Part 3: Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy
Over the past three weeks, I decided to go on a journey of discovery. I left the comfort of my apathy and dove into the various live action Batman films to prepare for The Batman. It’s been a seven-film journey; and while I won’t be reviewing Snyder’s variant of Batman on the site ,, I will have come a long way from where I began. I’ve been on this journey for seven films, and each film brought something new to the table I loved. Burton’s design of Gotham and his interest in outcasts with a second identity solidified Batman Returns as one of the best Batman movies. Schumacher’s neon-lit world appeals to all ages, being a true comic book that anyone, and everyone, can enjoy. And now, as I enter into the Nolan films, it feels like coming home. I have seen these films too many times to count; they have been fundamental to my view of film as a critic. And now, I return to see how well they hold up compared to the rest of the Batman filmography.
After 1997, Batman went into hiding. Batman and Robin was critically panned, failing to capture the box office like the rest of the franchise, and so Warner Bros let it die. Batman would stay dead for 6 years until his resurrection could bring in new, talented filmmakers to capture the audience. Some major names were thrown around at the beginning, including the new studio darlings Lana and Lilly Wachowski. They were hot off of the Matrix trilogy, and Warner Bros offered them the directing position of the new Batman film. However, they turned it down, to work on another large project: Speed Racer. That vacancy allowed someone else to helm the Batman franchise. That someone would be Christopher Nolan, the genius behind Memento, and he pitched a complete vision of his Batman films to Warner Bros. This vision wasn’t steeped in style, but in making Bruce Wayne as important to the story as Batman was. Add in 150 million dollars, 25 months of development, and here we are, at the release of Batman Begins.
Batman Begins (2005)
Batman Begins was released on June 15, 2005. It marked the end of an 8-year hiatus for the caped crusader and was the first major reboot for the character as well. While Schumacher’s Batman was aesthetically different from Burton’s interpretation of the character, it is presumed that these characters are still from the same world. There are internal references to previous events that glue those four films together, as an anthology of sorts. But with Batman Begins, Nolan wanted a clean slate. New characters, new origins, and new sets were required for this interpretation of Gotham. To create this new Gotham, Nolan brought on production designer Nathan Crowley. Nathan Crowley had worked with Nolan previously on Insomnia and would become his go-to production designer for most projects. Here, Crowley would be responsible for the design of the Batmobile, which had to immediately be recognisable and in line with the pseudo-realistic style of the film. It was immediately recognizable, and cinematically announces this Batman to be an unstoppable force. Nolan would also enlist the help of costume designer Lindy Hemming, to create the iconic suit for the caped crusader. The work of this production team was simple: to create a Gotham City that at once was believable and ridden with crime. The use of miniatures, developed by the special effects crew, would enable the team to create a city that seemed larger than life, without needing to find pre-existing cities to film. But the miniatures were the easy part to build. Multiple Hollywood lots would be combined together, to build the elaborate sets of the Bat-Cave and the narrows. Most of the shooting of Gotham would occur in Chicago, but these custom sets allow Gotham to feel distinct from any major American city.
Accompanying the stylistic changes was the cast of the film. A full overhaul would be required for the audience to buy into the reboot. And so, for the first time in twenty years, Michael Gough would not be reprising his role as Alfred. Instead, Michael Caine would be taking over as Batman’s trusty butler. Caine would build on the performance of Gough before him, keeping the friendly demeanor and adding to it with his sarcastic humor. Every interaction that Alfred has is full of heart and knowledge, adding depth and realism to the relationship between Alfred and Bruce. And speaking of Bruce, Christian Bale was given the role of the titular hero. But unlike so many before him, his performance of Batman would be built upon Bruce Wayne; and the many “masks” Bruce puts on throughout his day. The layered performance that Bale gives is enhanced by his eyes and voice, allowing him to not only be a great Bruce Wayne but a fantastic Batman as well. The physicality of his performance comes through in spades, selling us on this version of Batman.
