A clean sweep of sunny bank holiday weekends was always too good to be true. So it was the final bank holiday weekend of 2018 saw a return to form, grey skies and torrential rain. For the movie fan it was a blessed release after months of summer weather; stuffy living rooms and sun blasted TV screens make movie watching a chore. You can’t see what’s going on in darker films and the warm weather calls you to the garden rather than the sofa. The perfect antidote to a rainy bank holiday Sunday then? An impromptu movie marathon, and for FilmsFilmsFilms sixteenth epic it was nine hours with Gotham’s Dark Knight.
By the end of the twentieth century Batman movies were anathema to comic book fans. As the nineties Batman films leaned ever more towards the camp of the sixties TV show, fans and critics became increasingly non-plussed with the big screen outings. But despite the critical kicking Batman & Robin (1997) received the film still managed a $238million take on a $125million budget. Seeking further profit Warner Bros. greenlit a fifth film. Tentatively scheduled for a mid-1999 release, Batman Unchained was to feature Scarecrow as the villain, the Joker returning in the form of maniacal visions, and Harley Quinn making her debut. When this idea was dropped a live-action version of the animated series Batman Beyond was considered. Bat-fans were not particularly moved by either idea.
The main frustration was that the perfect material for a great Batman movie was already waiting for an adaptation. Frank Miller’s 1986 four part comic The Dark Knight Returns brought Batman back to his shadowy origins, dispensing with the camp and colourful caped crusader and returning to the violent, set-in-reality vigilante. The comic mini-series was a hit and became one of the most renowned comic books of all time. It was quickly followed by Batman: Year One, also by Miller, which retold Batman’s origin as a crime fighter grounded in reality.
Noting the success of more reality-tinged comic book movies such as X-Men (2000) and Spider-man (2002) Warner Bros. dispended with continuing the Tim Burton/Joes Schumacher series in favour of a reboot. It was the first of a number of bold moves that would lead to incredible success; second was the hiring of writer/director Christopher Nolan. With only three critically successful but low-key thrillers to his name (Following (1998), Memento (2000), Insomnia (2002)) Nolan was an unusual but inspired choice. Seeking more conventional support they paired Nolan with writer David S Goyer, who had the underrated Blade (1998) and Blade II (2002) on his résumé.
The main inspiration for Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) was the 1989 comic book story The Man Who Falls by Dennis O’Neil and Dick Giordano, which detailed Bruce Wayne’s early years, his parent’s death, his travels around the world, and his eventual return to Gotham. Batman: The Long Halloween also provided inspiration in the form of head gangster Carmine Falcone, while Batman: Year One and Batman: Dark Victory provided a number of story cues. Batman Begins eventually took $375million on a $150million budget, wowed critics, and launched Nolan’s career as one of the most sought after directors in Hollywood. Most happy though were the fans; finally they had a Batman movie that was focused on Batman, not the colourful villains he pursued.
Begins kicked off our movie marathon at 1pm. Sixteen years on, it’s still a staggering movie, not just for what it achieved but for the freedom Warner Bros. gave Nolan. It’s unusual these days for a big studio to give the reins of such a big property and budget to a relatively untested writer and director team, but the studio stood by the pair’s decisions no matter how un-commercial they seemed at the time. The biggest of these, which stills stands out today, is the lack of Batman action in the early running; its sixty three minutes before we first see Batman in the cape and cowl. It’s a testament to Nolan, the script and his cast that the film doesn’t suffer one iota for the delay.
Nolan wanted actors over A-listers and it was this choice more than any other which ensured the success of his Dark Knight trilogy. A few actors had expressed interest in the title role, including ironically Health Ledger and Cillian Murphy, but Christian Bale was an early frontrunner from back when director Darren Afronosky was planning his own Batman adaptation. One of the finest actors of his generation Bale anchors the film from the minute he first appears on screen; young enough to play the pre-trained Bruce, worldly wise enough to play the confident older Batman, and dark enough thanks to previous turns in the likes of American Psycho (2000) and Shaft (2000), there’s no question that this is the definitive take on Bruce Wayne.
