The Dark Knight Rises marks the end of what might be the finest superhero trilogy of all time, but is it the best of the three? In this fan’s opinion the answer is “No”. With any trilogy the first question that usually arises is; “Which film is the best ?”. Many would say the Dark Knight, mainly due to Heath Ledger’s Oscar winning performance and the fact that it was an impressive culmination of writing and direction. Initially I too believed that the Dark Knight was the “Ultimate Superhero Movie of All Time”. However after numerous watches there are a few obvious issues that ruin an otherwise highly enjoyable and an impressive technical feat. Hence I give you my reasons for why Batman Begins remains my personal favourite.
Begins is the under-appreciated of the three, not only critically but in terms of its financial gross. Many have dismissed it’s slow pacing and the lack of bold action set pieces when compared to The Dark Knight. Yet it’s the perfect origin story. Nolan balances his take on Batman’s dawn whilst developing the important character of Bruce Wayne. Simultaneously the film manages to emphasise Ra’s Al Ghul’s and the League of Shadows’ unfolding plot to destroy Gotham without losing focus on its primary goal as an “Origin Story”. Blending entertaining action scenes, such as the Bat mobile chase, with Wayne’s personal life, the internal friction within Wayne Enterprises, and his personal relationships with the different characters culminate in a film rich with dynamism, narrative sophistication and ambition. An ambition that’s seen in Nolan’s choice of an antagonist.
Many were surprised by the choice of Ra’s Al Ghul as the main villain. Back then, I admit to being slightly perplexed at Nolan’s decision to tackle a previously unexplored and more “mystical” realm of the Batman Universe. Yet in hindsight it was a smart move that allowed him to bind Wayne’s adoption of the cape and cowl, with the emergence and motivation of the film’s villain without constantly interchanging between the two plot threads. This would have been difficult when using someone like the Joker who would require more focus to be shifted towards his conflict with Batman rather than the origin story arc. This a similar reason for the choice of The Scarecrow, however his character is used to bridge the Falcones’ stranglehold on Gotham to the bigger picture of the League of Shadows. Though I must confess I was slightly disappointed by his demise via a taser.
The common phrase thrown around Nolan’s Batman is “gritty” or “dark”, The Dark Knight stirred up a lot of controversy for pushing the BBFC and CARA rating systems to their limits. Mysterious and brutality are traits of Batman and Gotham’ characters, yet a Begins added a “human” integrity to him and his fellow personalities. Whether it ‘s the quick liners from Alfred or Lucius Fox, they provided light relief from the dark, corrupt setting of Gotham and the visual hallucinations created by the Scarecrow, serving to remind us that Batman is still human. This humour is less apparent in the Dark Knight which tries to produce laughs through the Jokers’ anecdotes and actions. Many would say that humour isn’t really important in Batman films due to the dark and serious nature of the villains and setting. But we have seen recently that films that have “matured” using undertones of seriousness regularly miss the mark of the source material and original influences; i.e Quantum of Solace.
Another aspect that Begins gets right is the Gotham City setting which is much more true to the comics with undertones of the gothic styling that Tim Burton used in the 1989 Batman film as exemplified by the dark, gritty backstreets and slums of the “Narrows”. The film’s colour palette of oranges and browns separate it from sinking into the dark blues and blacks normally associate with modern action cinema, and in turn give the locations and surroundings an essence of character that’s missed in Knight and Rises. The Gotham City in both the Dark Knight and Rises, even though grounded, revolves too much around the cities of New York and Chicago losing the sense that Gotham City is actually a fictional place rather than based on a specific location.
I’m not saying that The Dark Knight is awful, on the contrary as I said previously Heath Ledgers’ performance is the most outstanding within the trilogy. But that’s precisely what’s wrong with Knight, it’s a Joker film at heart. Begins’ careful and intricate development of Bruce Wayne and Batman is forgotten and replaced by the sheer presence of Ledger. While the death of Rachel Dawes and the promotion of Jim Gordon to Commissioner offer substantial changes in both narrative development and emotional threads, the film ignores the key principles of Bruce Wayne and Batman. The whole idea about Batman is that he has no super powers, bar the millions of dollars and high tech gadgets he possesses, and therefore the character Bruce Wayne undergoes many of the internal struggles and psychological fragilities as a regular human being. Batman only represents the brute that exacts fear into others, leaving all the burden to fall on Wayne tragic shoulders. It forgets this element to the point that we hardly see Bruce in Knight. Instead The Dark Knight compiles of numerous action scenes with Batman most notably the motorcycle chase and the final standoff with the Joker, which are all entertaining and good to watch but doesn’t really give us the sense that we can really relate to the character of Bruce Wayne when all we are witnessing is Batman beating the pulp out of enemies.
Another glaring problem with The Dark Knight is its third act, especially the way the character of Harvey Dent / Two Face is handled. In previous films the character has never been truly adapted from the comics to the screen. From a brief “blink you’ll miss it” appearance in Tim Burton’s Batman, played by Billy Dee Williams, to a camp and almost laughable performance by Tommy Lee Jones in Batman Forever, Dent stands as a paramount villain within the comic book universe, yet no-one is willing to explore his tragic backstory . The problem with Nolan’s Harvey Dent is the shallowness and rushed nature of his character progression. From the build-up of Harvey Dent as the “White Knight” of Gotham and then the transformation to Two Face, Knight’s story structure leaves little room for Two Face to make an actual impression, and give a suitable conclusion to the Joker’s “scheme”. Nolan follows his predecessors by not fully delving into the tragedy that is Two Face and how his transformation puts a strain on the relationship between Jim Gordon and Batman, as well as impairing and almost causing Batman to doubt whether he can truly save Gotham. Granted this would have taken another film to progress this specific story arc, however it just seems odd to leave out such a vital character in the DC comics and not even attempt to make a film based on him. Maybe the possible difficulty in grounding a person with half a face in reality may be one of the main reasons that Nolan didn’t continue the Harvey Dent / Two Face story arc, though it would have been nice to see a Batman film based on one of my favourite Batman graphic novels, “The Long Halloween”.
In hindsight, the Dark Knight seems out of place within the trilogy, with the Harvey Dent Act being the only narrative continuation between it and Rises. Many would put this down to the untimely death of Heath Ledger and the belief that the final film would have continued the rivalry between the Joker and Batman. Instead Nolan comes back full-circle and firmly brings the series back to the forefront of Bruce Wayne’s fundamental motives and sensibilities. If I had to score each individual film it would probably go along the lines of a 7 for Dark Knight, 8 for Dark Knight Rises and a 9 for Batman Begins. But at the end of the day a lot of praise should go to Christopher Nolan for creating a trilogy of Batman films that many people would say greatly represents the famous comic books and deserves to have a place on our shelves.