2012 will be remembered as the end. No, not of time as the Mayans predicted (we think), but of the most beloved, hyped, self-important, entertaining and influential comic book film trilogy ever, the Chris Nolan Batman series. From reruns of the campy ’60s television series, to the revelation of the Tim Burton films, to the abortion of the Joel Shumacher films, to the resurgence of the Nolan trilogy, Batman has been a part of Pop Culture for as long as P.C.H.A. can remember. And, even if the movie studio tries to cram a Spiderman-esque reboot down our throats, it’s likely it’ll be another generation before we see another original film take on the Dark Knight.
So, we thought we’d take stock of the Nolan trilogy, both on its own merits and on its place in the legacy of the most popular superhero of all time (suck it, Superman).
David Simon Cowell: I guess we should begin at the end, Dilemma. As was probably inevitable, I found The Dark Knight Rises to be a disappointment, but not overly so. Its biggest problem, obviously, is that it wasn’t The Dark Knight, which is probably the only superhero movie that transcended the genre and deserves to be considered as a classic film by any measure. I would put TDKR in the same category as Batman Begins… good for a superhero film, but with serious flaws.
The Dilemma: I agree that TDKR wasn’t as good as The Dark Knight, though I’d probably rank it a little higher than Batman Begins. I’m surprised that Nolan fell into the classic sequel/trilogy trap of trying to do way too much: incorporate too many characters, too many plotlines, too many themes. TDKR is an overstuffed burrito with toppings spilling out onto your lap when you try to eat it.
Before we get into the disturbing politics of the movie, let’s deal with the text itself. The film had some amazing highs — Bane is a great character, fantastically played by Tom Hardy, and given that he had the thankless task of following Heath Ledger’s Joker as chief antagonist, this was about as good as you could get. The sequence in which Bane takes over Gotham might be the best 15 minutes of any of the three Nolan Batman films. It’s visually stunning, and the sense of militaristic dread it conveys is legitimately breath-taking and terrifying. I’m also surprised at how much I liked Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman. Going into the movie, I was convinced Catwoman would be a needless add-on, but she brought some much-needed excitement and fun to the otherwise gloomy proceedings.
Conversely, Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne/Batman is a fairly major drag on the movie. Bale has not been the strongest part of any of the three films, but this was the first time where it seemed like his ineffectiveness really brought the movie down. Compared to Bane, Wayne/Batman is a charisma vacuum. And his time spent recuperating in Bane’s prison hole dragged on endlessly.
D.S.C.: I agree with you about both of the main villains. Obviously, the ghost of Heath Ledger hovered over the entire movie, but I liked both their characters and performances.
What was notable to me was how little Batman there was in the movie. I’m not a superhero geek by any stretch, but at certain points throughout the movie I just wanted to see some action, rather than Bruce Wayne moping around. To me, the entire enterprise was crushed by the weight of the expectations The Dark Knight generated. Perhaps Nolan would have been better off going in the exact opposite direction… instead of trying to get even deeper and darker, go lighter and more fun. Or, given that seriousness is kind of his thing, at least more bombastic and actiony.
I like Christian Bale as an actor, but I agree with you about his portrayal of Bruce Wayne, especially in this movie. Even putting aside the annoying Batman growl, his portrayal of Wayne after 8ish hours of screen time became extremely tiresome. Part of it is the constant retreading of the same narrative ground (he’s damaged, he’s reluctant, he’s forced into action). But part of it has to fall on his one-note shoulders. The only one with less to work with was Michael Caine, whose job was to give the same overwrought “I’m disappointed” monologue over and over and over.
The place where the film fell apart was the ending… really, I’ve had a problem with the endings of all the films. Batman Begins was the least problematic, but The Dark Knight’s Prisoner’s Dilemma thing was weakest part of the movie. And TDKR… holy Christ. From the cheap reveal of Marion Cottiliard’s evilness, to the flying away of the nuclear device, to the introduction of Robin, to the laughable final scene that was straight out of Good Will Hunting (“the best part of my day is the walk to your bedroom door, Bruce, because I can hope you’ve gone to live your life, no goodbye, no nothing”)… it just didn’t work.
T.D.: Yep, totally agree on the ending. It reminded me of Return of the King, with its 10,000 codas. But at least in that movie, most of the codas made sense within the world of the trilogy. Here, the extra endings felt cheap and tacked on. I would have better off not knowing that Joseph Gordon-Leavitt is Robin. I would have been better off without the Good Will Hunting scene, and I sure as fuck would have been better off without the Marion Cotillard twist.
For the life of me, I can’t figure out what the Cotillard thing added to the movie. It didn’t add any excitement, intrigue or suspense. All it did was serve to neuter Bane in retrospect because he was never really calling the shots.
