In 1997, the Batman saga seemed to jump the shark when George Clooney donned the bat suit in the critically-reviled film Batman & Robin. After four films in that series – featuring three different actors as the Caped Crusader- the franchise seemed to have nowhere to go. It was difficult to imagine then that Batman would soon be revitalized in a new series of films that were both commercially successful and critically-praised.
But that changed in 2005 when Christian Bale put on the suit, Chris Nolan stood behind the camera and a new franchise was born with Batman Begins. Now, it’s hard – especially for young people – to imagine Batman movies without Nolan behind the camera. Seven years after Begins hit theaters, the trilogy reached its inevitable conclusion with the release of The Dark Knight Rises (Read our review). With that in mind, we decided to list the 10 best things about this unforgettable trilogy of films.
Superhero movies are often seen as popcorn flicks. Viewers enter the theater to be entertained and a great superhero film can do that. But Nolan’s Batman films were deeper and more thoughtful than that. Each of them was entertaining, but the movies spoke to something deeper about the human spirit. They struggled with profound themes such as heroism, honor and integrity.
District Attorney Harvey Dent was a prime example of this. A public icon who stood for clean streets and ethical superiority became a vengeful monster when his loved one was murdered. But even after his death, Dent’s legacy was maintained by those who thought to serve a greater good.
The idea of hiding the truth about a political icon in order to maintain public morale, while undermining a true hero’s innocence, was a fine example of how the Nolan’s films took on deep concepts and made them a core part of the franchise.
Many of the previous Batman films were dark affairs. Tim Burton’s films presented Gotham as a cold and dark town with seedy characters and an ugly underbelly. But Nolan’s films took the darkness even deeper.
Never descending into silliness or caricature, these movies maintained a serious tone even as other superhero movies offered more light-hearted fare. Nolan understood the solemnity associated with the story of a man who witnessed his parents get murdered and sought vengeance against his city’s criminal masterminds.
In the latest episode of the Screen Rant Underground Podcast, Kofi Outlaw noted how shocking Rachel Dawes’ death was in The Dark Knight. Dawes, an important supporting player in the first two films, was Bruce Wayne’s on-again, off-again love interest. Few writers would dare to kill off such a character, and even fewer would dare to do it in the middle of a movie.
But TDK showed that the filmmakers were willing to do anything to tell a good story. It was hard not to be surprised when Dawes was killed, but it was difficult not to be impressed with how Nolan used that tragedy to transform both Dent and Wayne into even more troubled figures.
There were several other notable tragedies in this trilogy, but Rachel Dawes’ death was the most interesting; killing off such a vital character set in motion a series of events that made this trilogy even more profound than it would have been, otherwise.
From Batman Begins onward, it was hard not to be impressed by the A-list cast that Nolan brought to the series. Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine (two Oscar-winning actors known for long and brilliant careers) accepted small roles in all three films, playing technological genius Lucius Fox and butler Alfred Pennyworth, respectively.
Nolan was also lucky to get a leading man like Christian Bale, a highly-acclaimed character actor who won an Oscar for his performance in The Fighter (2010). Also on board for the entire series was acclaimed thespian Gary Oldman, who played the small but pivotal role of Commissioner Gordon, Batman’s unlikely ally.
There were dozens of other highly-acclaimed actors who took on roles in the series, including Liam Neeson, Tom Wilkinson, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Marion Cotillard. It’s hard to argue with a cast like that, and many of these actors delivered some of their best performances in these films.
One of the greatest things about this entire franchise was the Oscar-worthy performance of Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. The Joker was portrayed convincingly by Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie, but Ledger took the character to a whole different level, replacing Nicholson’s manic character with a psychopath intent on showing the darkness that lies in each of us.
Ledger posthumously won the Academy Award for his brilliant performance and created one of the greatest cinematic villains that’s ever existed. Of course, Liam Neeson and Tom Hardy took respective turns as the murderous thugs in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises, and both created solid characters, but it was Ledger’s performance alone that created a new breed of cinematic villain.
Christoper Nolan is an imaginative and intriguing director. In movies like Memento and Insomnia, he told complex stories with strong thoughtful characters. Despite using some of the same concepts in his films, Nolan’s movies are always worth talking about and debating.