And the supporting cast is truly spectacular in the film. While previous Batman Films have had some big names attached to them, Nolan took that idea and ran even further with it. Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Gary Oldman, Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson, Morgan Freeman, Ken Watanabe, and Linus Roache are just a few of the stars of this film. Each gives great performances, with Tom Wilkinson’s Carmine Falcone being extremely memorable thanks to his gangster accent. Liam Neeson plays the mentor figure once again, being instantly likable to the audience. To wrap up this reboot, Nolan would need an iconic score for Bale’s Batman. To that end, composers Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard exceed any and all expectations. The iconic Danny Elfman score set a high bar for the duo; Elfman’s Batman set the precedent for all Superhero scores. But Zimmer and Howard sidestepped all the superhero clichés and built something new for themselves, relying more on electronic mixing, string instruments, and the occasional piano to solidify this Batman’s theme.
All these elements are good in their own right, but when unified together under the story written by Nolan and David S. Goyer, become absolutely masterful. In every Batman review up to now, the story has always been something I mention as an aside for these films. The style is the substance, and while the story has usually had merit, it’s not been the core of the film. Enter Batman Begins, where Nolan’s storytelling idiosyncrasies are placed front and center. Here, the story is structured around Bruce Wayne from moment one. The storytelling utilizes flashbacks, intercutting the present with the past, to tell the audience how we got to this moment. Every word in the script is purposeful, telling us something new about Gotham, whilst setting up something else in the movie. The Wayne murders aren’t just a third act reveal to justify Bruce fighting the Joker; rather, it’s the backbone of the film. Gotham isn’t a bad place because of low-level, desperate criminals. It’s a bad place because of a mob that has corrupted the justice system, and due to the apathy from the elite that enables crime to occur.
This is why I come back to Batman Begins. In spite of cinematographer Wally Pfister’s simple photography, the show-stopping style is located in the dialogue exchanges and performances. And thankfully, due to Nolan’s unending desire to shoot on film, a new technology will require the cinematography to become more focused: IMAX.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Needless to say, Batman Begins was a massive success for Warner Bros. Critics and general audiences reacted positively to the film, and its realistic depiction of Batman was praised heavily. To accommodate the success, Warner announced The Dark Knight in July of 2006, and in 24 months, The Dark Knight hit theaters. This would be Nolan’s opportunity to out-do himself in every way, by using IMAX camera’s for 28 minutes of the film. To accompany the visual changes, Nolan would also change the genre of the film. Rather than making a straight-forward super hero film, The Dark Knight would steep further into detective noir. Each element of the film would become more layered, and the cinematic nature of the character was further explored.
Much of the Batman Begins crew would return for the sequel. Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard took the themes from Batman Begins and heightened them, adding in more strings to create the iconic “Why so serious” Joker theme. Costume designer Lindy Hemming would create a new suit for Batman, to visualize his change from Batman to The Dark Knight. The Joker and Two-Face would require significant costume work to fully sell audiences on these new versions of the characters, and Hemmings’s design would go on to become more iconic than Nicholson’s Joker or Jones’ Two-Face. Like all good superhero sequels, Gotham needed a makeover, and production designer Nathan Crowley would deliver in spades. Fewer miniatures were used on The Dark Knight, but the change that Batman has made on the city is shown visually through the wider streets and more natural environments. The special effects team would have to up their game as well and deliver with fascinating stunts and the unreal Bat-pod. The visual effects crew would have to bring Harvey “Two-Face” to life, and the CGI present in The Dark Knight is some of the best of all time. That was the challenge of The Dark Knight. Every element that came before had to be outdone, to warrant Batman not being in the film’s title. This was not a victory lap to stay the course. It was a time for a change, and no clearer is that than in the story, screenplay, and performances.
At the story level, Goyer had already begun planning a sequel for Batman Begins prior to the film’s release. At the time, Nolan was unsure whether he wanted to return, so Goyer began planning two sequels around the characters of Joker and Two-Face. So when Nolan committed to directing the film, much of the groundwork was set in place for The Dark Knight. But unlike Batman Begins, Nolan wouldn’t enlist the help of Goyer to work on the script. Rather, Christopher Nolan would once again team up with his brother Jonathan Nolan to write another film after the success of The Prestige. Together, they would condense the initial story ideas from Goyer to a single film, and add depth to every character interaction they could. Much like Batman Begins, the script would be layered with subtle foreshadowing and callbacks to previous scenes. On rewatch, every word shows itself to be intentional and necessary to the story. Even the simple jokes between Bruce and Alfred are revealing of their greater selves. Interactions between Harvey Dent and Commissioner Gordon are some of the most emotionally tense, and it all builds to a monolithic ending.
