From the months leading up to the release of The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy became essential, event viewing amid a wave of massive hype that proved founded. Building on the hugely respectable and rewatchable Batman Begins, TDK became this century’s Empire Strikes Back, considered by some to be one of the greatest films ever made and elevating this reboot into the realms of meteoric, legendary success. Rises was merely the icing on the cake.
Looking back on the saga as a whole, it is not hard to see why. Each film is crammed with memorable moments and exchanges, insanely quotable lines and breath vacuum sequences of audacity and visceral thrill . Whether it be the quiet drama scenes or the car chases, villainous entrances of Batman gambits, almost every scene can be singled out. When the writing isn’t strong, the cinematography and choreography is. Where the shaky-cam becomes obtrusive, thematic resonance saves the day.
Picking out ten moments from what is essentially one epic journey encompassing 459 minutes is an almost impossible task, as it leaves out so many wonderful scenes enriching the story or bewitching the audience. Balance must be maintained, so many an action sequence is left out to accommodate a powerful character arc or vice versa, while naturally the villains must not be allowed to dominate, lest this become the ten best Joker scenes.
With efforts made to represent all three movies and every aspect that makes this trilogy so great, here are ten great scenes that will live long in the memory. A legend indeed. So, here we go…
The Dark Knight
It is a very brief sequence in a very busy Dark Knight that is forever stretching its legs, but the sheer brevity of the moment when Gotham’s White Knight is finally lost to his pain and grief ensures that it is a scene that lingers in recollection. Aaron Eckhart’s Dent awakens in his hospital room after the face mutilating, girlfriend losing Joker gambit and discovers his lucky coin by the bedside. He recalls giving Rachel the lucky charm and for a short time knows she is alive and well. Then he turns it over and it all comes crashing down, false hope turning to despair.
Not only is this a horribly powerful moment in of itself, and a huge event in the evolution of Two Face, but the manner in which it is filmed, sandwiched between heavy plot and streamlined as a result, is what makes the scene stand out dramatically. There is no dialogue, minimalistic musical accompaniment and tightly claustrophobic camera work that traps us in Harvey’s uncertain, confused mindset. When his smile disappears upon finding the burnt half of the coin, the score swells into a deafening, disorientating drone, audio dying, as he rips off his bandages and screams in agony to the heavens, the silent roar truly helpless and impotent.
While the manner of shooting creatively expresses the angst and desolation, as well as cleverly masking the elephant in the room scarring, the sealer is Eckhart’s performance, half a minute of physical acting that authentically captures an entire range of emotion and culminates with the birth of insanity. It is an extraordinary moment oft overlooked.
The Dark Knight Rises
Such was the excitement of the release of The Dark Knight Rises that in December of 2011 hundreds of thousands flocked to IMAX screenings of Mission Impossible 4 purely to get a first glimpse, in the form of its ferocious trailer and, more keenly, its prologue. Repeating the marketing trick that hooked so many in to its predecessor, it came up trumps and then some, confirming that the conclusion to the saga was the must-see film of 2012. This was because Nolan had topped the previous film’s bank heist with one of the most ambitious and incredible scenes of his career.
We’ve all seen it now, even those who don’t swear to the bat. Tom Hardy’s masked mercenary Bane sneaks himself on-board a CIA transport to stalk a Russian physicist, only to reveal himself and then coolly explain his plan before hijacking the plane in mid-air, plant fake evidence of the Doctor’s death and then fulfill his promise to crash said plane, ending his audacious scheme hanging on to a rope thousands of feet up, his getaway dragging him towards the horizon. As over-the-top as one can feasibly get, and with the tone of a Bond cold-opening, a sequence performed and executed practically sets one’s teeth on edge, a must-miss for those who fear heights.
But the scene isn’t just an exercise in blockbuster movie-making mastery, though it is clearly that. The thrill comes from the escalation and the scale, being trapped on that plane as it dips 90 degrees, terrorists crawling over it and rappelling down like spiders, fuselage breaking up, wings snapping off, finally dropping to the distant ground. And what makes this prologue so downright genius is that, just as with the bank heist, it is a perfect introduction to Bane, establishing him not just as a brilliant tactical mind and scarily assured warrior, but also a force of nature monstrous and terrifying. He has no limits. When he tells one of his henchmen to stay behind, you’re just glad he isn’t giving you said orders. A storm truly is coming.
