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by Thom Yee

batman-begins-one

Dark Knight images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

I’m not sure I fully understand why people like Batman so much, because I don’t think the Batman most people like is the same Batman that I like. My Batman is less a [Bat]man but a [Bat]god, the ultimate human, the first human superhero, and the kind of hero that never once makes you question his value among a pantheon of god-like superbeings. The kind of superhero that can bring down an alien overman. The kind of superhero so resilent that he’s endured the campiest of the ‘60s and the darkest of the ‘80s. The kind of superhero who can defeat three Martians at once and on his own, Martians that had beaten the entire Justice League, by being the first to discover their one weakness. He’s there because he’s the Dark Knight Detective, the smartest one in the room even when that room contains people who were gifted with intelligence as a superpowers.

As a ‘90s kid, that’s the Batman I was lucky enough to grow up with in Grant Morrison’s JLA, a universe-shattering comicbook that, in spite of because of its superheroic imagination, informed most of my literary tastes and preferences. But I also grew up with those terrible ‘90s Batman movies, where the colours were neon, the villains were cartoonish grotesqueries, the sidekicks were grating (“Holy rusted metal, Batman”), and where [Bat]nipples occupied a greater part of the conversation than they ever should have. Like everyone (especially lately), I love Michael Keaton as an actor, and I’ll admit that he was a remarkably strong Batman and an even better Bruce Wayne (even if, in those days, the actors didn’t have to work out or receive any training to convince us they had spent the last decade training mind and body to the peak of human perfection), and, like everyone, I can appreciate that first Batman movie for what it was — one of the more coherent Tim Burton movies — but things fell off with alarming pace with that franchise’s first sequel (Batman Returns) before jumping straight off a cliff in the Schumacher years (Batman Forever Batman & Robin).

 

Dark Knight Rises

This is my batsuit. There are many like it, but this one is mine. It has no nipples.

Like their comicbook inspirations, comicbook movies can be broken down into respective ages, with the golden age beginning with Superman the Movie and ending with Batman in 1989, the silver age beginning with Batman Returns (1992) and ending with Mystery Men (1999), the bronze age beginning with X-Men (2000) and ending with Spider-Man 3 (2007), and the current modern age beginning with Iron Man in 2008. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy stands apart from all of these ages, however, an aberration right in the midst of our transition towards the modern, just after the time when movie producers’ realized that faithfulness to source material was important (with the first X-Men), and the first to show us all that the superhero concept can be taken seriously.

The kids of the 2000s are lucky to have grown up in a time when a Batman trilogy could have only one actor playing Batman, with the same director throughout, and where the consensus worst of the three is a movie as good as The Dark Knight Rises. Whatever you may have thought of Christopher Nolan when he was named director of the Batman cinematic reboot, and no matter what you may think of him now, he was undoubtedly an unusually strong choice at the time, and looking back, it’s hard to argue against his Dark Knight trilogy as being anything less than an extraordinary work that’s both entertaining and impactful, even if you might not love all its chapters. Remember at the time that a dark, self-serious and starkly realistic Batman was an unproven cinematic formula, Christian Bale had yet to become a star, we were still far from discovering what a superlative and iconic Joker Heath Ledger would be, and, quite frankly, nobody thought a comicbook movie could be important.batman-begins-head



Batman Begins


It’s strange to think that up until this point, there had yet to be a full onscreen Batman origin, particularly from our current perspective where the prevailing wisdom would suggest that most everyone is tired of origin stories regardless of how familiar they are (or are not) with that hero’s beginnings. The only thing stranger might be that much of the Batman origin, regardless of medium, lacks true definition beyond the broad strokes. The plot remains the same — rich industrialist parents killed violently, brooding left-behind son travels the world learning how to defeat crime, son, having learned the mind of the superstitious and cowardly criminal lot, returns to ensure no one will have to suffer like he did — but the finer details have been reinterpreted multiple times.

