The Dark Knight Legacy – A Retrospective

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Promotional art for The Dark Knight (2008)In one of his regular Uncut series of editorials following the release of Before Midnight, esteemed critic Mark Kermode posed an intriguing question; what is the perfect film trilogy? Given the subject, naturally Richard Linklater’s Before… trio was mooted, along with the more traditional suggestions of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and The Godfather, and the perhaps most objectively reasonable pick of Toy Story. Regardless of your personal choice, there can be little doubting that movie trilogies as a whole wind up becoming divisive. There are few consistent enough to merit consideration as a perfect whole. The aforementioned Godfather is let down by its third entry, numerous notches below the masterpieces of Parts 1 & 2. Likewise Star Wars. Even Lord of the Rings suffers naysayers regarding Fellowship and Two Towers. Could it be that, in such a tricky field, The Dark Knight saga is worthy of an honorable mention?

It is a strange thought. Two years have passed since Rises smashed its way onto the screen, completing Christopher Nolan’s ambitious and epic cinematic redemption of the character. We are closer now to Zach Snyder’s Superman vs Batman: Dawn of Justice than we are to that finale. What yesterday seemed to be of this time is now a part of film history, and is a subject of retrospect and contemplation rather than quickfire analysis and reaction. Volumes and tomes have been written about how these three films, and particularly its second installment, have changed the rules for the typical summer blockbuster and more precisely the comic book movie. They can now be both brazen action and thoughtful character study. Themes are as applicable as thunderstorm grandness. You can be both dark and fun when it comes to the big stuff. These are hardly revelations.

Yet it is probably the trilogy’s most enduring legacy, beyond the myriad action sequences, unforgettable villainous turns and gravelly voiced barks. A complete polar opposite of Batman & Robin’s silly ridiculousness, Batman Begins squarely aimed for drama as much as action and adventure and the series only got more adult as it went along. Where previous Batman movies, even Tim Burton’s timeless Batman 1989, were unmistakably comic books, Nolan’s take felt more like a three-pronged series of novels. Wisecracks were replaced by speeches. Colorful costumes and flamboyant identities swapped for pitch black origin tales and mystery over vicariousness. Contrast Tommy Lee Jones’ Two Face with Aaron Eckhart’s. Notice the switch in analytical focus between the Batman vs Joker dynamic in Batman 89 and The Dark Knight. These are fiercely thematic choices, eschewing the standard tropes and mainstays as much as possible. It changed everything.

Christian Bale & Cillian Murphy in Batman Begins (2005)Perversely, this kind of observation can have a detrimental effect on the films in much the same way that Lord of the Rings has suffered over the years. So much time is dedicated to talking about what they achieved and what they left behind that few really look at the respective movies as anything other than monuments. One has to actually watch them and in surprise realize just how good they truly are, not in terms of legacy but in terms of the now. It is truly spectacular and satisfying viewing. It is true that Nolan set out with a clear vision and fulfilled it, much like in 1999 Peter Jackson dragged his huge crew and cast into the wilds of New Zealand powered by a seemingly impossible dream. But in both cases they didn’t just produce history. Each conjured up three films that stand the test of time both as gamechangers and slices of entertainment.

This is perhaps the purer and more cathartic attitude to take when it comes to re-watching. Placing the Batman Begins disc into your Blu-Ray player and listening as the iconic thumping beats of the Hans Zimmer/Thomas Newton Howard orchestra play over the darkly manifesting studio logos, one cannot help but feel themselves being filled with anticipation and excitement. A monster is rousing, slowly waking from its slumber, about to emerge into the light. Rarely can opening credits do so little and yet so much for an audience. It is the knowing first step on a grand journey that will dip and rise, segue and intercept, drag you on a rollercoaster both visceral and emotional. Batman Begins indeed. The three visual motifs that greet each film’s opening, relevant spawns forming the bat symbol (respectively; bats, fire and ice) are simplistic, stylish hints at what it is about to occur and key touchstones linking together the three films and signposting different stages of Bruce Wayne’s arc. So little doing so much…

