Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy review

Watching Interstellar for a third time, I felt very much like I had a sense of what Christopher Nolan was going for.


But it took three views to really feel like I got it. I love that, when movies have enough depth and complexity that it takes more than one viewing to fully grasp what’s going on. I’m OK with that when the revisits are so rewarding. It’s what made Nolan’s Inception my favourite movie of 2010 and The Dark Knight one of my favourites of 2008. He’s just that kind of filmmaker, a deeply cerebral one, but who can deliver the emotional goods, too. It just sometimes takes more than one sitting to get all of it.

This weekend is the 2015 San Diego Comic Con, that industry event where comics and movies hype each other to death, so it seemed a perfect time to look back at a superhero franchise that lives up to the hype: Nolan’s three Batman movies. My rambling observations will include many spoilers, likely.


Batman Begins (2005)

Directed by Christopher Nolan, Written by Nolan and David S. Goyer, from the DC Comics character created by Bob Kane. 

Screenings: Three

The first act of Batman Begins is unparalleled in superhero movies, or it was until the Netflix Daredevil series: the hero doesn’t show up in his costume for a long while, almost half the picture.  It nicely upends expectations, while still being about the hero’s journey.

The familiar orphaning mythology is laid out in flashback from Bruce Wayne’s 20s. Christian Bale in the lead has the right kind of method obsessive quality. Even within the movie itself you can see he changed his body to suit what was going on—thinner when he was younger, bigger when he puts on the costume.

His pursuit of the tools to enact justice leads him to associating with criminal organizations, like Ducard (Liam Neeson) and Ra’s Al Ghul’s (Ken Watanabe) League of Shadows, ninja assassin training somewhere in the Himalayas. It’s an interesting path, and illustrates the line he’s not willing to cross. Whatever his demons, he’s not willing to destroy in order to create. He believes what exists is worth fighting for, with a core optimism for humanity.


Then comes the preparing: Wayne reentering Gotham City society, connecting with the one good cop, James Gordon (Gary Oldman), sourcing equipment with Wayne Enterprises tech wizard Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), with plenty of help from loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine).


Nolan has assembled a jaw-dropping cast in smaller roles, including Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson, Rutger Hauer, Linus Roache, Rade Serbedzija, and even Katie Holmes, who I remember got some grief about her performance in the film. I don’t think she’s actually that bad in it, but I do think the character, Rachel Dawes, is underwritten. She and Bale don’t have much pop, and if she’s there to show what Wayne has to sacrifice for his crusade, it doesn’t really seem like much. “Your real face is the one criminals now fear.” That dialogue wouldn’t exactly roll off anyone’s tongue.

(By the way, keep your eyes open for Tim Booth, lead singer of the band James, in a cameo as one of Falcone’s thugs, and Game of Thrones‘ Joffrey, Jack Gleeson, as the young Batman fan who he meets on the fire escape.)

The nice thing about all this prep is that, given the long-running comics and the previous Batman movie series—inaugurated by Tim Burton in 1989 and terminated with extreme prejudice by Joel Schumacher in 1997—people know the story pretty well. Nolan chooses to show the sweat, to build a foundation beneath the story we already know, supported by a great sense of symbolism and that terrific Hans Zimmer/James Newton Howard score. We know what’s coming, but it’s great fun to see how it plays out, how Wayne slowly conjures his vigilante alter ego with the pointy ears.

Revisiting the film I enjoyed the loose sense of era: Cell phones are present, but Rachel drives a 1980s Ford, and Alfred claims Bruce’s father was trying to help people in the Depression, and built an elevated railway through the city like futurists imagined circa Metropolis.

Nolan has a such an amazing sense of scale. I know these films are hugely expensive, but you really get a sense of him putting that money on the screen in the production design, practical stunts, and well-choreographed action sequences. And he very smartly borrows a key sequence from Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One comic, calling the colony of bats as backup in a tight situation.

What Nolan succeeds in doing is creating a superhero opera, a grand drama that still manages to have one foot in some recognizable reality. What he doesn’t have is much of a sense of humour here. There are moments, like when the cops are faced with the Tumbler, or Alfred lifting a prone Rachel into the back of the Rolls, explaining she’s “a little worse for wear.” It’s dry, and barely there. Wayne the playboy is great and a missed opportunity for more of that humour. But that shows up in the next film.

The weaponizing of fear is an excellent theme for a Batman movie, and it provides the backbone to this thing. It’s what both he and his antagonists do. Thankfully Alfred has Wayne’s back. It’s his goodness keeping Wayne and his alter ego from going too far into the darkness.


The Dark Knight (2008)

Directed by Christopher Nolan, Written by Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan, and David S. Goyer, from the DC Comics character created by Bob Kane. 

Screenings: Five

Nolan has been criticized for creating a dour superhero universe with his Batman movies, but the droll wit in his writing really manifests in this sequel. It really helps that the villain is The Joker. I don’t know that five screenings are really necessary, but I have kept coming back to it in the past seven years.

Watching The Dark Knight again, I notice where the humour is sharp and regular—gags from Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), Alfred (Michael Caine), the defacement of the logo on the side of the truck—”(s)laughter is the best medicine”—and all The Joker’s peculiar weirdnesses. I love it when he dresses as a nurse to visit with Dent. But these gags aren’t laugh-out-loud funny, they’re mordant.

I’m continually impressed by this movie. While Batman Begins was a fresh take on the origin story, exploring themes of heroism, fear, and justice, it was still very much a grand fantasy, as indebted to Metropolis and Asian action pictures as comic books. The Dark Knight is pure Michael Mann crime drama. It’s Heat with guys in cowls. Gotham has changed between movies—the sky is filled with steel towers rather than elevated trains.