For the first chapter in Nolan’s Batman, the director (along with writer David S. Goyer) chose to frame the traditional origin against the backdrop of the legendary Batman villain Ra’s al Ghul and his League of Assassins, in this case renamed the League of Shadows. Bruce’s world travels in Nolan’s interpretation weren’t focused training as much as they were general thuggery that had led him precisely nowhere until meeting Ra’s’ disciple, Ducard (Liam Neeson), whose teachings formed the backbone of everything he would later become. When he discovers the League’s true plans to destroy Gotham, it’s up to young Bruce to return to Gotham, take up the mantle of the Bat, and fulfill his heroic destiny.

The great Ra's al Ghul, defeated by some... falling debris...

The great Ra’s al Ghul, defeated by some… falling debris…

Though it’s established early that Bruce had become a formidable and ferocious opponent, Ducard’s methods turned Bruce from the almost feral dog he was slowly becoming into the thoughtful, refined warrior he would need to be in order to wage his war on crime, and this is where we’re introduced to a lot of the more recognizable elements of the Batman lore, including broader elements like his martial arts skills and his ability to disappear, and some specifics like his scalloped arm guards, smoke bombs and projectiles, and the very dedication to theatricality and deception that would lead to him dressing up like a bat. After its release, one of the standout aspects of Batman Begins was how real it felt, how plausible it seemed that a comicbook character like Batman could develop and exist in a world so much like our own, particularly as we saw Bruce putting together his arsenal from the various pieces left for him from the Applied Sciences division of Wayne Enterprises. Whether it was the Nomex-survival-suit armour, gas-powered grapple gun, or memory-fabric cape, everything in Batman Begins was built at a level of reality unparalleled in any previous superhero movie, and though all of this attention to real-world detail made the character and story that much easier to invest in, what would ultimately make this version of Batman click was selling the idea of Batman himself as something for Bruce to devote himself to as an ideal — a legend. It wasn’t the direct threat that there might be some guy in a batsuit who might beat you up if you were doing something wrong but the implied threat that there’s something out there, unknowable, almost otherworldly, ready to strike at a moment’s notice.

And then there was the Tumbler.

Chicks dig the tumbler.

Batman Begins deals primarily with themes of fear, justice, legend and myth, where Gotham is an irreparable haven of scum and villainy. Eventually we learn the greater truth of Gotham City, the death of Bruce’s parents, the League of Shadows, and Ra’s al Ghul himself, and though it all works, at least at this beginning point a lot of it comes across as more than a little heavy-handed. You get the sense that the City of Gotham, like many of the greatest cities in many of the better movies, is meant to be a character in and of itself pretty much because you’re bashed over the head with exposition on what a grim den of corruption it’s become, especially after Rachel Dawes’s speech on the nature of justice and her discussion with (or more correctly at) Bruce on those who’ve suffered under the city’s criminal oppression. Katie Holmes’ Rachel, a childhood friend of Bruce and current Gotham City Assistant District Attorney, comes off as sanctimonious more often than not, and she’s a real drag on the film overall. Physically, she just doesn’t look mature enough for the role, and she lacks the screen presence to carry the role with any real sincerity.

Better Off Dead

Better Off Dead

Bruce’s entire childhood in Batman Begins is idealistic, idyllic almost to the point of mythology, and what’s weird about that is, in sharp contrast to the gritty realism of the Batman we get in Batman Begins, it’s much harder to swallow Bruce’s childhood pre-parents dying than it is to believe that a billionaire playboy would dress up like a bat and beat people up at night. One of the single unifying themes that makes Batman a relatable character is the profound loss he would have felt at his parents death, something that’s always been easy to take for granted, and something that’s rarely been explored for its emotional content. In Batman Begins, unfortunately, it’s another missed opportunity to make Batman a sympathetic character, with a Thomas Wayne who reeks of moral superiority, and a Martha Wayne who’s never really Bruce’s mother, and is here reduced to the point of a single line (in addition to a scream) in the entire movie. To the extent that they’re present, you really get the feeling that the two would’ve become insufferable had they survived to Bruce’s teenage years.

