So this perfect storm of brainy spectacle within an intricate story all came together in this special scene where Batman flips an 18-wheeler using tow cables.
The expression “jumping the shark” exists to describe a story which completely forgets its original intentions and desperately tries to offer something new.
Flipping the truck is the polar opposite – a story delivering everything we have hoped for and so much more.
It goes without saying that flipping the truck happens less frequently than jumping the shark.
With that out of the way let’s jump into the 3×3 moments:
9. Why do you give a damn, Alfred? It’s not your family – Batman Begins
This is a scene that doesn’t really stand out the second you think about Batman Begins. But to me it was a fantastic moment that re-defined what Batman could be. Up to that point I had never read the comics. I was only aware of the movies so I had no idea of Alfred as a character. There was only one scene that I remembered about Alfred and it wasn’t a positive scene.
When watching Batman Returns this sccene always made me question Alfred’s reasons. The way Bruce Wayne spat out the Vichyssoise like a child who is not used to things tasting different always made me wonder why Alfred would go through so much trouble. In the Burton version there never really was a reason why Alfred would care so much for this man. One could argue that Batman and Robin illustrated that… but the less said about that the better.
So when Batman Begins finally addressed why Alfred gave a damn it was the first sign of a filmmaker who wanted to make this entire story believable and give the characters an actual reason to be in the story. So that we then could later discuss the symbolism of the Alfred/Bruce relationship without wondering why Alfred continued to aid Bruce in his personal crusade.
8. The two ferries – The Dark Knight
Why do so many comic book movies lack tension?
Or better: why do so many people dismiss superhero movies?
Because most of the time the ultimate conflict is a very trivial one.
Similarly to over the top Bond villains many superhero villains don’t have a clear motivation aside from doing evil. And in the worst case you have a supervillain who plans on turning everyone into super lizards. And because of illogical/stupid plans the emotional stakes take the backseat while we watch an unengaging onslaught of special effects.
The moral dilemma in The Dark Knight features two ferries which are ordered to blow up the other ferry. And this scene is the exception of the rule. The Joker does not want to completely destroy Gotham – he wants to prove a point. And in a way this is much scarier because… what if he is right?
In the comics Gotham City is a complete character of its own and the relationship between Batman and Gotham is a complex one to say the least. Previous movie Batman incarnations treated the city as little more than a stylish backdrop. In The Dark Knight Gotham finally became one of the protagonists and the ferry scene was the ultimate test for the hero’s mission. While Batman and the Joker were absolutes in The Dark Knight the protagonist was Gotham City (and Harvey Dent). And the ferry scene is an incredibly scene as it makes Batman a bystander who has to hope that Gotham redeems itself. Making the final action setpiece about a moral question with no right answer proved to be much more engaging than monster lizards or alien invasions and will make people talk about the pros and cons for years to come.
The scene is probably one of the most heavily discussed scenes (and many times criticized) and is still a very exciting example of Christopher Nolan’s message coded thorough this trilogy.
7. Discovering the Batcave – Batman Begins
Batman Begins introduced us to a very different idea of why Bruce Wayne eventually became Batman. Because he had been scared Bruce had been blaming himself for the death of his parents for years. And the Bat represented all his failures and his deepest fear. He did not become Batman because he felt like it. The act of choosing the Bat has the symbolic value of Bruce letting go of his fear and embracing his darkest feelings.
No other scene makes this point clearer than Bruce’s discovery of the Batcave. You see Christian Bale transforming himself from the scarred teenager who slowly stands up and embraces his fear. As he stands tall amidst the swarm of night creatures Batman has truly been born.
6. The Broken Bat – The Dark Knight Rises
Heroes fight and heroes win!
And The Dark Knight Rises is no exception. But what many superhero movies forget is that the victory is more earned if the hero is crushed to rise again (see nr.2). And when Batman throws the first punch at Bane we immediately know that the fight is already over. What follows is a music free pitiful struggle where our hero has absolutely no chance. I can’t imagine how horrifying this scene might be for a ten year old who is totally into Batman and witnesses his favorite hero fall but even though I knew what was coming it was nonetheless an unpleasant sight.
The hero loses in every possible way. Not because of trickery, not because of a new gadget but because he clearly is not as skilled as the villain. The breaking of the Bat is one of the most uncomfortable sequences because we know that the hero has now lost. It is not like burning Wayne Manor in part 1, this is a complete failure despite the hero giving it his best shot. The broken Batman will probably remain a high/low point on how to stage the heroe’s eventual success.
5. The Letter – The Dark Knight Rises
Many comic book movies pride themselves with having a continuity that spans over various movies. But very few actually make use of it. The continuity mostly seems like a sort of brand recognition: same character, same actor, same set.
But storywise very few comic book movies have a continuity that adds to the story of the individual movies. The Dark Knight Trilogy – despite straining away from some sacred comic character histories – had a consistent internal logic and made good use of it. Instead of using continuity as a carrot on a stick to keep us occupied the writers cleverly used everything to their advantage by either changing/reflecting on or enforcing it.
Most notably the letter that Alfred burns at the end of The Dark Knight. It would have been very easy to just ignore this plotline from The Dark Knight. Instead the letter laid the ground for one of the most emotionally charged scenes in the entire trilogy. One can find many things that part 2 did better than part 3 but there is not a single scene in the first two movies that has the emotional impact that Alfred’s guilt-ridden speech has. And the effect only feels this crushing because of the previous two movies.
The fact that Alfred left Bruce was another ballsy surprise and because Alfred didn’t return last minute to save Bruce/die for him made his decision even more impactful. It was not an empty threat but a decision that the writers followed all the way through until the end.