There’s been plenty of digital ink spilled about this movie, and I’m not sure there’s a lot more I can add but just to say that almost everything about it works. Nolan’s confidence with the material has grown in leaps and bounds, from the masterful opening IMAX camera-shot bank robbery set-piece, establishing The Joker (Heath Ledger, brilliant, terrifying) as a ruthless criminal genius, to the fat-free storytelling, marshalling a sprawling ensemble of perfectly cast characters.

Joining returning performers Bale, Caine, Murphy, Gary Oldman, and Morgan Freeman, is Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes, who brings a bit more depth to the part, and Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent, the brand new crusading District Attorney of Gotham City, a man who Bruce Wayne sees as his natural successor, someone who can do good work in the daytime, without having to resort to all that vigilante theatricality. The twist being that if Wayne gives up being Batman, he figures he’ll finally get his chance with Rachel. And if Dent becomes Gotham’s saviour, he won’t have time for a relationship with her. This feels like a real drama of personal sacrifice, and it’s what makes it better than Batman Begins.


Ledger’s Joker is, if you’ll excuse me, the wild card in the deck, a force of chaos who believes in the worst in people, and just “wants to see the world burn.” I remember how much Heath Ledger’s death cast a pall over the release of the film, but it also elevated his performance from brilliant to legendary. Seven years later nothing I’m seeing her contradicts that assessment. He’s spectacular in this.

The first act is a clinic on building suspense on a large scale, setting the stakes right away: the mob consolidates its funds in dirty banks, but when Gordon clues in, they use a Chinese national accountant to take all the cash to Hong Kong. Joker warns them against it, and sure enough, Batman has gone to HK and found the accountant in question. A vertigo-inducing assault on a skyscraper office works like a charm.


Then the Joker is in play, leading to an incredible second act of domino-chain of action sequences so powerful the film almost doesn’t recover. The model of Joker allowing himself to be captured has been borrowed as a dramatic through-line in plenty of action movies since, including the James Bond movie, Skyfall. In 20-or-so minutes Nolan deftly orchestrates the capture, violent interrogation, and subsequent ingenious escape of one character, the resurrection of another, the death of a third, and the maiming and mental unbalancing of a fourth. I can’t think of another thriller where the reversals have come so fast and so unexpectedly. It takes the film into another arena altogether. I’m sure I’m not the first one to say it, but The Dark Knight is The Godfather Part II of superhero movies.

That’s not to say it’s perfect, but when so much works so well, it’s easy to overlook the small problems—the choppy editing of a few scenes, for example. The third act is solid, but after those middle 30 minutes or so, it does feel like a bit of a let-down.

I was also a little disappointed by the final disposition of The Joker—that he didn’t choose to do what the comic character did in the third issue of Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, take his own life, and by doing that, framing Batman for murder. There was a moment when he’s hanging off that building I was sure that’s what he had in mind. But we never really see what happens—presumably he gets sent to Arkham. Anyway, the final disposition of Batman isn’t actually so different, it just happens by a different avenue: Dent.


The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Directed by Christopher Nolan, Written by Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan, and David S. Goyer, from the DC Comics character created by Bob Kane. 

Screenings: Two

Why is the first act of this picture such a mess? Seeing it again, it feels even more so.
Thankfully, it’s not enough to diminish the franchise as a whole, and as the film runs it does right itself, and returns to complete a few plot circles started back with Batman Begins—the return of The League of Shadows and their plan to destroy Gotham, for instance. But it sure does shake and creak out of the gate: Too many characters, too much set-up, and no sense of where it’s all going.
For more on those plot details, the politics, and my initial thoughts on the film, please go here for my detailed review. Then come on back for these other thoughts:
I predicted I’d like it more upon future viewings, and I’m afraid I was wrong. I enjoyed it, but only about as much as I did the first time. Its problems are manifest, while it’s still a hugely ambitious and impressive movie.
Here are few things I did notice upon revisiting the thing:
• I’m now more ambivalent about Hathaway as Selena Kyle. She’s an interesting character, but not nearly as tough or sophisticated as I think she should be. Her vulnerability provides depth, but there’s something a little too theatrical about her. The hair, the heels, they don’t help. But I’ll reiterate—she looks great on the Batpod.
• Why does Alfred go out of his way to encourage Bruce to get back into his Bat-togs if he’s so concerned about his safety? Surely, it’s likely he would eventually run into someone like Bane, who would serve as a genuine threat to Wayne’s life. And when Alfred reveals his deep, dark secret about Rachel, it does seem cruel, and, knowing Wayne’s level of obsession, pointless.
• I really like Hardy, but the way his voice is archly modulated behind his mask feels OTT, even for a superhero movie. And, it needs to be said again, that Batman’s tubercular growl is the silliest thing about him. I understand it allows him a bit more anonymity, but it would be nice if the film commented on how he manages this ridiculous rasp without him constantly sucking on lozenges.
• I enjoyed the way Talia (Marion Cotillard) is introduced, how her character dovetails from the comic, the true heir of Ra’s Al Ghul. But I think what the film suffers from is a surfeit of plot. It makes me wish this had been an HBO series. There’s a season of excellent TV in this two hours and 45 minutes.
• One way to simplify this would have been to reduce Blake (Joseph Gordon Levitt) in the story, especially the part where he, quite easily, figures out Batman’s secret identity. I didn’t find that plausible or necessary. As an apprentice detective to Gordon (Gary Oldman), he’s effective, but beyond that, he’s just part of that messy first act that could have been cleaned up.
• Man, that score is powerful stuff.

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.