A Retrospective on Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy

It had been long enough before returning to Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies. With the superhero craze ongoing, though entering either some kind of exhaustion, or hiatus, I find myself simultaneously elated and disappointed: elated because I am hoping it ends, and disappointed that it was not better.

Plenty of people adore their superhero movies, so I do not want to waste my time defending any sort of thesis that suggests that their love of some cultural artifact is somehow weaker than mine. But I DO think that it is fair to say that many superhero movies missed an opportunity to be inventive, creative, or transgressive. Many of the stranger films, like Watchmen or Logan, occurred earlier on in the superhero trends. And once Marvel got its footing with tone and once they had formed the Avengers, the rest started ticking like clockwork. The question in these movies should not have been deciding between either “lighter and humorous,” or “darker and more mature,” but should have been about plots, twists, screenplays with a denser sense of sophistication. It should have been in treating the audience seriously, even if it happened to be about men cavorting around these fictional cities in tights.

Which is why, for many people who like movies and do not like the superhero kind, Christopher Nolan seems like an easy director to point to. The Batman Trilogy attempted to ground the heroes and the villains into a more consistent world, whether that showed in the cinematography of aerial shots of cities devoid of the spray paint and gothic funhouse varieties of the Joel Schumacher films, or in the objects and ideas, from Lucius Fox’s explained gadgets a la “Q” from the Bond films, or in discussing how fear can be used to bring down a fragile society. Gotham represented a microcosm for Nolan to play out his philosophical dramas through Batman. In truth, it could have been done with any character, hero or not, and that is one aspect of Nolan’s work for the Batman that we can say is a possible positive for the trilogy.

Though I wish I was here to tell you that I found the films just as compelling as before, the truth is that my older self found the experience to be more equivocal. They just were not as good as I remember, for a wide variety of reasons. The love for the Batman ballooned in the late 2000s and, coupled with a resurgence in comic book reading and video game playing for the world’s greatest detective, that love was able to dominate the superhero landscape for almost a decade. But, as I watched the series, I found more to regret than to remember. Hopefully here I can describe to you why.

I am not going to divide the experiences of watching each film, but rather I am going to talk about each movie, Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and the Dark Knight Rises (2012), as a single continuum. As we will go on, hopefully it will make more sense when I critique certain aspects of the films that are featured in all three.

But I also want to say, and this is the best place to start I suppose (with the start), that Batman Begins is I think the unsung hero of the trilogy. It may astound you, when you go back and watch The Dark Knight, for example, how little screen time Heath Ledger actually has as the Joker in front of the camera. The sensationalism surrounding his acting, as well as his death, gave this movie an aura of grandiosity that, as a high school senior, made it a must watch. But with that context gone, looking at the films as a composite work (which they are), Batman Begins offers the best narrative momentum, the best thematic core, as well as the best characterizations with strong dialogue. Batman Begins focuses on fear, as well as Bruce Wayne discovering for himself what his own rules are. Having been rejected by Rachel Dawes, his childhood friend, for revealing the fact that he wanted to kill his parents’ murderer, Bruce’s betrayal in the League of Shadows is a major turnkey that the rest of the movies leans on. It is not fair that Batman Begins has this strong weight to its advantage, compared to, say, “truth vs. justice” or perhaps “order vs. chaos” of The Dark Knight, and “inequality” in The Dark Knight Rises, but there it is.

Batman Begins benefits, as I said earlier, from its dialogue. If anyone were to skim the scripts of these three movies, one might find that the dialogue between characters gets chunkier and chunkier. That is, the farther along the movies go, the more the characters talk for longer stretches without interruption. This is not only a problem in the Batman movies, but in Nolan’s entire oeuvre. In fact, one of his best films, Dunkirk, is devoid of that longer dialogue. Or of dialogue at all. Sure, Liam Neeson offers plenty of advice and training early on in the movie, but besides that, Bruce Wayne is working with Alfred and Lucius on how to become the Batman, as well as attempting to repair his lost relationship with Rachel Dawes. Batman’s partnership with Jim Gordon is just as nascent, with both of them devising how best to handle a vigilante involving himself in a city with a third party judicial system. Many of the “best” moments from the following two movies feel remarkably like a stage play, a legacy “tech debt” problem from Shakespeare, where characters rhapsodize their plans, their priors, and the current predicament. What we as the viewers gain from Bane describing how he was “born in the darkness” is reiterated in his backstory told to Wayne while he attempts to rise out of the Hell on Earth prison. Does hearing it twice make it any better? Equally, the Joker’s monologues are absolutely compelling, I do not want to dismiss that, but they also can be outright lies. Within twenty minutes of The Joker’s elaborate plan to break himself out of prison, he’s saying to Harvey Dent, “Do I really look like a guy with a plan?” Of course, he may be lying to placate Dent, but the other secret cost is in the lack of organically creating the conflict and plot with dialogue between characters, rather than told AT characters. There’s a very small difference there, I know, but nonetheless an important distinction to make.

While these features started best with Begins, there is no question that the action and the set-pieces improved. Most people, when they critique the fighting in Nolan’s Batman trilogy, will go to the moment he busts a drug operation and brings Falconi in. The group fight, where Batman drops into the middle of a circle of thugs, is laughably edited. The problem with hindsight is especially true of action films, where many of the newer stories (like John Wick) have improved the genre immeasurably. The fight scenes in Nolan’s films get progressively slower, but more coherent. And the set pieces in the The Dark Knight and Rises are much more impressive. Wayne’s time in Hong Kong, his fight with the Joker to keep Harvey Dent safe, or his final fight to stop Joker using cell phone relays, are excellent pulse pounding moments. The Dark Knight Rises, while not as spectacular, still offers Bane’s mid-flight raid, as well as a motorcycle chase and finale that offers a larger scale instead of a greater depth in thinking.

