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The Dark Knight Trilogy Rises Above All

Christopher Nolan’s newest film, Dunkirk, has been praised by many critics as his best film to date. While it’s easy to see why Dunkirk has been a huge success – it’s beautifully shot and creates a seamless narrative flow with a very non-linear structure – it sits among the biggest outliers of the year at the box office. Four of the top ten domestic grossing films are superhero movies (Wonder Woman, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Logan), with that total likely to be buoyed by the later-year releases of Thor: Ragnarok and Justice League. And yet, despite the critical acclaim Wonder Woman and Logan in particular have received, they still seem small in comparison to what many still consider the greatest superhero film of all time – Nolan’s 2008 masterpiece The Dark Knight. Nearly ten years later, superhero films are still trying to catch up to The Dark Knight, even as they adopt a franchise model thoroughly inconsistent with what made the Dark Knight trilogy so great.

It goes without saying that The Dark Knight is one of the best films ever made. What’s less often said that the Dark Knight trilogy – Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises – is perhaps the greatest trilogy ever put to film. Begins is often ignored, having not reached the commercial success the two later films achieved; Rises is often nitpicked as an overlong mess. This is a shame because not only are those two films masterpieces, they are absolutely necessary to understand the journey Christopher Nolan created for Bruce Wayne.

Taking on Batman was a major risk for Nolan. Not only was Begins following the unprecedented failure of Batman and Robin, it was telling the complete origin story of Batman for the first time. How did he respond? By creating the best origin story of any superhero. Batman Begins boasts the greatest first hour in any superhero film. Everything about this opening works; every important area of Bruce Wayne’s life is shown in perfect length and detail – his childhood fear of bats, the death of his parents (and, most importantly, his relationship with them, especially his father), his “lost” years, his training with the League of Shadows, and his return to Gotham. This is presented in a non-linear narrative that is not only presented perfectly, but feels like the only way this story could ever be told. Just over an hour has passed by the time Bruce Wayne dons the cape and cowl and takes down mobster Carmine Falcone in his first act of vigilante justice, but you’ve learned and experienced more about the characters and world in that hour that some franchises explain over multiple films. While you can’t call a film about a rich orphan with military-grade vehicles and weapons who fights criminals in a bat costume realistic, you can call it grounded. Nolan understands that the presence of the superhuman is incompatible with this vision of Batman, so sticks to what is in the realm of possibility.

Being a formative film in the superhero genre, the second half isn’t quite as good; while still excellent, the parts with the Scarecrow are the weakest in the trilogy. The Scarecrow is, on paper, the perfect choice for a movie about fear, but the effects and evil scheme come off as a bit cartoony, although the final showdown with Ra’s al Ghul is fantastic. Whatever weakness is in the second half, Begins is still the definitive origin story, and sets up the themes that permeate the trilogy; Batman as a symbol of good to inspire a city and intimidate evil, the use of fear to subvert institutions and destroy civilizations, the question of if Gotham is truly worth saving, and Bruce Wayne’s struggle for his own identity.

There are few things I can say about The Dark Knight that haven’t been said before. It succeeds both as a superhero film and a crime epic, maintains an increasing pace throughout almost the entirety of its runtime, and has one of the best villains in modern film history. It succeeds at virtually everything it sets out to do. While it is possible to watch The Dark Knight without watching Begins, like many people have done, it is far more fulfilling to see it as the second stage in Bruce’s journey. The Dark Knight continues what Ra’s al Ghul set out to do in Begins; to prove Gotham is beyond saving. This time, the agent of destruction is the Joker, a nihilistic sociopath willing to murder people to prove a point – that everyone else is as evil as he is. While The Dark Knight might be the reason many subsequent films have adopted a “dark” and “realistic” tone, it is actually fairly optimistic – the Joker’s big plans almost completely fail, with the exception of his successful turning of Harvey Dent. While mankind might be generally good, individuals face a choice as to how to respond to adversity: this one common trait defines all of Batman’s enemies, and also defines his own choices. The real skepticism of The Dark Knight aims at our institutions, a perspective which seems almost precognitive given the recent rejection of the established political order in many western countries. Nolan’s trilogy is never dark for the sake of being dark, never edgy for the sake of being edgy.

