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The Legend Ends: Revisiting Christopher Nolan’s Epic Batman Saga

July 16, 2012

By John C.

There is a reason why practically everyone is counting the days until The Dark Knight Rises opens this Friday.  It’s the same reason why I considered Batman Begins one of the best movies of 2005 and called The Dark Knight a masterpiece of modern cinema back in 2008.  Not only did director Christopher Nolan literally redefine the classic superhero and reinvent the idea of what a summer blockbuster could be, he also went on to deliver what will be remembered as one of the greatest movie trilogies of all time.

The classic DC Comics’ hero who first appeared in 1939 has been brought to life many times over the years, from an endearingly campy TV show in the 1960s starring Adam West in the title role, to Tim Burton’s two visually impressive big screen adaptations in 1989 and 1992 starring Michael Keaton.  Val Kilmer also donned the iconic black costume in 1995’s Batman Forever, and even George Clooney got a chance to play the Caped Crusader in 1997 with the laughably cheesy Batman & Robin.

The biggest reinvention of the character happened in 2005 when Christopher Nolan made the franchise his own with Batman Begins, a genuine origin story of how billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) embraced his fear to became a masked hero and clean up crime on the increasingly gritty streets of Gotham City.  It was thrilling without ever losing sight of the important character development at hand, making it stand out in terms of tone and style.  With a supporting cast that included Michael Caine as Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred, and Morgan Freeman as tech expert Lucius Fox, it was a critical and commercial triumph.  

The film was followed up in 2008 with The Dark Knight.  A dark and visually stunning crime saga that fearlessly brought up brilliant themes and thought provoking morals about who is really good and who is the true hero, the film introduced us to Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart).  A district attorney with a plan to change Gotham City, he is the embodiment of pure good in the eyes of the public, which is exactly why The Joker (Heath Ledger) is determined to push him over the edge.  Harvey Dent tells Bruce Wayne that “you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain,” and sometimes the hero that the people need is the one who brings hope amidst the fear.

Heath Ledger tragically died a few months before the film was released and went on to win a posthumous Oscar for his chilling turn as The Joker, a brilliant performance that is terrifying to the point where we can never stop watching.  What makes him such a sadistic villain is the fact that there is no meaning to any of his crimes.  He just wants to “watch the world burn” and destroy all hope by bringing everyone else down to his level.  The climactic set up with the two boats that have the option of saving their own lives if they blow the other one up is almost like Christopher Nolan’s own little “social experiment” with the audience.  By defying the stereotypes of what we think we know about the characters, yet another level of psychological complexity is brought to the film.

Christopher Nolan’s trilogy is unlike any other comic book adaptation, because very few of the characters behave the way that we normally expect from superheroes.  Their powers come merely from the control they have over Gotham City, not from internal or supernatural strength.  They “make their own luck” as Harvey Dent so eloquently puts it, and the Gotham of this universe is a city filled with poverty and political corruption that has long since reached a violent melting point.  “The Batman” is seen as a masked vigilante who takes the law into his own hands, gaining the trust of Police chief Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), even when the public questions his true identity.

All three films work as entertainment, but they also play as a powerful political allegory, with questions of who really controls Gotham City drawing comparisons to the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Christian Bale plays Bruce Wayne as equally conflicted, never losing sight of the complex humanity that drives him to be the hero.  The epic final chapter in a compelling trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises is bound to be one of the biggest and most important movies of the year.

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