Elsewhere Nolan ensured that just about every role on screen went to a fine actor, even down to the likes of Rade Serbedzija as a homeless man, ‘That’s a nice coat’, and John Nolan (Christopher’s uncle) as Fredricks, characters that sometimes only had a few seconds of screen time. The biggest roles went to some of the best performers of the time. Gary Oldman was originally cast as Ducard/Ra’s al Ghul, but when Chris Cooper had to step away from the Jim Gordon role Oldman took the much better fit as the Gotham police detective. Capitalising Nolan placed Liam Neeson in Ghul’s shoes. Using all of the good will from roles in Schindler’s List (1993) to Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999) there is an instant rapport between Neeson/Ducard and Bale/Bruce that gives the film’s villain the sort of grey areas most other thrillers can only hope for. Ghul isn’t just a crazed lunatic; he’s a man of honour on a quest which, as history has shown, could well be a necessary one. And there is an unquestionable bond between Ghul and the man in his way, Bruce Wayne.
Despite being charged with making a blockbuster popcorn movie Nolan was allowed to pepper his film with a host of genuinely chilling imagery. Dr. Crane/Scarecrow’s hessian sack mask is the thing of nightmares, as are the various visions both he and his victims suffer throughout; see the nightmare Batman Crane has to face when he gets a taste of his own medicine, creased face and hideous goo pouring from his maw. Elsewhere there are suitably grim happenings through the movie, from the execution scene in the League of Shadows lair ‘Your compassion is your weakness’, to Batman almost meeting a fiery end ‘You need to lighten up’; not many blockbusters would torch their hero alive half way through the run time.
Tempering the darker parts of the story are two more fantastic casting choices, Michael Caine as butler Alfred Pennyworth and Morgan Freeman as tech provider Lucius Fox. With acting chops to spare they sell the lighter lines effortlessly, ensuring the ‘jokes’ in Begins come across as genuine banter, ‘You can borrow the Rolls if you like’, rather than forced Hollywood humour. Finally moving Alfred away from the fussy butler role, Caine wrote the character his own back story, that of a retired SAS soldier employed by Thomas Wayne to look after his family. It was a rewriting that took hold, utilised by comic writers in subsequent versions of Alfred such as Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Batman: Earth One and by the 2015 Gotham TV show. The softer side of the film also saw the only miscasting in Begins; Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes manages to drum up very little chemistry with Bale. But even this played in to Nolan’s hands as Rachel leaves Bruce in the finale, ‘The man who vanished, the man I loved, he never came back at all’.
Around 3.30pm Begins finishes with that perfect end note, Nolan’s tease of what was to come, the Joker calling card presented to Batman by Lieutenant Gordon. Fans had to wait three long years for The Dark Knight (2008) but it’s just a quick five minute break for us to restock snacks and drinks.
Much has been said about The Dark Knight. It’s been so lauded that its now suffering that bizarre post-millennial phenomenon of being bashed by some movie ‘fans’ precisely because it’s so good. I challenge anyone to find any large holes in Nolan’s sequel though; as we watched I tried myself and found just two. Nestor Carbonell’s Mayor Garcia wears far too much eye make-up, and the exposition-spewing SWAT cop sat next to Gordon during the Dent transfer/Joker capture set-piece is the most annoying character in the entire trilogy, ‘Ok, that’s not good.’
Apart from that The Dark Knight is just about perfect. It’s not only the greatest comic book movie ever, it’s so good it completely elevates itself out of the sub-genre to become one of the greatest crime thrillers as well. The source material was of the highest quality again. Goyer, drawing on Batman: The Long Halloween, originally wrote a two film treatment, picturing two movies with the first ending with the Joker burning Harvey Dent’s face during his trial, leading to Two-Face emerging as the villain for the third film. The stories were combined to create a single script though, drawing on Batman issue 251 and the story entitled The Joker’s Five Way Revenge in which Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil reintroduced the Joker in to the comic after a long absence. The Dark Knight was to be about trios, the Joker-Batman-Harvey Dent battle, and the Bruce-Rachel-Harvey triangle.
Much has been said of Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker. The Academy Award posthumously awarded Ledger the Best Supporting Actor Oscar (though, despite fully deserving it, one wonders whether they would have been so generous if he was there to collect it in person) and it remains a masterful performance. The credit really should go to Ledger as the writing of his lines was occasionally uneven; while the monologues about his ‘smile’ remain gripping, elsewhere he sometimes strays in to cliché, ‘I’m an agent of chaos … this city deserves a better class of criminal … you remind me of my father, I hated my father.’ Despite this Ledger’s mad man remains mesmerising throughout, though not to the detriment of those around him; unlike Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson’s 1989 tussle, Ledger’s Joker doesn’t over power Bale’s Batman. And completing the trio Aaron Eckhart gives his own, often overlooked, powerhouse performance as Harvey Dent/Two-Face, ‘Then why was it me who was the only one who lost everything’.