Having used calm and patient pacing in its ‘Batman is born’ segment, Batman Begins is just waiting to take off when we finally get a good look at our primary villain. For those averse to the comic mythology, the scene in which creepy and mob-affiliated psychiatrist Jonathan Crane reveals his true nature is a sucker punch straight out of the horror genre. While the Scarecrow may not have amounted to a huge amount in the grand scheme of things, his debut is an unforgettable experience.
An accessory to an unseen third party and co-conspirator with the mob, Crane visits his fellow schemer Carmine Falcone in his psych-ward cell in what seems to be a natural continuation of their villainous noir team-up. When Falcone chooses to threaten Crane and his boss with exposure, Crane’s patience finally runs out and the inherent darkness masked behind his veneer emerges with the priceless question “Would you like to see my mask?”
As Falcone’s bemused reactions mirror the audience’s own, Crane pulls out his burlap sack, gleefully talking about its potency in his ‘experiments’. The guy’s crazier than his patients, we think. Then he hits a switch, gasses Falcone and taut thriller becomes nightmare. It is a scene that comes from nowhere and smashes the audience across the face, wiping out one villain to make room for another. Wonderfully captured, the naturalistic and minimalistic work by Tom Wilkinson gives Cillian Murphy a stage to transform from coldly scientific to childishly impish and finally into pure insanity. Scarecrow may have been the decoy, but here he got everybody’s attention.
The Dark Knight
Another establishing antagonist moment that came out of nowhere, turning a routine plot-setting scene into an iconic moment, The Dark Knight’s party-crashed mob meeting is often cited as The Joker’s best scene and with good reason. It has been just long enough since the bank job for us to briefly stop thinking of him, but recently enough for this to be his natural next move, and the severe mood swing that this previously interesting but now engrossing scene takes is a thing of wonder.
What remains of Gotham’s various mafia factions assemble for a group meeting to discuss their squeezed operations and diminishing funds when the Joker arrives, preceding his appearance with a long, sarcastic chuckle. Suddenly we are in the shoes of the mobsters. Curiosity at his bizarre wardrobe and make up turns to rapt attention when he performs his infamous magic trick on one unlucky heavy. He proceeds to mock said mobsters, call out their strategy and propose murdering Batman. No sooner has he whetted their appetites does he take his leave under threat of suicide bomb. Then it’s over, he disappears once more. You just know these guys are going to take up that offer sooner rather than later.
The genius of this exchange comes from its unpredictability, perfectly appropriate given who we are talking about. The scene is pure plot-fodder and has already introduced mobster Salvatore Maroni and revealed the criminality of accountant Lau. By the time we learn that Lau has taken the syndicate’s money, the segment seems to have run its course. Then, from nothing, the Joker arrives and sends us into fever pitch. Ledger’s pitch perfect take, cautious manner allied to utterly peerless conviction, takes it one step further.
The Dark Knight Rises
Not quite a scene and certainly not a moment, the widely encompassing and emotionally overwhelmed epilogue that brings The Dark Knight Rises to a hazy conclusion is perhaps best viewed as a truly wonderful exercise in editing, multiple scenes and locations spanning weeks from the aftermath of Batman’s sacrifice to the crowning of his successor gliding by seamlessly. We see Bruce mourned, Gotham rebuilding, the Batman honored and, finally, the great truth revealed. This superlative sequence proves a fitting conclusion to the saga.
With Hans Zimmer’s beautiful ‘Rise’ playing over the top, the series of events that follow form their own narrative and structure, each major character given their ending and reward, fitting send offs for the departed and a lament for the loss as much as a celebration of salvation. Wonderful words from the page of Dickens summarize the mood, tears over a smile. Having established where we stand, the truth begins to sneak into each subplot, Gordon, Lucius and finally Alfred getting the full benefit of the final twist. There was a happy ending after all, just when it looked impossible.
This ending could have been bungled and executed poorly and still deemed cream given its placement at the tail end of such a story, but in many ways Nolan and co. saved the best till last. Sentimentality is present, but not obnoxious. There is a feel good factor in seeing Batman given a statue or the city’s orphans granted Wayne Manor, but it isn’t milked. Even the great reveal of Bruce alive and happy with Selina Kyle isn’t what defines this moment, nor the sight of John Blake rising. It is the music, the pacing, the words and the faces of Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Morgan Freeman and, finally, Christian Bale that makes it shine. Seldom is an conclusion so damn satisfying.
