Ever since names like Spielberg and Lucas brought us the first summer blockbusters back in the 70s, film fans have slowly morphed into film fanatics. And perhaps the pinnacle of this phenomenon is the cult of personality that has developed around Christopher Nolan since he gave us his wildly successful interpretation of the Batman universe, The Dark Knight. Whether it was because of Heath Ledger’s electric performance as the Joker, Nolan’s realist approach to the material, or the sheer scope of the action, something about this Batman movie captured the attention and adoration of hordes of fans in a way that no other adaptation of the character’s story has before; and Batman has been one of the most popular fictional characters in our shared culture for at least half a century now.
But one thing about The Dark Knight that I don’t hear mentioned all that much anymore is that it wasn’t Nolan’s first go-around with the character. Everything that was paid off in that film was set up, three years earlier, in the director’s first attempt at tackling a superhero story, Batman Begins. Not only was this movie successful enough at the box office to spawn a very well funded sequel, but it’s the film that’s actually responsible for bringing us Nolan’s grounded and relatable vision of the character.
This was the film that revitalized a property whose big screen potential had been tarnished, and it gets treated like it doesn’t even exist when fans gush over their love of The Dark Knight. Has there ever been another case of an original being so eclipsed by its sequel?
What do they have in common?
Neither of these films have rubber sharks or slapstick sequences where a character has to dispose of a cartoon bomb. They don’t have Prince music videos serving as tie-ins, or armies of waddling penguins with rockets strapped to their backs.
They both give us a rough and tumble Batmobile that isn’t tricked out with neon lights, heroes and villains that don’t banter in puns, and a cast of supporting actors that doesn’t include Robert Wuhl. But, perhaps most importantly, there isn’t a rubber Batnipple to be found anywhere in either.
Why is The Dark Knight overrated?
Much ado was made about the influence Michael Mann’s movies had on Nolan as he was making TDK, and while that does imbue the film with some Heat-esque goodness, it also takes away some of the ambiance that’s essential to a Batman story. Gotham in this movie doesn’t feel like a sprawling, fantastical metropolis—it just feels like Chicago. And how much of this film takes place during daylight? Bank heists, press conferences, meetings in offices; they all take place during the daytime, in Chicago’s shiny downtown, and many of the film’s images almost feel whitewashed with light. Where are the shadows, the grime-filled gutters, the imposing gothic structures?
And while TDK is generally a non-stop thrill ride, it also suffers a bit from cramming so much in. The Harvey Dent character’s potential for brutality barely gets hinted at before he’s thrust into his Two-Face transformation, and once he becomes a full-fledged villain the movie is already practically over. Two-Face is one of the best Batman villains ever, and the character gets short shrift because TDK is so clearly the Joker’s show. This film builds action climax on top of action climax, and eventually it just becomes exhausting. By the time the credits roll it feels like Nolan has completely blown his wad and left no room for future Batman stories. If TDK had focused more intently on the Joker and not shown us Two-Face until the final frame, it would have been more effective, and that would have been the hook to make The Dark Knight Rises the trilogy capper to end all trilogy cappers.
Perhaps most egregious, however, is how bulletproof fans treat TDK as being when it has a fairly ludicrous plot that doesn’t really hold up under scrutiny. Sure, if an action movie keeps moving and doesn’t give you much of a reason to dissect the plot, holes aren’t generally a problem—and TDK accomplishes that—but does it really earn its reputation as being untouchable? The Joker’s plans rely on so many coincidences and so much knowledge that he couldn’t possibly have that they all stick out like a gaggle of sore thumbs upon re-watches. He knows what streets cop cars are going to turn down during chases, what direction helicopters are going to come from, which boat guards are going to evacuate prisoners with. He sets up a scheme to get himself arrested that he couldn’t possibly have known would end in his arrest, and then performs an escape that relies on his ludicrously being left alone with one guard, void of restraints. The list goes on. TDK is great fun, to be sure, but it’s not the last word on superheroes.
Why is Batman Begins underpraised?
Batman Begins isn’t a perfect film, but neither is TDK, and the fact that all of the credit for Nolan’s vision gets heaped on the second film in a series is more than a little ridiculous. Most everything that made TDK great was already present here; perhaps most importantly, the supporting cast that Nolan surrounded Christian Bale (whose growly performance is usually these films’ most oft-cited fault) with. Michael Caine is instantly a revelation as Alfred. He adds more relevance and soul to the character than he’s ever had before, and he makes you believe in a father/son dynamic that most Batman stories just ask you to blindly accept. The character of Lucius Fox is little more than a plot point—the place where Batman gets his wonderful toys—but, goddamn, does Morgan Freeman make him an endearing, welcome presence through sheer force of charm. And this movie has Liam Neeson playing a gruff ass-kicker years before that was the en vogue thing to do. Batman Begins shows the brilliance of Nolan’s choices in more ways than one.
One of the most visible cases of said brilliance is the methodology of how he builds this world. The first act of Batman Begins is a masterclass in setting up a franchise. There’s so much story that needs to get established, so many characters that need to be introduced, themes that need to be set up, skills and equipment to be acquired, and settings to be explored that it all could have played like an exposition-packed bore. But the way Nolan cuts back and forth between a terrifying incident from Bruce Wayne’s childhood, the aftermath of his parents’ murder, and the adventures he has overseas is always able to keep things interesting and the narrative moving new places. And not only do these disparate timelines make sense when presented simultaneously, they manage to color each other in interesting ways as well. While TDK is pretty much non-stop chaos, Batman Begins is a perfect example of a film building itself through a classic three act structure and being better off for it. By the time Neeson’s character shows back up in the beginning of the third act, everything is in its right place and this whole franchise has a foundation that will allow it to be built to towering heights.
There’s one place where Batman Begins manages to completely trump its followup though, and that’s in its interpretation of Gotham City. It’s a cliché to say that a film’s setting is a character, but it’s a cliché for a reason, and that’s movies like Batman Begins that make the setting so integral to the story being told. In this film we get a sense of Gotham’s glorious past, we get a taste of its crumbling present, and it’s made clear to us that where the city goes, so goes the protagonist. Gotham is very personal to Batman. It’s not just his home, it’s his legacy. His family built much of the infrastructure, they represented the best the city had to offer, and they were taken away by the worst. His battle to save Gotham from itself is his battle to make sense of the universe, and the stakes are made apparent through visits to criminal hangouts in Gotham’s garbage-ridden core, to battles that take place in the tumbling buildings of the Narrows. When a doomsday weapon is about to be launched in the heart of the city, it means so much more than every other doomsday weapon that’s ever been triggered in any other movie city, because the setting itself is the heart of everything you’ve watched. It’s not just downtown Chicago on a summery day.
Evening the Odds
There were a number of criticisms filmgoers threw at Batman Begins when it first came out. People said the fight scenes were shot too close and were too quickly edited, that the tech used in the film’s climax was too cartoony for Nolan’s realist world, and that the creation of the Rachel Dawes character was an unnecessary studio demand meant to shoehorn a girl into the film. Those are all valid complaints, to be certain, but sometimes fans forget that the exact same complaints can all be made about The Dark Knight; especially the Rachel Dawes one.
Katie Holmes was never the problem with the Rachel character, and re-casting her with Maggie Gyllenhaal didn’t do anything to make her any less of a bland plot device. If there’s one thing to look forward to The Dark Knight Rises for, it’s that with the inclusion of Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman and a high profile character played by Marion Cotillard, this well regarded series of films might finally have an interesting female character. If that becomes the case, then The Dark Knight might have to move over, because there will be a strong argument to be made for The Dark Knight Rises being the best Batman movie ever made.