The Dark Knight Rises is perhaps the most polarizing film in the trilogy. It is the lengthiest one, the most epic in scope, and the riskiest as well. The film skips eight years following The Dark Knight, and Batman only appears in costume for a little over 21 minutes – around 13% of the screen time. While some have criticized certain plot elements, I find the vast majority of complaints to be nitpicking: like Dunkirk, Rises is cinema at its finest. After a steady opening, it gradually becomes relentless in pace – this film does not feel like it is as long as it is, and that’s a good thing. Bane is the perfect villain as Bruce Wayne’s final test: a physical powerhouse that even Batman in his prime would have struggled against, let alone a shell of his former self. Catwoman can easily fall into fanservice territory, but Nolan’s Selina Kyle is a fully-realized version of the character. The ties to the first two films are constant and meaningful: the metaphorical ghosts of Ra’s al Ghul return, to finish his work, and the institutions Batman worked to protect, and ultimately lied to preserve, inevitably collapse. Peace is only restored after Batman adopts his rightful place, like Ra’s al Ghul; an idea that lives beyond death. Nolan’s vision of Batman is truly the only superhero to experience a complete arc, from beginning to end – and there is no better way he could have ended it. The criticisms of Rises tend to be menial – the muffled voice of Bane, the reveal of Talia al Ghul as the true mastermind, or how Bruce Wayne is able to survive what should have been his death – but these are nitpicks in the most precise sense of the word. When examined as a pure work of cinema, The Dark Knight Rises is everything you could ever want.

With those three films individually out of the way, what exactly did Nolan do that so many others have tried (and failed) to accomplish? He had a compelling vision of virtually every character he placed in his films. His direction is noticeable and unimpeachable, being both recognizably Nolan and recognizably Batman. The tone of his films is never gratuitously dark, but is only as dark as it needs to be. Perhaps the biggest issue with post-Dark Knight superhero films is the lack of truly compelling villains – they lack a true personal connection or truly contrasting and disturbing worldview like R’as al Ghul, the Joker, or Bane. A step in the right direction was the recent version of the Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming, perhaps the best villain in a Marvel film since Doc Ock in Spider-Man 2, but even otherwise excellent films like Wonder Woman and Logan have suffered from having a relatively weak villain. With the modern focus on big-budget superhero films setting up sequels and team movies – which are fine in their own right – filmmakers have lost a bit of what made the Dark Knight trilogy so great.  However, the lessons Nolan provided in making an effective superhero film are still out in the open, waiting to be learned.


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Eric Cunningham is a lifelong resident of western North Carolina, and is pursuing a degree in journalism from Appalachian State; you can follow him on Twitter at @decunningham2.

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42 thoughts on “The Dark Knight Trilogy Rises Above All

  1. I thought the Dark Knight was the rare movie that would have benefited from executive meddling and the desire to make more bucks at the box office. Specifically, breaking it apart into two movies, one that featured the Joker, the other that featured Harvey Dent/Two Face.

    The fact the Heath Ledger was so good made it inevitable for the movie to lose steam once he was no longer literally in the picture. The rest of the film was too long for a coda, but too short to flesh out the turn of Dent to the dark side, as it were.

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    • Hmmm it’s a good thought but if you view Dent as merely the final victim of the Joker rather than as a co-Villain I think it works pretty well as a narrative.

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    • I was tempted to agree the first time I watched – Aaron Eckhart did a great job. But I think the way they set the sequel up made it necessary, plus there is no way in this more grounded universe that a guy with a massive facial gash would last long.

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    • All three of the movies had about 30% more movie in them than an average (or even long) film. That’s true of Nolan in general.

      It’s a little like the recent OT discussion of progressive rock – it wasn’t trying to match convention, so you can either compare it to something it doesn’t want to be, or you can grant it its own terms. Either is reasonable.

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  2. While the movies are generally entertaining and good, they’re far from perfect. Ridiculously complex plans from the villains that would require some kind of prophetic vision don’t hold up. Neither does all of Gotham being held hostage for six months by Bane. There are plot holes that are a bit more than nit picks. That said, you have a good point about the films being a complete arc; so far, the trilogy has been the most successful superhero series in that aspect. I enjoyed watching them, but after watching them multiple times, I no longer enjoy them as much, as they’re kind of silly. They don’t rise to the stupidity of Avatar, but they’re not sheer genius either.