That mouthwatering sensation and goose-bump inducing spark of recognition is the perfect re-introduction, and another reminder that you are watching something special. From the cinematography to the score, every element is in place, geared to one purpose; your entertainment. While Begins features one very long, chronologically jumbled prologue exploring Bruce’s trajectory from boy to man, The Dark Knight and Rises instantly set one’s teeth on edge in a rictus grin with sensational opening salvos. As the fire blossoms in a evocative dark blue, Why So Serious? ominously builds up in the background, sharp metal dragged across woodwind strings in a shrill. Chaos is coming, it says. And it will, in the shape of The Joker. One film later, the same symbol appears out of cracking ice as the Bat thaws, signaling the mid-air introduction of Bane and the understanding that things are about to take a turn for the worst so severe that it will be a matter of life and death for everybody, for all of Gotham City. So much spoken by nothing more elaborate than a couple of composers, a digitally summoned image and a viewer’s childlike glee. This is going to be awesome.

Liam Neeson & Christian Bale in Batman Begins (2005)

And it is. The reason why the saga (for Nolan and his team are loathe to dub it trilogy) is even eligible for the coveted title of perfect threesome is that, regardless of personal persuasions and favorites, the constant power and impact of each movie cannot be denied. On some level they will hit home. For those of the popcorn persuasion, you will get phenomenal action sequences paced almost perfectly between build up and set ups. For the lovers of theatrical drama you get to watch the evolution and tribulations of the one very human soul at the center of all, from his coming of age to his sharply cynical adaptation to fierce backlash and the genuine pain and toll of idealistic wish and sacrificial crusade, the haunting realization that atop such a high pedestal there can be no hiding place. For those who value above all else the cinema in cinema, we have some of Wally Pfister’s finest visual work, every scene a picture perfect image stark in clarity, color and understated flair, while the score weaves its way through the big and the small seamlessly, holding off when necessary (the Joker’s home movie; Bane breaking the Bat) or reaching a towering crescendo in each film’s grand finale, whether it be Gordon’s Dark Knight summation or the tear jerking Rises reveal. There’s even room for the eery and terrifying (with Dark Knight’s A Little Push and Begins’ Tadarida), a reminder that there is a very real tinge of horror behind the blockbusting, and pieces of enormous emotional resonance (TDK’s Watch the World Burn; Rises’ Necessary Evil).

This doesn’t even cover the fact that just as he approached the saga’s appearance and tone as he would any other art house flick, Nolan stuffed his movie full of actors rather than stars and was rewarded with extraordinary performances and projections that breathed life into the players in this most grand game. The inspired casting of Christian Bale, an actor incapable of playing shallow, gave Batman an identity easily bought and swallowed and made Bruce Wayne a protagonist rich and amiable, brilliant and heroic, and yet so fractured he is as lending to sympathy and empathy as he is adoration and respect. Gary Oldman, turning the previously one dimensional Jim Gordon into a fully fledged supporting hero capable of mistakes and misjudgments but driven by the same ambition as his cowled ally, gave the trilogy a wholly new aspect absent from all but the comics.

Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine adding gravitas and, respectively, authority (Lucius’s resignation) and emotional heft (Alfred’s plea for Bruce to down arms). There’s the chillingly creepy work of Cillian Murphy, lightweight and still nightmarish; the tragic transformation of Aaron Eckhart, the embodiment of the imperfect hero; the undeniable gritty determination and pluck of Joseph Gordon-Levitt; the steely and stoic charisma of Liam Neeson. How can anyone forget the startling transformation as unlikely badass Anne Hathaway turned from startled wallflower to purring femme fatale in the space of a second? For how long will Tom Hardy’s physically imposing, terrifying and yet perversely likeable Bane continue to lurch through the zeitgeist with his rich accent and demon spawn mask? And when all is said and done, will there ever be a day when the name Heath Ledger does not evoke memories of one of cinema’s finest villainous performances, a tantalizing look at what may have been and a timeless, eternal celebration of what was? Hardly.