Not gods — Batmen. The next best thing.

Not gods — Batmen. The next best thing.

In the absence of his parents, Michael Caine’s Alfred and later Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox, have much stronger roles as Bruce’s confidantesn, bringing a much needed dose of humor and wisdom to the proceedings, although it’s a little hard to believe how easily the two buy in to the whole Batman idea. Especially for Alfred, who’s become a surrogate father to Bruce, it’s strange to see him immediately fall in line with Bruce’s plans. In terms of scripting it makes sense for Alfred to act as a sounding board to verbalize what Bruce is doing to put his arsenal together, but it’s hard to imagine a father figure like Alfred being okay with his son running around late at night, bounding across rooftops, making enemies of criminals and cops alike in a vain attempt to deal with his childhood trauma. I’m also not a big fan of Ra’s al Ghul’s role in Bruce’s development. While it serves the story well and gives the entire saga coherence in its later chapters, it takes away from Bruce’s independence and drive by boiling his inspiration down to a singular influence. In the comicbooks, the formative years of Batman’s training have benefitted from a certain level of ambiguity, a set up that’s allowed him to become the ultimate student of many masters and disciplines, but here, knowing that almost all of his training comes from one master in some ways limits his potential. As I’ve said, it serves the story and makes it an easier story easier to tell, but it’s just not my preference.

The best parts of Batman Begins lie in how strongly the story lays down the foundation of Batman as a rational, comprehensible concept, but in my mind it falls down more than a little bit in its casting, its storytelling choices, the broader picture of what was going on with Ra’s al Ghul’s’ plans, what was going on with the board at Wayne Enterprises, and everything that happened with Scarecrow and mob-boss Carmine Falcone. The movie just takes itself a little too seriously, with themes coming across as so heavy-handed and so over-explained that it sometimes borders more on the ridiculous despite its best intentions.

Thom’s Batman Begins final score

3.5


On the Edge

  • It’s funny that Bruce chose bats as they were a symbol of his earliest memories of fear when many people in the real world’s first exposure to bats comes through reading about Batman himself.
  • Rade Šerbedžija!  In the house!
  • Lambo sponsorship?
  • Rachel drives an early ’90s Ford Taurus? Isn’t she, like, a lawyer or something?
  • Ford sponsorship?
  • So Rachel has a fear of maggots?
  • That batcall was a neat trick. I’m surprised it was never used again.
  • Is it normal to inject antidotes right through a shirt sleeve instead of rolling the sleeve up?
  • For that large of a Birthday party, the crowd sure dispersed quickly. I would’ve thought that the time it would take to get the coats and bring the cars around would’ve made for an interminably long wait before Bruce and Ra’s could get to it.
  • Rutger Hauer was in this movie?
  • All those repeated lines got really, really annoying:


The Dark Knight

I consider the fact that I didn’t see The Dark Knight in IMAX one of the great failures of my life.

After the events of Batman Begins and the beginning of a legend, the streets of Gotham have become much safer for the average citizen as the criminal element, which is, after all, a brotherhood built only from the cowardly and superstitious, recedes back into the darkness at the mere sight of the venerable Bat signal emanating from the rooftop of Gotham City police headquarters. But a new breed of villain is rising from the ashes of the old criminal ways, and before our heroes can prepare, the Joker quickly and ruthlessly undoes all the good that the Batman had done in his first year in Gotham. Overwhelmed by the brazen exploits of this new clown prince of crime, Batman, alongside the newly promoted Commissioner Gordon, begins to pin his hopes for the future of his city on the shoulders of Harvey Dent, Gotham’s new district attorney, whose work finally seems to be accomplishing more through legal channels than Bruce could ever achieve on the streets.

dark-knight-joker

He may dress crazy, but that’s actually a really nice shirt.