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      • Yeah, I gotta agree with you there. I think that was intentional; for all his talk of “chaos” he certainly seemed to be all about planning (I mean, he had to because of the ridiculous complications of the plot, but still).

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      • Oh, he’s not crazy like in the cartoons or the Burton film. But he is insane, and that’s close enough to the source material for me.

        What makes Joker work for me in a way a ton of other insane villains is that you can actually understand his plan and point of view. Nolan does a really good job of this in his films, with maybe Scarecrow being the only exception (is he crazy, or does he want to hold the city for ransom, or what?) – and given the year-long trend of incredibly weak villains in superhero films, it really shows that he created films where you understand everyone’s motivations clearly, enough that a disturbingly large amount of people kind of agree with the Joker.

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        • What makes Joker work for me in a way a ton of other insane villains is that you can actually understand his plan and point of view.

          I don’t think so.

          I go back and think about all of his lines and I’m trying to think of one where I’m confident that he wasn’t lying.

          “What doesn’t kill you makes you stranger” might be the only one.

          Every other line of his is arguably a lie (or, at least, a statement with a truth value completely unimportant to him because he knows his statement cuts to the quick of whomever is hearing it).

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    • Yeah Joker did seem to have some kind of hyper competence for logistical planning. His plans ultimately didn’t pan out but if you needed to smuggle tons of explosives into a hospital or a Ferry and set them up to blow without anyone asking any questions or calling the police Joker was your guy.

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      • I still think my favorite example was how Batman dug the fragments of a bullet out of a wall, constructed a life-fire test sequence to determine how bullets would fragment in different sorts of wall, used those tests to reconstruct the fragments into the original bullet, recovered a fingerprint from the reconstructed bullet and used it to identify the criminal and learn their home address…

        …and the Joker knew he would do all this and set a trap for him there.

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        • I don’t know that that is necessarily true. Joker could have simply abandoned that place long ago with a boobie trap just in case. He didn’t need to know Batman would arrive. And he didn’t need to bank on any particular path for Batman to get there. For all we know, there are apartments all over Gotham that the Joker once resided in that have unsprung traps.

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          • If I recall that scene correctly, Kazzy, Batman arrived there just in time for a booby trap in that apartment to go off making it look like batman had taken a shot a the commissioner or the mayor or someone. So not only had Joker predicted Batman would find the place, but also when.

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            • Really the only plausible way he could have predicted that is with some sort of device that let him see into the future. I don’t think the movie covered his origin story, but I assume he was just a normal guy until he used the device to look years into the future, saw that Trump was going to be elected president, and immediately sank into despair and madness.

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  3. Have you watched Person of Interest? If you haven’t, you need to. It’s like a five year arc of Batman stories, only Batman is split into two people… the billionaire mastermind and the special-ops ninja warrior. It wasn’t Christopher Nolan but his brother Jonathan… but you can see how they spent a lot of years arguing over the best themes for this kind of story as there is a *LOT* of overlap between the Batman trilogy and PoI.

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    • Umm. Lord of the Rings? Or Episodes IV-V-VI of Star Wars? I can think of nothing else.

      Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is in the same league, I guess, but if it makes the playoffs, it gets in on a wild card and is eliminated in the first round.

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  4. I think I am the odd one. The best out of the three was Begins. Dark Knight was decent,but way to dark for my tastes on superhero movies. Rises was too dumb plot, still too dark for my tastes, and not enough Batman being Batman. I only go back and watch Begins these days.

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    • Batman Begins is the only one I own, so it’s definitely the one I’ve seen the most. I think it’s the best of the three as a stand-alone movie. No offense to Heath Ledger fans, but I found Cillian Murphy far more unsettling. He looks only slightly more like a human being than Ledger in full Joker makeup. He’s remarkably in-control as a mastermind of the organization, but the way he’s so terrified of his superior increases the tension. Joker follows his own script, which makes him dangerous but detached from reality. Joker is like a bad fever compared to the terminal cancer of the League of Shadows.