Beyond Ledger, Bale and Eckhart, Nolan took what made Begins great and built upon it. Once again he cast exemplary actors in every role, even the small parts; see William Fichtner as the bank manager, Anthony Michael Hall as a news reporter, and Tiny Lister as the ferry con with a conscience. Those castings missteps from the first film were improved upon; Eric Roberts made a far better mob boss than the wonky accented Tom Wilkinson, and Maggie Gyllenhaal was a much better Rachel Dawes crafting solid chemistry with both Bale and Eckhart. The horror leanings crept in again to, with the horrific burning of Harvey Dent’s face and the Joker’s penchant for bursts of horrific violence, ‘We’re gonna have … try-outs’. Even Hans Zimmer managed to improve upon his fantastic work scoring Batman Begins, delivering a soundtrack for The Dark Knight which will remain one of his all-time best.
The real star though remains Nolan. The Dark Knight, despite its epic run time of 152 minutes, remains stunning to look at from start to finish. There’s barely a moment that passes where the film couldn’t be paused to capture a stunning visual, from the Joker hanging out of a stolen police car to Batman brooding over the fiery wreckage of 250 52nd Street. Amongst this visual arrestment are some of the greatest set-pieces in modern action cinema, none more astonishing than the Joker capture and escape, starting with the grandiose truck assault and ending with the shattering race against time to save two of the key story protagonists. There was consternation at the time of the 2009 Academy Awards that the film wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, and rightly so; it was easily the equal of the five films that were nominated, Slumdog Millionaire, Milk, Frost/Nixon, The Reader, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, and arguable better than all of them to.
At 6.30pm we have our last snack refuelling before popping The Dark Knight Rises (2012) in to the blu-ray player. Nolan had a tough task topping The Dark Knight and it was a mountain he couldn’t quite get to the top of. As before, we scribbled down those minus points as the 165 minute run time went by. The first, and it was a minus point in early 2012 before the film had even been seen, was the title. Rises automatically gives the game away that there will be an optimistic outcome for Bruce Wayne, and where as the previous two films had unique titles part three felt like Rises had just been tacked on to the previous moniker.
Casting was strong again, with solid actors joining the cast to fill out the new roles. But the writing for the new characters wasn’t quite so good third time around. Anne Hathaway looked stunning as Selina Kyle/Catwoman, but the character lacked a lot of sympathy. She had very few amiable qualities and delivered most of her lines in a snarky fashion, with little justification for being a bit of a bastard other than hailing from the wrong side of the tracks; it’s conflicting to see a character with so little empathy ultimately end up with our hero from three films. Marion Cotillard is poorly served also. Even though her character had to be downplayed to preserve the climatic plot twist (which isn’t particularly difficult to guess) Miranda Tate is painfully underwritten. She’s such a thin character its jarring when Bruce jumps in to bed with her mere seconds after mulling over a photo of his dead beloved Rachel.
There were also a few holes in the films plot. That central image of Bane and Bruce being stuck down a prison pit in some far eastern country was striking to look at and made for a solid if cliché redemption moment (a literal leap of faith) but why hadn’t one of the prisoners lugged a plank of wood up to that impossible jump years earlier so everyone could get out? There’s also question marks over how a small bunch of terrorists could hold a huge city island of twelve million inhabitants completely hostage, moving bomb or no moving bomb.
Despite these niggles there’s still a huge amount to enjoy with The Dark Knight Rises. After seeing how successful Ledger was in the Joker role Warner Bros. pushed for The Riddler to be the central villain of the third film, with Nolan encouraged to cast Leonardo Di Caprio in the role. But Nolan was insistent on using villains that could would fit the ‘real world’ feel of his trilogy, fearing that the more fanciful aspects of the Riddler, Mr Freeze, Poison Ivy and others would undo his good work. Jonathon Nolan, Christopher’s brother who had joined him on The Dark Knight to help perfect the script, pointed towards Bane and the infamous 1993 story arc Knightfall where, for once, Batman is completely bested by one of his adversaries.
Taking cues also from Miller’s 1986 The Dark Knight Returns Nolan painted Bruce Wayne as a broken down recluse, no longer needed by a Gotham now at peace. Drawing further inspiration from the 1999 comic storyline No Man’s Land Nolan gave Rises a much larger scale than the previous two films, turning the entire city in to a terrorist state, abandoned by the rest of the America. It was a bold escalation but Nolan achieved it thanks to some great visuals and effects.
