The Latest DC movies have been major disappointments to a lot of people. Critics have cited poor writing, bad pacing, and too much studio meddling as some of the prime issues. I for one enjoyed Suicide Squad, and BvS was probably my third favorite movie of 2016. Nonetheless, I’ve decided to make this post in honor of a time when DC made movies that were unanimously recognized as great, and when Batman films sat upon the throne of the superhero community.
Batman Begins: Batman Begins had arguably the toughest role to play in the success of the franchise, although it was filling some pretty tiny shoes. Batman and Robin had been the latest batman movie, which was horrible to a uniquely hilarious degree. Batman was at best a campy but vengeful vigilante. Christopher Nolan changed all of this with a caped crusader who was dark, brutal, and gritty.
For one thing, Nolan explains everything about Batman. Exposition of Bruce Wayne’s early childhood, his experience at the orphanage, and his incident falling into a cave explain why he chose a bat as his moniker. His use of the bat as a symbol is one of the most compelling things about the movie. Nolan emphasizes this by showing us Batman’s crime fighting from the perspective of the criminal, making us just as scared as the men in the situation are. This is nothing new to the genre, but with Nolan’s on-point directing, you can cut the suspense with a knife in many scenes.
Batman’s physical origin is also more hashed out than it has ever been. For the first part of the movie, Wayne spends time in a Tibetan Prison, and a League of Shadows monastery, perfecting his skills in stealth and martial arts. Only when he is forced to kill does he make his escape. His suit and gadgets are rationalized as experimental military gear that was simply too expensive to be mass-produced. His armor is an advanced brand of carbon weave technology, his car is a failed bridge-jumping vehicle, and his helmet a reinforced graphite which Bruce must order en mass in order to avoid arousal of suspicion.
Best of all Batman Begins is about embracing fear in order to conquer it. Wayne becomes the very thing of which he is most afraid, and channels his fear to clean up the streets of Gotham. Were it not for the obvious computer generated Narrows buildings, Batman Begins might have been a perfect movie.
The Dark Knight: While Batman Begins tackles fear, The Dark Knight is a fascinating study of order vs. chaos. The Joker is a symbol of disorder and anarchy, opposing Batman’s consistent protection of the law. Nolan brings out the irony that Batman must break the law himself by the very existence of his persona.
Heath Ledger has gone down in history as the definitive Joker, posing a challenge for any other actor who would take on the role in the future. (Were Jared Leto not following Ledger, he may have been the one regarded as a legend.) Ledger elevated the Joker to an even larger cultural icon. The Joker is the ultimate villain, following a crazed ideology and showing just how close society is to the brink of madness.
When Batman interrogates the Joker, he simply laughs and critiques Batman’s methods: “Never start with the head. The victim gets all fuzzy.” The Joker deconstructs what it means to be a villain, never really caring when Batman subdues him but showing that society is ultimately self-interested when provoked. Thus, he is really defeated by the city of Gotham, not Batman. Planting a bomb on two barges and leaving a detonator on either side, his victory is lost when the citizens refuse to turn on each-other.
Ultimately, however, Batman shows his love for his city, by giving it everything. He doesn’t die for it, but takes perhaps ths more difficult path of becoming a scapegoat, in order to protect the name of Harvey Dent, district Attorney gone bad, who saw himself become a villain. In order to preserve all the work Harvey Dent did to protect Gotham’s streets, Batman bears the sins of Dent, and hangs up his cape and cowl, paying the ultimate sacrifice.
The Dark Knight Rises: The Dark Knight Rises begins eight years after the events of The Dark Knight. Batman has retired and Bruce Wayne has become a rich recluse a la Howard Hughes. When a thief steals his mother’s jewelry, Wayne becomes involved again, investigating as Batman. When the sinister Bane comes to Gotham looking to create radical change, Batman is faced with his greatest challenge yet.
After the success of The Dark Knight, it would have been tempting to forge another psychopathic maniac along the same vein of the Joker; Batman’s rogues gallery certainly has plenty of them. However, Bane is a unique character, and this iteration of him is one of the most starkly sane villains the caped crusader ever encounters. Tom Hardy’s menacing growl, distorted by a breathing mask — not unlike Darth Vader — combined with his slow pacing as he rambles on about society and corruption, is extremely intimidating.
This version of Bane is without the aid of Venom, the chemical in the comic that gives him his superhuman strength. He is, however, portrayed in an effective light as an unstoppable force, just as his comic-book counterpart. Throughout the movie, no one is able to stand up to Bane. Even Batman is defeated, throwing every gadget and resource he has at him, only to be broken, quite literally, and sent to a prison deep in the ground.
The prison makes for one of the most thrilling sequences in Batman history, and one of my favorite ever. The gimmick of this specific prison is that anyone is allowed to escape at any time. Inmates secured by a rope, and urged on by a rhythmic chanting from the rest of the prisoners, are permitted to try to escape through the hole in the ceiling. No-one has ever done it though, Bane says, except for one. Bruce spends about a month in the prison, mending his destroyed body, and watching his city being overtaken every day.
When Wayne thinks he’s ready, he tries to climb out, only to falter and fall. He in turn ups his workout regimen and tries again, only to fail again. Finally, he talks to an old man, a fellow prisoner, who says that he is not afraid enough: he must make the climb without the rope. Bruce begins climbing and is unfazed by the much more dangerous situation. When he reaches the point at which he has fallen twice before, a swarm of bats exits a crack in the rock, swarming around him. Afraid at first, he gets his bearing, stands up, makes the leap, and finally makes his ascent out of the pit. That’s right, the Dark Knight rises.
This is a powerful transformation, because it addresses a challenge Wayne has dealt with since the series beginning: his fear. He conquers his fear to become Batman, and in doing so, suppresses it. As a vigilante, he essentially operates without it. Here, he is afraid, very afraid, and that is what gives him a desire to live and a passion to protect his city. In embracing his fear, he is finally re-birthed as the hero he was always meant to be.
Batman’s final battle with Bane is the most breathtaking sequence in the series. The two men meet amid the battle for Gotham City and trade blows as the chaos rages around them. There is no flashy martial arts combat here; they opt mostly for the exclusive use of fisticuffs. When Batman’s fist catches Bane’s mask, it triggers something within him, making him angrier as the pain increases. He throws rapid blows, cracking the surface of a pillar and screaming, only to be knocked into the next room by Batman.
The Series as a Whole: Christopher Nolan brought us a series that, while pretty light on action in retrospect, presented excellent character growth, and deeply thematic studies of both villains and protagonists alike. It ends in probably the most satisfying way possible, and lives on as a series that is just as compelling to remember, and re-watch, as it was to see it the first time.