Now that we’re more than a year removed from the release of The Dark Knight Rises, I thought it would be a good time to reflect back on The Dark Knight Trilogy as a whole. As a fan of Batman in both comic book and film form, I have both positive and negative views of the trilogy and its take on Batman, his villains, and Gotham as a whole. No film is without flaws, but something like The Dark Knight Trilogy is a goldmine for my focus in this blog.
In these next two entries, we’ll take a look at the successes of these films. Next week, we’ll discuss the failures.
Top Notch Casting
One of the most consistent aspects of these three films is their casting. Mainstays like Christian Bale, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, and Gary Oldman are the real pillars of the trilogy and consistently nail their characters. They each embody the essence of the well-established characters that they play while also making them their own. These four play an especially important role in Batman Begins, where their serious approach to the characters and the material helps to establish the franchise as a real world-based story.
Single-film additions such as Liam Neeson as Ra’s al Ghul, Heath Ledger’s Joker, Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent, Tom Hardy’s Bane, and Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman are all strong in their own right. These characters tend to be more outlandish, but are still grounded enough by their settings and the rest of the cast that they do not reach a cartoonish level.
A Serious Approach
Batman is a serious character, even when he is dropped into lighter contexts. Think of happier fare, such as Adam West’s Batman or The Brave and the Bold cartoon. Even when the situations are outlandish, Batman himself is still serious, but playing a funnier straight man role because of the stories he is in.
But with a real world setting comes a need for more serious tones. Since the 1980s, Batman has become a more grim character in the comics, with stories like The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One setting a continuing tone for the character. Year One is especially important to The Dark Knight Trilogy, as this Frank Miller story is the basis for much of Batman Begins. In both of these stories, Bruce struggles to fully establish himself as Batman and has much of his growth intertwined with that of then-Detective James Gordon. Additionally, characters like Flass and the sonic call to a swarm of bats are lifted right out of the four issue series. By taking Bruce’s struggles seriously, we connect with him more deeply.
This tone carries over to The Dark Knight, where the serious nature becomes a major plus as the film becomes a crime film and a morality play concerning terrorism and our sacrifices in stopping it. Additionally, a character like The Joker is greatly shaped by this approach, giving him true menace and gravity. While this comes back around to bite the series in the ass when The Dark Knight Rises becomes too bleak for its own good (more on that in a future entry), it does most of the characters justice.
Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne
While Bale’s portrayal of Bruce Wayne is often left undiscussed in favor of the more flashy elements of the series, he’s easily the best serious, live-action Batman of all time. Yes, that means I’m leaving out Kevin Conroy as the voice of Batman and Adam West as funny Batman.
He fully embodies the three sides of Bruce: Playboy Bruce Wayne, Batman, and the true Bruce who only reveals himself to Alfred and a few others. Outside of the costume, we see him as a man trying to cope with a trauma he cannot move past. As Batman, he is intimidating yet human, making us believe in him as nearly unstoppable yet still grounded in reality.
In Batman Begins, we fully buy into his trauma as a young man and his insatiable desire to wreck criminals. Throughout The Dark Knight, we see the burden that being Batman has taken on him and the lengths that he will go to protect Gotham. In The Dark Knight Rises, his journey to becoming Batman again and his will to overcome his greatest challenges is on full display, with his scenes in the pit being especially powerful. Perhaps the most telling of all, we see Bruce Wayne on screen throughout these films, rather than Christian Bale pretending to be Bruce Wayne.
Heath Ledger’s Joker
He may be the most discussed and most praised aspect of all three films, but Heath Ledger’s The Joker is easily one of the greatest accomplishments of the trilogy. His performance won a posthumous Oscar; no other actor has even been nominated for work in a super hero film.
Ledger both stays true to the essence of the character while also completely reinventing him. He walks this fine line so well that you may not even realize how different he is from his comic book counterpart. His love of zany death traps is gone, there are no acid-spewing flowers or Joker gas, and the only jokes he tells involve pencils to eyes. Not only does he barely even laugh, he hardly smiles! Look at almost any comic book with The Joker and the pages are filled with his deranged laughter.
But what is the essence of The Joker? A once normal man with a mysterious past who went so far over the edge that nothing but the complete destruction of life will satisfy him. Life is a joke to him, but killing is a serious business. In The Dark Knight, Joker states his philosophy as Russian gangster Chechen is being carried off to be cut up into pieces and Lau burns to death on top of an enormous pile of cash. “Everything burns.”
Ledger’s performance is so magnetic that it’s hard to look at anything else on screen. His little facial tics, like the way he licks the scarred sides of his mouth and sucks the inside of his scarred cheeks, and his off-kilter voice only deepen the character. And it’s hard to name his standout moments in the film, since everything he is in is fantastic. His introduction is epic, with the six-minute scene playing out like a mini-version of Heat while making us truly feel the intimidating presence of The Joker, who already feels like a fully-formed character. His encounters with the common people in the movie feel frightening, as they are powerless to stop this force of nature, with Christopher Nolan even comparing the character to the shark from Jaws.
Only his encounters with the physically superior Batman level the playing field, but only just barely. His truck chase may be the highlight of the film, as The Joker expresses his love of wanton destruction, complete disregard for his own wellbeing, and overwhelming desire to kill. And it all hinges on Ledger’s Joker, who speaks most of the few lines that are said throughout the chase.
Ledger’s Joker is gripping, menacing, and magnetic to the point that all other villains seem flat in comparison.
Click here for Part 2 of The Trilogy’s Successes, when I’ll cover more successes including Hans Zimmer’s score and Batman’s vehicles.