Key to the terrorist plotline was Tom Hardy’s Bane. Questionably jarring voice effects aside (no matter where Bane is on screen his voice always bombs from the speakers) Hardy created a unique but equally dangerous villain different to those that had been seen so far. If the Joker would toy with you to achieve his ends, Bane would simply smash you in the mouth and march onwards undeterred. The only down side to Bane is his complete mistreatment in the finale; despite the charisma and brilliance of Hardy’s performance he’s instantly side-lined for Talia al Ghul and dismissed by a simple Bat-Pod tyre to the nether regions. We’re not even told what happens to him after this. It’s a cheap end for a great villain.
Fans at the time bemoaned the apparently cheesy reveal that Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Officer Blake is to become Robin, given the ‘keys’ to the Batcave to continue Bruce’s work. It’s a fitting end though and repays a character that showed great heart throughout the film. Fans also questioned whether Alfred really did see Bruce and Selina in Florence during the climax or whether it was another dream sequence. Nolan, Bale and Caine have all gone on record as confirming it happened though. And rightly so; Alfred is the heart of the series and deserved his moment, particularly after Caine’s genuinely moving moment by the way Wayne burial plot, ‘I failed you’.
The general disappointment was that Rises' conclusion was too schmaltzy but upon closer examination the end of the trilogy was a mixed bag for the Gotham good guys. While Robin Blake inherited a superheroes cave and Wayne Manor became a home for orphaned children, Commissioner Gordon's family didn't return and remained in Cleveland. And though his heroics in saving Gotham would likely undo the damage caused by the Harvey cover-up, questions would likely remain for some.
Anyone that knows the Batman comics well will know that the Bruce and Selina relationship is a fractious one, even at the best of times. Absconding to Florence might have put a smile on Alfred's face but most would give it a month or two tops before Selina is bored of Shiraz on the banks of the Arno; Bruce as well for that matter. Katie Holmes' Rachel might have been a somewhat limp character but her final lines might be the most important of the trilogy 'No, this is your mask. Your real face is the one that criminals now fear'. Life without purpose is nothing and Bruce's purpose is protecting Gotham. Is it really a happy ending that he no longer has that?
It's this central debate that runs throughout the films and more than anyone else, including Alfred or any of the captivating villains, this is Bale’s trilogy as he goes about tackling the big questions raised by Bruce Wayne's situation. Throughout the three films Bale was never anything but superb, no matter what line he was delivering, what punch he was throwing, or what dodgy growl he was asked to employ. It’s not always easy to feel empathy for a sulking billionaire, even one that has lost his parents at a young age. But with Bale in the role for nine hours you’re by Batman’s side every step of the way. He is the audience's beacon through three films wrapped in melancholy. The sun rarely shines in Gotham, literally and figuratively, but Bruce/Batman is our guide through it all.
Since The Dark Knight trilogy restored the faith in all things Batman, some commentators have accused Nolan’s trilogy of flooding cinema with far too comic book movies. It’s unfair to place blame for the choices of other studios and filmmakers on Nolan or Batman though. That so many others have tried to emulate what they achieved is testament to how good Nolan’s trilogy is; imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. It hasn’t served everyone well to try and copy the Nolan template though. One of the most important reasons for the trilogies success is the grounding in reality Nolan insisted upon. That can work when dealing with a man whose abilities extend to a big bank balance, a strong intellect, and the ability to punch people really well, or terrorists with a flair for the theatrical, but chuck in flying man-gods from other planets and it suddenly seems silly to push for maximum realism. It hasn’t stopped DC and Warner Bros. from trying though. Their Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and Justice League (2017) may have been battered by fans and critics alike but they still earned an obscene amount at the box office.
As the credits rolled on Rises we wondered whether we’ll ever see a return to the Nolan/Bale Bat-universe. Neither of them seem like the type of filmmakers to return to old ground just for a pay day, and with the crude but financially successful DC universe still pulling in punters it seems unlikely that Bale will ever don the cape and cowl again. But with the current Batman Ben Affleck being relatively public with his unhappiness in the role, Dark Knight fans start to wonder. The perfect source material already exists. Miller’s Dark Knight mini-series trilogy is built around a more mature Bruce Wayne in his Autumn years having to come out of retirement to save a future Gotham. Perfect then for an older Bale and Nolan in ten or fifteen years time.