Dealing primarily with themes of escalation and corruption, The Dark Knight took everything that worked in Batman Begins, amplified it and made it better, and set it against a story that can’t possibly be denied. In many ways, The Dark Knight is the Joker’s movie, with Heath Ledger’s turn in the role standing as one of the greatest villains in movie history. The best thing about the Joker is that he’s genuinely hilarious as well as extremely dangerous and ridiculously scary (and that pencil thing really was a great trick). Every time I saw the Joker and really listened to him, I couldn’t help but laugh as he told his adversaries of his varied and sometimes conflicting origins, and eventually I also found that he was hard to disagree with. When Gotham’s remaining crime lords ask him why, if he’s so good, he hasn’t killed the Batman, he responds, “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.” When Batman interrogates the Joker after he’s captured by the police, he’s unable to any answers because there’s nothing the Batman can do to intimidate him. When he later tells Harvey Dent of his role as an agent of chaos, that chaos isn’t just some anarchic symbol of outrage, “it’s fair.” Ultimately, the Joker’s just kind of doing his thing, living life, completely unpredictable, the only one that’s ever truly happy in the whole movie, and it’s almost as impossible to disagree with him as it is to believe that the movie and actor got the character so, so right.

Even as our villains escalate, so too do the hero’s exploits, in particular Batman’s trip to Hong Kong in pursuit of Lau, the Chinese accountant who’s hidden the mob’s funds from the police in offshore holdings. There’s a definite Mission: Impossible-vibe to the whole thing, first with Lucius Fox’s infiltration of the Lau Security Investment Holdings building, and then especially with Batman’s sky hook exfiltration. In general, the action in The Dark Knight is much stronger than anything found in Batman Begins, not just in taking things to the next level, but in much stronger camera work that makes it possible to follow the fight scenes. These scenes aren’t just the result of superior direction but of a rethinking of the bat suit, both at the production level of the movie and as acknowledged within the story, that made it much more flexible and much easier to shoot in brighter lighting conditions. Director Nolan now found himself able to shoot Batman scenes with much more detail because the suit was much more realistic, segmented for flexibility, and had less to hide from the camera.

So did Harvey, like, custom tailor that suit too, 'cause it seemed like he had bigger priorities at the time.

So did Harvey, like, custom tailor his suits too, ’cause it seemed like he had bigger priorities at the time.

It would’ve been enough for me if The Dark Knight was simply an improvement over its predecessor as that movie’s flaws were far from insurmountable, but it’s also a movie that, in its own way, improves on many of the elements of the overarching Batman mythos. Harvey Dent’s turn from the white knight of Gotham City to something far less virtuous is much more convincing than the ol’ acid-in-the-face origin from the comicbooks, and they even play with that origin a little when he punches out a mob thug on the witness stand who pulls a gun on him. When you think about it, there are a lot of questionable elements in Batman lore, but everything about The Dark Knight hangs together so well, and that’s its greatest strength. Where Batman Begins was thematically questionable, The Dark Knight is almost thematically perfect, asking questions about surveillance, morality, the treatment of the mentally ill and the incarcerated, and our faith in mankind, and it brings meaning to the Dark Knight moniker beyond the obvious and beyond the superficial. It’s also the movie that started the whole “the _____________ we need, but not the ______________ we deserve right now” meme that’s been repeated ad nauseum in so many other places.

Accompanied by one of the strongest, most effective marketing efforts I’ve seen for a movie with its “Why So Serious?” and “I believe in Harvey Dent” campaigns, The Dark Knight is easily one of if not the best superhero movies of all time and an extraordinarily fine film regardless of genre or trappings. It is true that most of us still didn’t grow to care about Rachel even with a recasting of the role, and the Harvey Two-Face story could’ve been saved for its own movie, but those are only minor quibbles in a movie that gives us the best Joker of all time, makes us recognize the perhaps more pedestrian but no less impactful heroism of Gotham City’s other protectors, Jim Gordon and Harvey Dent, and even has the balls to ask us important questions about some of our most deeply held beliefs. There are things going on in The Dark Knight that I feel are even beyond me, and that’s not something I usually feel about any movie, superhero or not.