Christian Bale & Tom Hardy in The Dark Knight Rises (2012)These films are more than the sum of their parts, though, just as Batman is more than just a man in a mask. All of these elements blend seamlessly into stories that, while occasionally stretching to maintain their subtext and becoming vulnerable to criticism, will always hit their intended mark. Begins is a beautiful coming of age story as a traumatized boy becomes a troubled man and, finally, a hero with an identity, a goal, and a means to bury his pain and turn his fears outward. The Dark Knight is a ferocious exploration of escalation and the measures one must take to combat them, limits tested and the darkest of alternatives explored, the understanding that the identity must be everything, that when fighting monsters one must become one and never resort to half measures. There can be only one man behind the cowl, not two. And Rises is the perfect come around, the greatest test, the most sapping, exhausting and impossible battle on multiple fronts that should surely cripple even the strongest and yet, for all the pain, also the road to true healing, to release, to sweet, sweet mercy. It tells us that for a man to give everything he has, there must be something waiting for him over the rainbow. With this final battle, he has finally done enough to let go and tentatively reach out for something more and something less, personal happiness. He is one, and whole, and finally free.

If you would shed a tear for a man to suffer so much and earn it all in another genre or piece, why not for Bruce that he was born on the pages of Bob Kane’s comic and celebrated like a Greek God? Why is he somehow less worthy of our love as the superhero film is less worthy of respect? The answer is that he’s not, and they’re not, and to suggest otherwise would be to reveal a snobbish disregard and ignorance, close minded prejudice and slanted reasoning. He may have been around (in print) since the 30s and shaking screens (cinematically) since the 60s, but this is a Bruce Wayne and, by extension Batman, that we haven’t before seen in this medium. He isn’t the unspoken mystery of Michael Keaton or the characterless anti-hero of Val Kilmer; Bale’s Bruce is fully formed, in equal parts sad, tragic, self-loathing, unforgiving, resourceful, resilient, self-righteous, flawed and hopeful. His sense of loss is palpable, his loneliness curdling, but the empowerment that comes with his mission is inspirational. He conquers all, but leaves himself till last, as many would forced to heal so quickly when cut so deep. For all his pomp and imposition, he is ultimately selfless, the most important quality in a hero we can follow.

Batman is ultimately a fairy tale, a chronicle that we can live through as a means to battle demons existential through a unbeatable avatar, but played out in a world with sufficient authenticity and depth to be tangible it becomes something more than plain fantasy. This isn’t a hero of idealism, he is a hero of aspiration, and through that inspiration. It feels sufficiently real for this story to mean something. Forget about the suggestions of grit and pure realism, it is only in shades, enough to balance the grounding and the leaps of faith. This fine balance, so fine it seems so fragile yet holds for three long movies and (surely) years upon years of loving recollection, means that this truly special thing we are watching hits deeper than Burton’s gothic or Whedon’s supercharged Avengers.

Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008)Everything comes together to create a thing of beauty, something that makes you cheer and swoon and roar, but also cry and sensitively smile. A big rig flipping 180 degrees on a city street doesn’t match the power of a statue unveiled. A plane hijacking pales in comparison to a chance sighting at an Italian restaurant. The pain enhances the joy. Misery defines happiness. And the blockbuster provides the bare knuckled energy to fully redeem the emotional journey. On every level, it pays off. By trying to do so much it will always test bounds and face accusations of pretentiousness and negativity, and such a haughty vision attracts scorn as easily as the nature of backlash against the successful and the revered.

And there is the temptation to heighten these films into something else entirely, like they would for Batman himself, by making it more than what it is. A symbol, a movement, a gamechanger and a monument. This is all well and good, arguable perhaps but certainly worthy of talk, but what makes The Dark Knight Saga deserving of consideration for that perfect trilogy accolade is in the smaller stuff, in what it does to the viewer and what it leaves with them. Its true legacy is that it took something beloved by so many, meaning so much, and created a most unforgettable memory, the best of great storytelling. That is how is should be remembered. Like the Bat, it is not perfect in of itself but all the better for it.

Scott Patterson






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