A large portion of that is due to the performances, which are aces across the board. Christian Bale ramps up the vulnerability of Bruce Wayne in this entry. Maggie Gyllenhaal takes over from Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes and kills it. Gary Oldman brings out the desperation of a good cop in a bad city as Gordon. Aaron Eckhart anchors the film in Gotham’s white knight, Harvey Dent. His emotional, stoic, and driven performance enables the audience to have hope in a Gotham without Batman. But all of this pales in comparison to the career-defining work of the late Heath Ledger as The Joker. His laugh, his mannerisms, his speaking pattern, these all define who The Joker is. And the Joker makes The Dark Knight truly special.
But for my money, there is a greater improvement in The Dark Knight than all these: the visual storytelling. From the first scene, it becomes blatantly apparent that something big changed between films: The IMAX camera. Due to the size and noise of the camera, cinematographer Wally Pfister was forced to change styles from his previous work with Nolan. Simple close-ups and coverage would no longer be a functional method of shooting since the increased aspect ratio would make close-ups far too large. The size of the camera forced a larger rig to be used, giving a much more intentional approach to each scene and the editing within. And it all coalesced in a grander image than takes its time telling a story. The iconography of Batman feels truly present here, thanks to the various gadgets and the greater visuals. And when every one of these elements combines together, you have an action film that not only defined comic book movies for the next decade: it defined action movies for the decade.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
The Dark Knight posed a major shift for Christopher Nolan. Not only did it challenge him as a filmmaker, but it proved the challenge to be worth it. Grossing $997 million in its initial theatrical run, and crossing $1 billion with its Oscar-season re-release, The Dark Knight solidified Nolan as one of Warner’s biggest directors of all time. The success of The Dark Knight would enable Nolan to complete Inception before returning to Gotham city once again. Like The Dark Knight, Inception became a phenomenon and furthered Nolan’s popularity as a director with American and worldwide audiences. So when it was unveiled that Nolan was returning to helm the finale in the trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, the hype was unforeseen. In the past 2 years, Harry Potter had concluded with The Deathly Hallows Part 2, and The Avengers had just opened in cinemas, paying off the fantasy of every comic book fan. Everything pointed to The Dark Knight Rises being the best film of all time. And so it shocked the world when it wasn’t everything people wanted it to be.
Let me be frank; as someone who watched these movies for the first time in 2017, I think that Rises is a misjudged film. It’s not what you’d expect in 2012 for a Batman film. It’s not the same as The Dark Knight. And for so many, it’s dismissed because of Heath Ledger’s death. But for me, The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t just stand on its own merits. It excels at telling a finale and needs no excuse. And it’s all thanks to the care Nolan puts into his films, and the work of his crew.
As with his prior two Batman films, Nolan would use the same core team for the design of Gotham City and the Caped Crusader. Building off the promise of Wayne Manor being rebuilt, the Batcave was once again created on a soundstage, flooded, and filled with operational bridges and raising platforms. The Dark Knight started a trend for Christopher Nolan, in making practical sets the cornerstone of his world. Nolan’s thesis was that there isn’t anything as cool as knowing that the events in the movie actually happened. And it’s present throughout the entirety of The Dark Knight Rises. Even the computer-generated effects are still composed of real things. Even Batman’s flying vehicle, the Bat, was actually designed by Nathan Crowley to be as tangible as The Tumbler. Although it couldn’t fly, it could be lifted by machines that would be removed in post-production so that The Bat could fly.
That dedication and care went into every aspect of the film’s visual design. And that isn’t to mention the actual set pieces in the film. The Dark Knight Rises has some of the coolest stunts in cinema history, Whether its the opening plane heist, or the stadium attack, Nolan’s blend of visual and practical effects is entrancing. And thanks to the make-up and costume teams, we are able to believe this Gotham is 8 years removed from Harvey Dent. The returning characters of Jim Gordon, Lucious Fox, Bruce Wayne, and Alfred Pennyworth all feel, and look, aged and tired. Even new characters, like Selina Kyle, Blake, and police sergeant Folly, are still worn down by a city that hasn’t had real change.