The Dark Knight
It’s been one full entry without being mentioned, so it’s time we revisit the Joker. But this is not fan service nor an appeal to the populist crowd. Indeed, here the 21st Century’s most famous cinematic villain takes a moment to provide what is surely the most terrifying moment of the trilogy, as unpredictable as his visiting hours and as unexpected as his business propositions, as the sadly pathetic Batman wannabes finally pay something to the plot in blood.
After the discovery of a dead potential Batman, GTV news airs footage of a tape showing a hapless vigilante at the mercy of an amused, malevolent Joker both toying with his new plaything and using him to make a ice cold point to the people of Gotham City. Hand held camera as his podium, the murderous anarchist observes on the craziness that Batman has started and then makes a devilish promise to his audience, a violent ultimatum, with his posthumous co-star as a guarantee. He laughs, the vigilante screams and we cut jarringly into the next scene.
As far removed from the film’s steady, meticulous visual approach as it is possible to get, the Joker’s home movie hits home ferociously with its links into a real life zeitgeist of video threats and beheading footage, giving a very authentic tone as the music shies away. And of course, there is the Ledger factor. Directing the scene as he performs it and dancing between comedy and horror, his mock soothing followed by animalistic roar, we see what Gotham sees and realize that there are no civilians as far as this guy is concerned, and nobody is safe. It is a chilling lesson.
A common complaint with Batman Begins is that it takes far too long (more than forty minutes in fact) for the titular character to final appear. Already a given considering its purpose as an origins story and a cautious, slow burn character study, this particular concern shouldn’t even be on the minds of the audience. Luckily, even if it is, all the waiting is well worth it as the first act’s build up is given a perfectly appropriate, wonderfully thematic pay off, a trip into terror that culminates with those immortal two words.
We have seen Bruce’s training and we have seen his return to Gotham. We have witnessed his plans in motion and strategy over approach. We know who he will hit and why. We have have had glimpses of the suit he is constructing and the weapons he has corralled. But little prepares you for his debut, dropping in on a narcotic pick up in Gotham’s docks overseen by mob boss Falcone. Having picked off each and every one of the horrified henchmen one by one, only Falcone remains. “What the hell are you?” he mutters indignantly . Then the sunroof of his limo is smashed and he is pulled through, coming face to face with the monster. “I’m Batman” he declares, butting him in the face. Cue a roar of approval from the audience.
Given that up until this point Nolan had no real experience in either action or horror, this sequence is an impressively sublime and deft example not just of delivering thrills but also conveying dread. With shaky steadicam that refuses to settle or focus on the Bat, instead becoming lost in the maelstrom he creates, we get a sense of the unnerving panic that our hero creates in the ranks of the villainous. Then Falcone is grabbed, and full clarity is restored, giving us a proper look at the cowl and ears, the sheer awesome of the design and the intimidating snarl on the exposed mouth. Terror turns to joy. Batman has arrived.
The Dark Knight Rises
Even those not well versed in the comics knew this was coming, or at the very least suspected. A villain best known for breaking the Bat in Knightfall shows up in the final installment, saved for last even after Ra’s Al Ghul and the Joker have been defeated. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that Batman is, for the first time, about to lose a fair fight. But surely nobody was ready for it to go down like this, to be so devastating, so harrowing and so cruelly easy.
Awoken from his stupor by the threat of a fresh storm, Bruce dons his armor and gets back into the swing of things, swatting inept cops and petty mooks with ease. Confidence pumping and blood up, he takes to the sewers to root out Bane, a man he fears little. A big mistake. From the moment Selina Kyle betrays him, barring his only escape from the man mountain, there is only way he can go; down. His secrets are laid bare, his arsenal exposed and stolen, the terrible nature of his opponent revealed. In the fight he is outclassed, every breakthrough he makes turns into a trap. Played with, mocked, antagonized and finally vanquished with a brutal snapping of the backbone, the Batman is utterly destroyed in the space of five astonishing minutes.
For those who worship the caped crusader, it is a crushing blow. For neutrals, it is a stunning and eye watering realization that for every badass, there is a badder ass. This moment was already destined for the eternal memory banks, but the execution here is just so wonderfully perfect. There is no rousing Zimmer strains, no flashy camera tricks and no snarled threats. The score is silent as the grave, as is Batman himself, while Bane holds a one-sided conversation, talking casually throughout a fight he was won before it even begun. Memorable line after memorable line provoke Bruce to anger, weakening him and exposing him. The music doesn’t return until the end, and it is a dark and ominous bass as Bane hoists up the Batman. When he comes back down, he is truly broken. An overwhelming defeat and a truly stunning, unforgettable scene.