The ending of TDKR is particularly distressing because it’s an unsatisfying capper on the trilogy as a whole. More than anything else, Nolan succeeded at making his Batman movies feel more important than Batman movies, and he gave viewers the sense through tone and theme that this was all headed somewhere. Well, it wasn’t. It was headed for an inane twist and a happy ending that was so ridiculous I wouldn’t be surprised if the studio forced him to tack it on after seeing a rough cut. The ending of the third film diminishes the first two retroactively.
Even so, this trilogy is pretty handily the best superhero film series ever, which admittedly is like calling something the healthiest item on the menu at Guy Fieri’s Times Square restaurant. Raimi’s first two Spiderman films were quite good, and…uh…Unbreakable, maybe? The second Superman? It’s pretty clear that The Dark Knight is the single best superhero film made and I don’t intend them as damning with faint praise. It’s a very, very good movie — almost great, but I think we’ve collectively overrated it over the years. Ledger’s indelible performance and untimely death make the movie seem better in our memories than it actually is, which is still pretty fucking good.
D.S.C.: While I would agree that The Dark Knight is clearly the best superhero film of all time, I would argue that the Nolan series isn’t such a clear-cut choice for the top spot.
Some of the clearest evidence of cultural change in the last couple of decades is found in the Burton vs. the Nolan Batmans. Both were wildly successful (Burton’s first is the second highest inflation-adjusted gross for a Batman movie). Both were game-changers that completely transformed superhero movies and caused them to be treated far more seriously. And, most amusingly today, both were considered shockingly dark and serious.
Today, Burton’s movies seem almost cartoonish at times. But they were a revelation in the seriousness with which they took a superhero. The darkness of Batman Returns (second only to The Dark Knight in Batman film quality, in my opinion) was blamed for its relatively subpar box office performance and caused McDonalds to cancel their marketing tie-ins after parental backlash. Warner Brothers quickly took the series away from Burton and gave it to Joel Shumacher (who showed what cartoonishness really is).
So, even though it’s a bit unfair to compare two films to three, I think I’d take the two Burtons over The Dark Knight and whichever of the other Nolans you’d choose. Michael Keaton was a much better Batman, more nuanced as Bruce Wayne than Christian Bale. The romantic relationships with Kim Basinger and Michelle Pfeiffer were better than the one with Katie Holmes/Maggie Gyllenhaal. And, while I’d put Ledger’s Joker and Bane at the top of the villains list, Jack Nicholson’s Joker, Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, and Danny DeVito’s Penguin were all solid.
The biggest downfall of the Burton movies now is the random puns that pop up now and again, but until he found his footing on The Dark Knight, Nolan wasn’t immune to them. A recent rewatching of Batman Begins surprised me because I forgot there were so many “where does he get those wonderful toys”-esque comments spread throughout.
Even if you prefer the Nolan films on quality, you’d have to admit that the leap from what came before (the Adam West tv show, the Christopher Reeves Superman movies) to Burton’s Batmans was much bigger and more difficult than the Nolan Batmans (which was preceded not only by the Burtons, but Singer’s X-Mens, Raimi’s Spider-Mans, The Crow, etc.)
Completely random side note: I’ve always been interested in why Nolan got a second chance at the Batman franchise, which resulted in the massive upgrade of The Dark Knight, while Warner Brothers shut down Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns. Released a year apart, they have extremely similar box-office and Rotten Tomatoes numbers. And, at the time, Singer had a much more successful filmography, having just left the X-Men franchise for Superman.
T.D.: I’ll readily admit that Burton’s films represented more of a leap than the Nolan films. The degree of difficulty was much higher. Nolan hasn’t really innovated with his Batman trilogy, he’s just had excellent execution. But – and I realize this is a minority opinion – I’ve never been a fan of Burton’s Batman films at all. While Michael Keaton was an interesting choice, I don’t think he was the right one to play Wayne (or Batman). And all the villains in the Burton films were way too cartoonish for my tastes. I’m not a big Burton guy, and I think once you’ve seen two or three of his films, you’ve seen them all, and his Batman movies are no better or worse than the rest of his fare from that period. Burton gives us films with a distinct visual flair, but there’s not much going on behind the scenes.
So, I obviously prefer the Nolan trilogy to the Burton duo, but I don’t think we can leave aside the politics of Nolan’s films, especially TDKR. When some critics called out The Dark Knight for having a reactionary bent (and some conservative pundits claimed that it glorified George W. Bush), I was dismissive. But The Dark Knight Rises definitely makes the second film, and the whole trilogy, look more conservative in retrospect.