Rewatching the films, while the action improves, the context for that action seems more outlandish. In Batman Begins, we DO have the problem of a microwave emitter that can evaporate water into a harmful fear toxin, which is admittedly ridiculous, but much of the rest of the action is Bruce Wayne learning, as well as taking down organized crime. It shocks me that superhero films do not situate themselves in smaller stories. Do we REALLY need a nuclear bomb to appreciate the seriousness of the situation? Apparently, with The Dark Knight Rises, we did. The amount of twists and misdirections with the Joker’s planning, in the middle of The Dark Knight, is categorically absurd. A corrupt police force is used to reframe the Joker’s plan as a kind of slapdash chaos, but the amount of explosives rigged, the amount of vehicles and weapons purchased, the amount of manpower collected seemingly out of nowhere, all while leaving no sign of a paper trail, is more absurd than Batman himself. That does not sound like a criticism, but it has to be. We are already placed in a position where we have to accept that a billionaire stops crime in his hometown by putting on a mask. Nolan’s script never lets up on this notion by referencing it often. What is even more strange is how these set-pieces, though inventive, often boil down to similar features. Joker allows himself to get caught multiple times, in order to stage himself opportunistically to be either entertaining, or deadly. Bane is allowed to enter the plane in the introductory scene for The Dark Knight Rises in the exact same way.

Context matters for Batman just as much as the set-pieces. I will never forgive The Dark Knight for the particular moment in Harvey Dent’s fundraising event where Batman appears. The scene is perilous: Wayne had to evacuate to get to his suit, as he could tell that the Joker was coming. Seconds afterward, The Joker arrives, with a full squad of armed goons with him. When the tension of the scene escalates, and it seems like Joker is going to cut Rachel’s smile wider, Batman appears finishing one of Joker’s lines: “Then you’re gonna love me.” To this day, I do not know how he managed to enter the middle of the room without being noticed by the hundreds of innocent and not-so-innocent people in that space. This is a problem not just for this scene: often in the movies, little care is given for how Batman enters a fight. Now, notice, this occurs for when he leaves too, as he’ll often disappear for a bit of humor or mysticism. But I am not as critical of him leaving, in the same way that I do not worry about characters in television shows not saying “goodbye” at the end of a phone call. Whether they say goodbye or not is not important, and the same goes for Batman leaving. Batman entering? That’s another story.

The Dark Knight Rises suffers from being simultaneously too short and too long. I applaud Nolan for attempting to bring the themes of Charles Dickens and “A Tale of Two Cities” into the film, but it loses some of its heft in attempting to distill months into it, as we wait for Bruce Wayne to recover. This is not an isolated incident. There are many moments, whether in dialogue or out, that seem unnecessary or redundant. Characters will say phrases like “There’s a storm coming” or “You do like to play this one close to the chest” that occur across the films, or in the same film. On the other side of this coin, Blake, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, somehow knows that Batman is Bruce Wayne without any sort of introductory moment. It is laughable how Jim Gordon seems the last to know, out of every character, that Bruce Wayne is Batman. Though the later two films are over two-and-a-half hours long, each one feels bloated with unnecessary quips, or bogged down with tedium, in a way that Batman Begins seems to lightly step over, even with its shorter run time. It’s not all good: the Batman Begins scene where they introduce the microwave emitter, as well as that it has gone missing, feels like it came from a movie that would be laughed at by Redlettermedia or Mystery Science Theater. Its introduction, and its placement as another facet of the conflict, just cannot hold that kind of weight for how brief the scene is. Many of these moments in the films feel choked for time, despite the movies and their lengths.

The end result of this problem is that, with a wider array of characters, the dense work of character dramas is sacrificed for a more bombastic spectacle. That may work for much stronger superheroes, but for a Batman movie it comes across as sterile and unfulfilling. Was Blake’s investigating of Bane’s plan, rather than Batman doing it, a good choice for the movie, or simply pandering to fan service? Would Bruce Wayne find Selina Kyle compelling enough to run away with? Unfortunately, too many characters pull at our chance to find out. With Nolan’s combined emphasis on ideas rather than people, and being forced to create action scenes instead of conversations, what we miss in his films is the opportunity for emotional tension, or heartache, or empathy for our pained hero.

With another Batman movie on the way, the hope for me would be to create scenarios for a more intimate Batman. A better chemistry between our hero and Saturday’s villain, and an opportunity for a screenplay to address our characters as more than just ideologues, but as people. What made Batman Begins so much better was Christian Bale’s performance through Batman, not Batman himself. In the same guise as the Star Wars movies, it is the spaces away from the lightsaber that dictate the quality of the fight, not the choreography. Any superhero movie needs to know that dynamic when making a film for the future. Nolan’s Batman Trilogy stands above a great deal of superhero movies for what he was able to gleam as the essential questions surrounding his particular ward, but that does not mean that his films are flawless. In Nolan’s Batman, we got perhaps a hero we deserved, but not the one we need now.

Originally published at https://theroyleline.blog on June 14, 2021.

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Colton Royle

Colton tries to picture a world in which nobody trusted their System 1 thinking. He is currently working on trying to be a better listener.