4. Escalation – Batman Begins
The final scene of Batman Begins walks the fine line between fanservice and storytelling. Many movies try to do a similar thing to open a franchise. Sherlock Holmes had an entire storyline in part 1 which was only there for a cliffhanger villain introduction and probably was intended in the same vein as the Batman Begins finale.
The difference is that the finale of Begins was completely integrated into story. The movie’s story was over and the two main characters reflected what was ahead of them (note: Batman Begins also was the first Batman movie where Gordon was treated as an actual character). Instead of just using another Batman villain to keep fans excited (which it did) the scene was a retrospective of Batman Begins and the efforts as well as a promise that in this world no action goes without consequence. As this scene says and The Dark Knight re-iterates the Joker is here because Batman has changed the game.
The thing that makes this scene even sweeter is the fact that we now know that the card is not just an empty promise for fans (like hinting at the Mandarin in Iron Man) but reminds us of one of the greatest movie villains of all times.
3. Batman and the Joker
…or any other Joker scene from the movie.
If people will completely forget the story of these Batman movies they will always remember Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker. And out of all the fantastic scenes where Ledger just IS the Joker I picked the interrogation room in the Gotham Major Crimes Unit.
Each movie in the trilogy has a specific inspiration aside from comic book storylines.
- Batman Begins – Blade Runner
- The Dark Knight – Heat
- The Dark Knight Rises – A Tale of Two Cities
And while you have to look a bit closer to find the similarities between the Narrows and Blade Runner the influence of Heat is right before our eyes. The crime drama Heat (by Michael Mann) features two main protagonists (Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro) on the opposing ends of the law. One scene in particular has them finally meeting and sitting down on a table for a talk.
The equivalent of this scene can be found in The Dark Knight where Batman and the Joker finally meet and have a heart to heart.
It is in that scene during which the emotional core of the Batman/Joker-relation is portrayed spot on. And it also shows how dangerous the Joker is. When the clownprince of crime just laughs at Batman even though he is severely hurt one can’t help but feel a chill run down ones spine… this is not your ordinary villain and it is scary.
2. Climbing out of the Pit – The Dark Knight Rises
The Dark Knight Rises made the decision to return the focus back to its main character: Bruce Wayne.
Where The Dark Knight was a city drama about many ideas in which Batman and Joker represented opposing ideas the final movie was the struggle of Bruce Wayne visualized in the sieged Gotham. It is interesting that in The Dark Knight Batman was a bystander while Gotham decided. Whereas in The Dark Knight Rises both Gotham and Batman become one character.
The broken hero was forced to watch as everything he fought for was burnt to the ground. Left in a prison that resembled the well little Bruce fell into as a little kid there was just no way out. And as with any true hero story Bruce Wayne did the impossible. Against all odds despite all his failings he never gave up.
And this is a very integral part to the Batman mythos – he will not stop.
So when Bruce Wayne made the final climb and Hans Zimmer’s amazing score kicked in I was feeling like a little kid again. Even though I knew from cinematic conventions that he would succeed it was such an exciting and affirming scene.
If there was only one visual image to sum up Christopher Nolan’s trilogy it would be the image of Bruce Wayne climbing out of the pit. Despite the darkness and grittiness of this world Nolan never loses his optimism. After all is said and done this trilogy is the story of overcoming your worst fears and never giving up.
Bruce Wayne doesn’t even have to wear the cape and cowl in this scene for us to understand that this is a fundamental scene for Batman as a character and symbol.
1. The hero Gotham deserves – The Dark Knight
The reason The Dark Knight still stands tall among all the comic book movies and blockbusters is because it doesn’t descend into standard explosion stuff at the end (see nr.8).
My primary fear for the second Batman movie was that it might turn out to be a really good movie but would end with a cliffhanger that introduced Two-Face – as so many comic book movies love to do.So instead of getting a fully rounded movie I would get a good The Dark Knight which would be incomplete and would depend on part 3 to either be great or disappointing.
What Nolan did with Two Face is something many other directors and executives should learn: instead of endlessly teasing us with half-baked storylines lacking any payoff Nolan gave us a Two Face storyline that was central to the entire movie instead of wasting half of the movies runtime for an advertisement to make us watch part 3.
Sure it is a much more difficult task and our desire to watch part 3 can no longer be an empty promise but has to come from us still wanting to see more even though the story has concluded – it definately is more difficult than having Samuel L. Jackson interrupt a movie for a commercial but from a creative standpoint it is much more fulfilling.
The Dark Knight cemented its place among comic blockbusters because it told a complete story from start to finish and didn’t hold anything back (just look at Amazing Spider-Man, X-Men, Spider-Man or any other franchise right now). On top of that the movie didn’t culminate in the final setpiece of the ferries.
Instead you could re-enact the entire last scene on a theater stage. Just three men and three victims discussing the entire story which ends in a tragic death.
And as if to heighten the entire thing the heroes at the end do not truly win – nor does evil truly triumph. Watching the ending of The Dark Knight the first time was just such a bittersweet moment. In a beautiful visual cue the innocent fanboy is represented in Gordon’s son who does not understand how a hero can be hunted for doing the right thing.
On the other hand the older Gordon understands and pretty much tells his son and the audience that this is just not your standard superhero movie – this is something more!
You become something else entirely…
Much like the idea in the movie Batman lives on.
There will come a time when the eventual reboot happens and we can only hope that it won’t a hollow imitation of Christopher Nolan’s approach. Batman doesn’t have to be the Nolan way – he has survived and evolved through decades in various iterations. A look at the current Arkham-games shows that there is much more to Batman than what we have seen and just looking at the comics tells us that there are still thousand of fantastic storylines that have yet to be told.
But until such reboot comes let’s celebrate this great trilogy and may the legacy of Christopher Nolan’s Batman and all the great artists who made this happen live on!