The politics of TDKR are repugnant. The film presents Bane as, essentially, a leader of Occupy Wall Street and argues that allowing the 99% any semblance of control will lead to a horrific hybrid of anarchy and a militaristic lefty junta taking control. The very idea of revolution is presented as something to be frightened of, and the idea of holding the wealthy accountable is presented as a silly and unnecessary bauble, something to be mocked. While the Joker in TDK was a true anarchist, Bane is just using the idea of anarchy to advance his selfish causes, which can be read as an argument that the entire Occupy movement is a false front.
Batman, as a vigilante, is never going to be the most liberal or pacifist of superheroes. But there are ways to lessen the inherent reactionary traits of the story; instead, Nolan amplifies them.
D.S.C.: While I take the filmmakers at their word that they didn’t have politics in mind when they made the movies (and that if they did, the politics would be much different), I’ve had problems with the reactionary subtext throughout.
Batman Begins basically posits that social ills should be left to the rich instead of the government. The Dark Knight rested on the idea that extraordinary renditions and wholesale invasions of privacy are OK if the people doing them are on the side of good (let’s just say that I don’t dismiss the unintentional Bush apologia angle). And The Dark Knight Rises is a wholesale evisceration of the idea that people should rise up against the economic interests that keep them down.
I’m not sure where all of this conservatism comes from. There’s no real hint of it in Nolan’s other films (although the invasions of privacy issues are central to co-writer Jonathan Nolan’s Person Of Interest). None of the previous Batman iterations had any real political bent. Batman is a rich vigilante, and so there’s always going to be a sheen of paternalism… at the same time, it’s always seemed more of an old school Kennedyesque social consciousness then a nouveau riche Romneyesque meanness.
Maybe the politics are built into the character (or at least the modern graphic novel iteration of it), and reflect more of societal change than anything else. While part of the reason that Batman has supplanted Superman as the most popular superhero is undoubtedly that the ambivalence and darkness is more current than Superman’s bright optimism, the politics may play a role as well. Superman is much more of a New Deal hero, an overseer whose job is to even out the unfairness in the world. Batman has much more narrow concerns, both geographically and as far as his obligation to humanity goes.
T.D.: I think I lot of the conservatism in the trilogy comes from the primary source material: Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, which served to reboot the comic book version of Batman and eventually served as the inspiration for Nolan’s films. Miller himself is crazily right wing – check out his rant against Occupy protestors – and there’s little doubt his view bled onto the page, which in turn made the film version of Batman as conservative as they are dark and humorless.
In the end, how we view Nolan’s trilogy is all about the context. Against the standards of modern summer blockbusters or most superhero movies, Nolan’s films are giants among men. Against the standard of truly great Hollywood films of the last 20 years, things get a little murkier. All three films are still strong, but I think that if it weren’t for Ledger’s performance, we wouldn’t still be thinking about them 5 years from now.
I haven’t seen the Avengers yet, but I’ve seen a few of the build-up movies to it (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America) and I vastly prefer Nolan’s vision of Batman to the Transformers-style action and wry humor that dominates those movies. Now that The Avengers was such a massive hit, though, I fear that we’re in for a half-decade or more of Robert Downey Jr. quips and bad CGI sequences dominating our summers.
D.S.C.: I do agree that The Dark Knight will be the one that holds up. At the same time, Nolan needs to be given a great deal of credit that he tried to make something more lasting. Did it lapse at times into overseriousness? Clearly. But I’d rather have him shade that way than the kind of disposable crap that Marvel churns out yearly. If only people could have stayed away from The Avengers, pop culture could maybe move on. Instead, the superhero reign shows no sign of dissipating.
It’ll be interesting to see how Nolan’s darkness influences the new Superman movie, though. I kind of think of Superman as baseball versus Batman as football… while the first still have plenty of followers, they’ve been supplanted in cultural supremacy because of reasons that have as much to do with changes in our culture as anything else. Will Man of Steel be able to move such an old-fashioned figure into relevance, or will it resort to throwing in gimmicks like the Wild Card play-in to drum up interest (to stretch the analogy to its breaking point).
Other than that though, I think I need to duck out of the superhero game. I’ll always will be attracted to Batman, but doubt there’ll be anything interesting there for a while. Can’t take another minute of The Avengers (especially now that Robert Downey Jr. has moved into Eddie Murphy territory… i.e. a formerly great talent buried in an avalanche of easy choices).
T.D.: Wow, I’m impressed that it took you this long to work in our age-old football v. baseball argument. Now if only you could find a way to compare Peyton Manning to Mr. Freeze, argue that Keaton’s Batman is like John Mellencamp while Bale’s Batman is like Bruce Springsteen, and claim that Joel Schumacher’s Batman films are like the 4th season of The Wire, you’d really be hitting all our classic touchpoints.