The Dark Knight
Another halfway mark first meeting/confrontation, again a one on one, and yet more talking from villain to hero. But this time we have an antagonist who has seldom needed his fists to cause harm, and while he holds the upper hand it is on a far larger scale than a simple fight. Just when it looks like Batman has some kind of leverage, it is taken away from him as he, and we, realize just how deep the Joker’s psychosis goes, just how convinced he is of his righteousness, and just how formidable a foe he presents.
The ‘Dent is Batman’ ploy has paid dividends. The Joker’s reign of terror is seemingly at an end as he sits in a prison cell, immobilized and disarmed. Then Dent and Rachel disappear without a trace, and the prime suspect is the nameless man in holding. With Gordon unable to make headway, he unleashes the Batman. In one little room the two crazies go head to head and the table turns. Yes, the Joker is crazy, but surely not this crazy? He truly believes his own words, every last one of them, even when they contradict one another. And he has made his words into action. As this verbal ballet turns into a futile physical beat down, the psycho-for-hire becomes the chess master. Insane and illogical they may be, formed from a swirling vortex of madness, but the Joker’s words send Batman racing out of the room with chiding laughter in his ears.
This is the Joker in his purest form, finally allowed to sit down and express his manifesto, and it is a fascinating, terrifying experience. He has flirted with motive and desire before, but in this one scene we get a sense of what he truly is; chaos incarnate. As he listens and tries to comprehend, it is surely here that Batman starts to understand that killing is the only solution. Alfred was right. Some men can’t be bought, bargained or negotiated with. The camera work and music plays a huge part in atmosphere, as does Bale’s subtle work, but once again this is Heath Ledger’s time to shine. And once again, he seizes it with both hands. Who else can earnestly utter the words “you complete me” and make them so believable and so downright ominous?
The Dark Knight Rises
Let’s look at it on paper; this entire sequence is a formality in terms of plot, just a puzzle for Batman to solve before he can head back to the real battle. It is a thing to do to signal his comeback, The Dark Knight Saga’s equivalent to a Rocky montage. Given all he has accomplished so far, it is small fry. And of course he’s going to get back to Gotham to save the day, you don’t even have to see the trailer to understand that. Even the classic ‘rule of three’ approach to a heroic hurdle is employed. If anything, this is filler. So why is it that, when all that said and done, the climb is perhaps the most emotionally satisfying and overwhelmingly joyful moment of the entire trilogy?
Dumped in the ancient prison with the sky light for both solace and torture, a broken Bruce is forced to fight the pain and rebuild himself so that he might do what only one person has ever done and escape his torment, return to his city and save it from death. But he can’t. The climb is severe, and the jump is even worse. I’m not afraid, he declares, just as his father told him not to be, I’m angry. Yet he can’t make it. Finally, the prison’s blind and morally bankrupt doctor tells him the truth; fear of death is required. You must be afraid. You must do it without the rope. So Bruce takes one final climb, knowing failure means death. Either way, he won’t be remaining in this prison. His fellow prisoners cheer him on. Bats emerge from a hole in the wall, bathing him in destiny. He jumps…and makes it. It’s on now. The Batman is back.
But it is so much more than that, so much more than a plot synopsis can ever hope to express. This is three films of strife and loss and pain come down to this one moment. Everything about it is a culmination of his life, and a lesson of what he has forgotten or misunderstood. The words of his father to recall are not “Don’t be afraid”. They are “Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up”. It is not in success that we are defined, not in victory. It is how we respond to defeat. It is how we find the means to try again, to continue on. Only a fool does not fear death, when it is all we should fear.
He makes the climb and suddenly we are back in that well from Begins, where Bruce found the bats. Only this time Thomas Wayne will not descend to rescue him. This time he must save himself so he might continue what he started. The loss of his parents. The death of Rachel. Defeat to Bane. The destruction of Gotham. Every terrible thing that has ever happened to Bruce floods back in those moments and he faces them down, puts them into his heart, makes them fuel for the fire. “Deshi bashara bashara!” the prisoners chant. It all comes to him in that one moment where he becomes the truest hero he has ever been in making that jump, fear in his heart, afraid but desperate to fight again. And from that pit of despair and loss, he rises. The Dark Knight rises.
It may not touch all, and perhaps might even bore some, but for those who felt it, truly felt it, this is a scene years in the making and the defining moment of the entire series, when Bruce became whole for the first time. For that alone, it was all a Godsend, and truly the greatest moment of the saga.