Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy: An Appreciation
Part 1: Batman Begins (2005)
Before I was a movie fan I was a comic fan.
There's a geek moment in my life I recall even to this day with utter clarity. It's a Wednesday morning, about 7.30 AM. I'm sitting on the steps outside my friendly neighbourhood newsagents. Said newsagent, Mr Chidlow, comes around the corner and on seeing me does a little double-take. "Blimey, you're up early, lad," he says. Yes, I am up early. And the reason I'm there at such an ungodly hour on his doorstep? It's Wednesday morning and that means the new issue of Spider-Man is out. I can't wait a minute longer. I have to know what happens next.
Looking back as a man of forty, it's hard to reconcile myself with that 10 year-old kid, an age when you could love something as simple as a comic book with the same passion you might reserve for a religion and no one thought you were strange in doing so. Okay, maybe they thought you were a little strange. In the intervening years life has taken me by the lapels and shaken most of that passion from me. But as I grew older and found a new love in my life - movies - I always yearned for the cinema to deliver a movie version of my favourite superheroes that would do justice to the grand milieu created by both the Marvel and DC stables. Many years passed before I saw anything even close. There was a 1980s TV series of Spider-Man which I loved because I wanted it to be good but looking back it was pretty underwhelming. The technology just wasn't in place to portray these characters the way I always imagined. Yes, Spider-Man was (and still is) my favourite superhero - I'm a Marvelite, so sue me - but of all the DC heroes I always had a special leaning towards Batman. The 60s TV series of Batman only appealed to me as a kid in a take-it-or-leave-it pop-culture way but left no lasting impression, and as much as I enjoyed the Tim Burton movie versions, they never really captured quite the right tone for me and I always felt a huge emotional void at their centre. By the time Joel Schumacher took over the directorial reins for Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, I just didn't care. It was the 60s TV series all over again. Only less so. Empty, camp and, for the most part, just stupid.
Like most people, I resigned myself to the fact that I would never see the Batman I imagined portrayed on film. Then I heard reports about a new movie version - Batman Begins. My initial reactions weren't incredibly positive. "What a terrible title!" was my first thought. And then, "Hm, the suit looks very similar to Val Kilmer's suit in Batman Forever." This is going to be just more of the same. Yawn. Then I saw the teaser trailer [watch it here] and it was the tone that intrigued me. Enough to go see it with my big brother, anyway. Well, I can happily say that I walked out of that cinema speechless. "What the hell did we just see in there?" Can't remember if either of us actually said that, but that was the feeling anyway.
Christopher Nolan had taken a comic book hero (not a superhero as he has no special powers, just tons of money) and made it work in the 'real world'. He had treated the source material with reverence, the tone was serious but with occasionally moments of playfulness, and he had done this with a stellar cast of some of the most accomplished and talented actors working today. With repeated viewings Batman Begins gets better each time. Unlike when I was in my youth, I very rarely watch films more than once these days mainly due to a lack of time (and energy). But Batman Begins is a film I often come back to and it improves on each viewing and, more importantly, the story of Batman's formation is still thrilling. Why? For a number of reasons. Firstly, because the story of Bruce Wayne / Batman deals with so many deep-rooted human (and primal) emotions: losing your parents, revenge, justice, fear, power. If you've lived even a little, these themes evoke strong feelings and cannot fail to stir your emotions. We all watch the news and find ourselves becoming angry over stories of terrible injustice, of terrible tragedy, and also - rarely, it seems - great heroism. Nolan makes these themes sing by making us care about the characters. These are not just comic book cut-outs. In Nolan's version of Gotham City, these people are real. If that means the first hour of Begins is a slow-burn (compared to the previous action-oriented Batman movies) as we watch an emotionally-wounded man formulating an ideal that could change his home town, then so be it - it only serves to give the second half of the movie greater impact. After the woeful pantomime of Batman and Robin, the movie iteration of the dark knight needed his integrity back. Nolan delivered that in spa
Bruce, why do we fall?
So that we can learn to pick ourselves up again.
This exchange resonates throughout Batman Begins and for me it's the emotional core of the movie. Life throws hardships at us when we least expect it - sometimes terrible hardships that can seem insurmountable. How can we get ourselves back on our feet after something so terrible has befallen us? A petty criminal killed Bruce Wayne's parents when he was just a child. And for what? A few dollars and some jewellery. How does one overcome that level of grief? Do you let it consume you? Or do you find a way to channel it, to harness it even, try to make sense of the loss by turning it into something good? People who lose loved ones often create a foundation in their child's name which serves to help the community. [One such example is The Sophie Lancaster Foundation] Bruce Wayne does something similar, proving that one man can make a difference - but as he so rightly observes, not as a man, but as a symbol.
Fall and redemption.
Law and chaos
Justice and revenge.
These themes lie at the heart of Batman Begins and they also lie at the heart of the human experience. Until the 21st Century it was impossible to imagine a "superhero film" dealing with such heavy and important subjects. This is Oscar-worthy stuff we're talking about here. But Batman? Seriously?
Yes, seriously. There has been a seismic shift in recent years in movie audience expectation. The Old Guard of Hollywood are giving way to a new era. Films which operate outside the realm of cinematic "reality" are garnering a new following, a new respect. And one of the main reasons for this is the talent behind the camera. I salute Christopher Nolan and his collaborators. They have not only delivered a cinematic version of Batman that raises the bar for all superhero-related movies but all movies in general. I don't envy the filmmakers burdened with following up Nolan's vision. Anything which follows is going to have to aim very VERY high.
At the end of Batman Begins, Gordon (Gary Oldman) alerts Batman to a new threat: The Joker. "I'll look into it," our hero says.
I can't wait a minute longer.
I have to know what happens next.