Thom’s The Dark Knight final score

5


On the Edge

  • Ah, William Fichtner, where will you turn up next?
  • Didn’t anyone ever tell you henchmen that it’s a bad idea to follow a leader who openly encourages you to kill your partner?
  • Gotham’s white knight… oh, because the other one’s the Dark Knight…!
  • Lambo sponsorship?
  • Nokia sponsorship?
  • I may have believed in Harvey Dent, but I question his coin-flipping technique (and I know from coin flipping [for best control, the coin rests on the index AND middle finger]).
  • It couldn’t have been good for that truck driver to have the Joker fire that shotgun so close to his face.
  • Nicky Kat!  In the house!
  • Like a leper! (That’s an inside joke.)
  • Money slide!


The Dark Knight Rises

In concluding the Dark Knight trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises has probably become the most divisive of the three chapters. Beginning with a killer opening, that makes even better use of the IMAX format than The Dark Knight’s, we’re introduced to Bane, the last bastion of the League of Shadows and eventually a heretic from that group, who plans to bring Ra’s al Ghul’s plans to a greater, more frightful conclusion than even that original villain imagined. It’s been eight years since the fateful night when Gotham lost Harvey Dent, and the Batman has made few if any appearances since. Real, lasting peace has been brought to Gotham, although built atop the lie of Harvey’s “murder”, and Bruce Wayne has become a recluse after the death of two of his dearest friends. Wayne Enterprises is now a financial shambles, no longer able to fund the philanthropic works of the Wayne Foundation after a failed alternative-energy project, but when Bane’s criminal activities begin to overtake the wretched little city of Gotham, the Batman must come out of retirement to once and for all save the soul of Gotham. Also, Catwoman.

It's ironic how much Tom Hardy's Bane looks like a villain from a Mad Max movie.

It’s ironic how much Tom Hardy’s Bane looks like a villain from a Mad Max movie.

The eight-years-later scenario almost feels like the direct repercussion of no longer being able to use the Joker, who survived in the movie but whose actor had unfortunately died in real life. In laying down the foundations of the Dark Knight legend, Ledger’s Joker himself felt that he and the Batman were meant to duel for the rest of their days, but with that option no longer on the table, it was almost like a part of this Batman died at the same time as Heath Ledger died. What we received instead with The Dark Knight Rises, was a conclusion that very much made this series of films Nolan’s version and very particular to his vision.

One of the stronger arguments against this movie’s premise is its notion that Batman gave up. Broadly speaking, Batman is a relentless, unstoppable force that would never quit, but while that’s true, this Bruce Wayne’s behavior after experiencing a profound and disorienting loss is at least understandable and true to the story being told in this iteration. This is a Bruce Wayne who recognized the Batman as a source of inspiration beyond any one man, one who was ready to retire once true order had finally been brought to Gotham, and one whose hopes were suddenly shattered beyond repair, and just because he’s the Goddamn Batman isn’t necessarily a strong enough reason to deny the human factors of the story.

dark-knight-rises-anne-hathaway

There’s a gun in my pants AND I’m glad to see you.

Even beyond that, people still have a lot of hang-ups over the movie, and while I don’t necessarily disagree with those hang-ups — it’s dense, overlong, that’s not how the stock exchange would work, it seems like everyone knows who Batman is, Bane’s prison doesn’t make sense beyond the metaphorical, is the entire GCPD really dumb enough to get trapped underground? — I think most of those criticisms only gain validity the more disengaged you feel with the movie as a whole, and I also think The Dark Knight Rises had the misfortune to be released only a few months after Marvel’s The Avengers, a movie series that was ushering in a very different kind of superhero movie movement. There are decisions made in the film that feel designed more to test this Bruce Wayne and close this version of the Batman than they were to fit in with other legends of the Batman, and for the most part I feel like this movie is at least a satisfying closing for this story.