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      • “Batman Begins is the only one I own, so it’s definitely the one I’ve seen the most. I think it’s the best of the three as a stand-alone movie. ”

        Which makes sense because it wasn’t supposed to be the start of a trilogy, just like 2008’s Iron Man wasn’t supposed to lead to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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          • Tony Stark was kind of a jerk, sure but Americans loooooove a smart ass. Also Iron Man launched the MCU and the MCU has been bringing my marvel fanboy heart joy ever since so I could never think ill of Iron Man.

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            • See, for me it played out in the opposite way. Tony Stark alienated me from the franchise. I wasn’t going to see Iron Man 2, and I never got around to seeing Captain America, and pretty soon it felt like picking up a TV series in season two.

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                • Oh, yeah, I realize it. The Avengers is right up there with autos and flavored carbonated beverages in terms of successful business ideas. For me, Iron Man had no arc. The hero went through some things and came out identical. The villain was as obvious as he could be (Stane!?!), was never fleshed out, and had no turning point. The romance had no sizzle and no resolution. The most interesting thing that happened was in the last minute. I wouldn’t have thought that carbonated beverages would sell either.

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    • I can’t speak for the Dark Night Rises, which I haven’t seen. But I definitely liked Begins better than Dark night.

      To my taste, Dark Night seemed a bit too cliche and forced. Cliche: Yes, I understand that Batman worries about the conflict between vigilantism and justice and worries about his own motivations, but that was covered in Begins already. Forced: It just seems strange and too convenient to the story line that the Joker would have as a motivation to demonstrate Batman’s venality.

      I may very well be missing something. I saw Dark Night only once, when it came out. I’ve seen Begins several times. Also, I probably like origin stories better than non-origin stories when it comes to superheroes. That said, I’m not well-acquainted with the genre, which could also explain why I’m missing something.

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      • I don’t think these movies are nearly as historically great as Eric does. But I absolutely agree that Batman Begins is the best film of the three. It has the most taut, convincing script and the best acting. The others try to succeed by piling more and more spectacular weight on thinner ideas – and don’t.

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        • That’s mostly my take (along with Burt’s analysis below). I should add the caveat, however, that I’m by no means a connoisseur of the superhero genre. There may be things in part 2 I’m just not seeing (in addition to my apparent inability to remember to write “Knight” with a “K”).

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    • I’m with you on this, . While I enjoyed the other two films immensely for their spectacle and for the performances of Heath Ledger and (yes I do mean this) Anne Hathaway respectively, I think the OP hit something here:

      While you can’t call a film about a rich orphan with military-grade vehicles and weapons who fights criminals in a bat costume realistic, you can call it grounded.

      I would call it emotionally realistic. Which may be what the OP meant with the word “grounded.” Bruce’s childhood fears and traumas, his resulting revulsion of street criminals and fear of bats, aimlessness and descent into hedonism, then his rejection of his legacy, pursuit of violence, all make a great deal of emotional sense. They resonate and create identification. Even if Gotham City and the fancy military toys made by Wayne Industries are silly, the heavy emotional journey pushes us right past those things and leave us rooting for Bruce to create the Batman and use him to attain mastery over his past and himself.

      The Scarecrow got a very nice interpretation, IMO, but the real antagonist is not Scarecrow or even R’as al-Ghul. The antagonist is ultimately Bruce Wayne’s inner demons and when he conquers himself internally, the external bad guys don’t stand a chance. I love the emotional journey Nolan takes us on in Batman Begins and however clever Inception and Memento might have been and however beautifully-envisioned Dunkirk might be, this is the story that resonates with me.

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      • Agreed on all of this, though of those other Nolan films you mention, I think I would put one or two over Batman Begins.

        But I’m mainly commenting to thank you for reminding me that I thought Hathaway was the best thing in Rises by a Gotham city block. I had totally forgotten that performance. Shows how memorable the film was for me.

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  5. The only reason this might be the best trilogy ever is because the Fast and Furious folks look down there noses at trilogies and made an octogy.

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    • I do not hate the Fast and the Furious series because I, long ago, resolved that I was not allowed to hate something I didn’t at least generally understand. Which means I’d have to watch Fast and Furious before I’m allowed to hate it. And that feels like too high a price to pay.

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