From Batman Begins on, the auteur redefined what a superhero movie can be. He showed us that they can be serious, high-class affairs that combine special effects and action sequences with discussions about passionate ideas and values. The filmmaker created a series of films that comic book fans can enjoy alongside general audiences and critics, who often look down upon the genre.
Even though Batman’s cinematic saga isn’t over, and someone will likely soon take over the franchise, it will be difficult for the next set of films to creatively stand up against Nolan’s trilogy.
Bruce Wayne, the flawed but self-sacrificing character at the heart of the franchise, is a complex and deep character, and Nolan’s films presented him as the type of hero he was born to be.
With superhero films, viewers are often presented with noble good guys fighting crazy bad guys to save the world, but Wayne’s mission was more nuanced than that. He was simply a scarred young man hoping to avenge the brutal murder of his parents. The feelings of insecurity and loss associated with that traumatic event led him to don a mask in order to protect Gotham from the thieves and monsters who threatened it.
Even while he wore the cape and cowl, he was still a reluctant hero who in TDK found relief in the fact that a politician represented to Gotham a new breed of hero who didn’t need to wear a mask in order to create order in the city. Those hopes faded, but the idea that Wayne wasn’t a typical hero never did.
Batman would not be such a successful hero if it were not for his trio of allies who have looked out for him – sometimes begrudgingly – throughout the series. Those allies were Lucius Fox, Alfred Pennyworth and Jim Gordon. The relationships that Wayne/Batman shared with each of these characters helped him become an unlikely hero.
From Gordon’s trust in him in Batman Begins to Fox’s support for him (despite their ethical disagreements) in The Dark Knight, to Alfred’s overt affection for him in Dark Knight Rises, these characters proved that the Caped Crusader couldn’t be a hero without having his friends stand by him. Although none of these characters was ever the main focus of the story, their supporting turns provided much of the series’ heart.
Of course, these characters were created by strong actors, who allowed them serve an equally strong purpose throughout the trilogy.
As previously noted, director Chris Nolan knows how to tell a great story on film. But in a superhero film, he was also expected to include some special effects – especially during the action sequences.
And in all three films, Nolan proved up to the task. The explosions and effects in these movies never felt over-the-top and obnoxious. They were oftentimes more restrained and powerful than the effects in other, similar, features.
With the bridge explosion in Dark Knight Rises, for instance, the effect wasn’t to blow up the bridge in a flashy, Michael Bay style. The explosion was more subtle and clear, making it far less cartoonish and far more realistic. Such effects helped make the destruction that occurs in all three films more sobering than they would have been, otherwise.
Dark Knight Rises was, unfortunately, Chris Nolan’s final Batman film. The director has proclaimed repeatedly that this was his final film about the Caped Crusader and even penned a goodbye letter to the series. In TDKR, that finality was clear. Nolan just wasn’t making the film in order to end his partnership with the franchise; he made it to end his franchise completely.
Without spoiling anything, TDKR focuses a lot on the ideas and characters that were presented in the first film. As noted in our list of facts you should know before seeing TDKR, seeing Batman Begins and its sequel beforehand is necessary to appreciate the third film for what it is: the final chapter in a well-plotted trilogy.
Not only did Nolan wrap up Batman’s story’s, he used the final movie to question many of the actions in the earlier films, leaving viewers to remember how well these chapters work together as a complete series.
The Dark Knight Rises is the end of what many fans believe is one of the best trilogies of all time. In three chapters, director Christoper Nolan told the story of how Bruce Wayne became the Caped Crusader and how that affected who he was and what he eventually became. It was a masterful series of films that will not soon be forgotten. One can only hope that the next director to helm a Batman film appreciates and builds off of Nolan’s brilliant legacy.
Here, again, is our list of the 10 best things about Nolan’s Batman trilogy.
- The Themes: Thoughtful Ideas to Ponder in a Superhero Movie
- The Tone: A serious setting for a serious story
- The Boldness: ‘Darkness before the Dawn’
- The Acting: A-List Actors all around
- The Villains: Unforgettable Antagonists
- The Direction: A Filmmaker with a Vision
- The Complexity of Bruce Wayne: A Complicated Hero
- The Relationships: Wayne’s Strongest Allies
- The Special Effects: A Visually-Engaging Film Series
- The Completeness : A Finite Story with a Clear Beginning and End
For more news on Batman and my thoughts on this remarkable series of films, follow me on Twitter @johnhanlon.