The only real problem I have with the movie is how quickly Bruce bounces back from eight years out of the cape and cowl. As someone who’s experienced a similar break from practicing martial arts, I can tell you from firsthand experience that eight years and a severe knee problem really does take it out of you, and a Bruce Wayne who’s spent most of the last eight years up in his room, pining for lost loves, is a Batman who shouldn’t be able to just jump back in with little more than a doctor’s consultation and a leg brace.

dark-knight-rises-robin

Holy sending notes to cops trapped in the sewer, Batman!

I do love Tom Hardy (in general but also in this movie) as Bane, but sometimes I wish they had gone with a more physically imposing actor (by which I mean taller). For his part, Hardy did bring a punishing physicality to the role (did you see the size of his back?), and, oh, that voice. And the way he snapped that nuclear physicist’s neck in front of everyone? Talk about theatricality! Anne Hathaway as Catwoman is pretty much perfect casting, and I like that her cat ears were functional and largely incidental (not to mention her cat suit). The one hero that surpasses all the others in the movie would have to be Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Detective Blake whose turn at the end of the film lends the film a special kind of significance (even if I wish that the reason he didn’t use his birth name was because he didn’t like to be called “Dick”).

One of the things I find most interesting about The Dark Knight Rises is that Bane’s plan, after you take away its outward complexities and wealthiest 1% details, is a really supervillainy plan when you break it down. He’s essentially holding the city of Gotham hostage with an atom bomb until the superhero shows up to save the day. That’s not as many steps away from Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze covering Gotham City in ice as it might seem at first.

What I feel is the most important and most meaningful element of the series, especially in this movie, but also, in retrospect, its predecessors, is that even though the people of Gotham have had mixed feelings about the Batman during his various victories and failings, he became a symbol of hope most strongly for the children of Gotham, all of whom would continue to reiterate their faith that Batman would save them no matter how dire the circumstances had become. It’s almost a meta-admission for the concept of Batman himself, that it takes a certain kind of innocence to really find that level of belief and inspiration in your heart. Personally, I love The Dark Knight Rises as the last piece of the Dark Knight trilogy, even if it lacks the elegance of its predecessor. It’s an honest continuation of the story Nolan first set out, and it gives the Batman concept the room it needs to become a legend, not just in their world, but in ours as well.

Thom’s The Dark Knight Rises final score

4.5heart


On the Edge

  • I like how long it takes the perfect amount of time to recognize it’s Petyr Baelish.
  • Anne Hathaway makes Maggie Gyllenhaal death so worth it
  • Thomas Lennon!  In the house!
  • “A storm is coming… again… for a third time… we like to say that out loud…“
  • Bruce Wayne on the prospect of destroying his sustainable energy reactor: “If the world’s not ready, yes.” Hm, where else have I heard that sentiment?
  • Bane: “Do you feel in charge?”
  • He spends all these years pining after Katie-Holmes/Maggie-Gyllenhaal types and as soon as they’re gone, bam, Marion-Cotillard and Anne-Hathaway types show up out of the woodwork.
  • Subaru sponsorship?
  • Greyhound sponsorship?
  • Hyundai sponsorship?


The Dark Knight trilogy is a bit of an anomaly in the grander scope of superhero movies. It doesn’t truly belong in any one of the various superhero movie ages, it stands apart as its own piece and ultimately takes its shape as only one interpretation of the character rather than being the definitive origin of the character many feel it started as, and it forms a complete story of this Batman even if that story is the one we need rather than the story we want right now.

In this current age of superhero movie proliferation, the biggest criticisms have more to do with continuing cinematic universes — worlds where you need to see every piece to understand the whole, and that’s one of the same arguments that’s been made about the entire superhero comicbook industry that’s chronicled the same heroes for more than 75 years. Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy may ultimately finish in a more conclusive way than a lot of people were looking for, but it also shows us the power of a symbol that endures. In its own way it proves the importance of an ideal and the vitality of stories that continues year after year and decade after decade, for all the generations that would follow them, and in so doing, proves the worth of the superhero comicbook form.

And that’s something that I’ve always believed in.

dark-knight-rises-head

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