And the cast members bringing the residents of Gotham to life are working overtime. Michael Caine’s emotional performance in The Dark Knight Rises solidifies him as the greatest live action Alfred. The words that aren’t said are displayed on his face in every scene. And it works in tandem with Bale’s performance to show just how far Bruce has fallen since The Dark Knight. If Bale’s physicality was a defining feature for the character in the earlier films, then here, it’s the removal of that same physicality. Bale has to sell us on the idea that Bruce hasn’t been moving on, and his body language places that idea front and centre. It provides a visual reference for the character arc of the film, which is absolutely wonderful. Tom Hardy’s performance as Bane is gripping, thanks to his *delicious* line delivery and phenomenal body language. Tom Hardy’s eyes are working overtime, due to the mask, and it all works perfectly. Anne Hathaway, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Gary Oldman all give fantastic performances here as well, creating the emotional anchors for the audience within Gotham city.
All of this once again pales compared to the story at the center of The Dark Knight Rises. While I love The Dark Knight, due to the structure and technique on display, it has nothing on my love for The Dark Knight Rises’ story. It’s a finale for the Caped Crusader, the first we’ve ever seen on film. And it’s a film that gathers all the previous themes of the trilogy and roots it all in grief and moving forward. Bruce Wayne has lost near everyone once again, and through these 165 minutes, we watch as he lets go of Batman. For each installment of this trilogy, Nolan only officially signed on after developing a story outline. And while the films are rooted in the political landscape of the late 2000s, the stories have all been focused on Bruce Wayne, first and foremost. Once again, the Nolan brothers would team up to write the screenplay for the film.
It’s fascinating to me how many people dismiss The Dark Knight Rises story, because of some minor third act plot twists. While some sequences haven’t aged the best, there is still more of a beating heart behind The Dark Knight Rises than with most other superhero films released today. It’s a film about the soul of Batman, what it means to be incorruptible and the good Batman inspires. It’s a film that enables Bruce to persevere, to make right the sins of the past by saving the city one last time. It’s a redemption story for a character that lost his one connection to the living world, and lost his cowl to a city without the mob. Like The Dark Knight, it uses present day events to anchor the story in a world like ours. There’s an occupy Gotham movement throughout the film, and Bane utilizes the economic discrepancies between the working class and the elite to make good on the promise Ra’s Al Ghuul made in Batman Begins. Unlike so many disconnected trilogies, it makes a point of building off the previous films thematically to unify the entire trilogy together. And while it does all that heavy emotional work, the film also gets to be a lot of fun for the audience. It’s a film in which Bruce confronts his trauma and grief and is forced to hang up the cowl. It’s a film full of soul, and one that is worth just as much as the others in this trilogy.
How Nolan redefined what the Comic Book Genre could be
In the time since Batman Begins, comic book films have become the dominating film genre. The Marvel Cinematic Universe launched in 2008 alongside The Dark Knight and was more tonally in line with Nolan’s trilogy than the other early 2000s superhero media. The storytelling moved away from the camp that dominated Raimi’s Spiderman trilogy, and towards the pseudo-realism Nolan first brought to the screen. And yet, 14 years later, Marvel still hasn’t come close to creating a trilogy as well as Nolan did; because while Marvel looks at the people behind the mask, Nolan looked at the body and soul of the mask. Gotham may always need a Batman, but it was never tied to Bruce Wayne. Gotham needed someone to push its citizens out of their apathy for one another, and only through Batman was that possible. That level of depth, created from the scripts, to the performances, to the visuals, is why I call The Dark Knight trilogy Cinema.
This journey through the Batman brand has taken us from 1989 to 2012. There are reviews of the Snyder films already on the site, hence why I did not cover them. But functionally, as we prepare for Matt Reeves’ The Batman, I think it’s important to remember how we got here. Each film has brought its own eccentricities to the franchise. Burton defined the atmosphere of Gotham; Schumacher put Bruce Wayne’s relationships at the core; Snyder took Batman as far into apathy as possible and had him confront that; but Nolan looked a little deeper, into who Batman is and why we need him. The Dark Knight Trilogy is fundamentally about the soul of Bruce Wayne: a man trapped in the past trying to fix a world that’s scarred him for life. Each film retains it’s comic book identity while embracing the tropes of other genres. And all those elements combine together to create one of the best trilogies of all time, and the best superhero trilogy put to screen.