Why The Dark Knight Trilogy Triumphed
Why The Dark Knight Trilogy Triumphed
When Warner Bros. and Zack Snyder announced Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice at San Diego Comic-Con 2014 there was a great deal of excitement and anticipation about seeing the Dark Knight return to the big screen and facing off against the equally iconic Superman. Anticipation for the film has only grown amongst fans after seeing early trailers and footage however throughout the build-up there has been an undercurrent of doubt.
Can this new cinematic incarnation of Batman possibly live up to Christopher Nolan’s vision of the Dark Knight?
It will be impossible to answer this question until March 2016 when the film releases but one thing is for certain: it has quite a legacy to beat.
The Dark Knight Trilogy grossed over $2.4 billion worldwide and the second installment, The Dark Knight, remains the 5th highest grossing film in the U.S. The trilogy received widespread acclaim from critics and The Dark Knight won two Academy Awards, Sound Editing and Actor in a Supporting Role for Heath Ledger.
So what made the trio of films so successful and why does Batman vs Superman have its work cut out for it?
The Right Treatment
When the character of Batman was first created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger in 1939 he was inspired by pulp fiction and comic strips demonstrated by the fact that Batman had no problems maiming or killing criminals in his early outings. This interpretation has shifted over the years and continues to evolve but the character really hit mainstream popularity with the debut of the 1966 Batman TV show which went for a more ‘campy’ tone. However, this approach soon lost popularity and the show was cancelled in 1968. The character became relevant once more in the 1980’s when Frank Miller published The Dark Knight Returns and Year One, much darker interpretations of Batman, which are still regarded as seminal interpretations of the character.
A similar divergence occurred in Batman’s cinematic offerings. The mid to late 90s saw a return of a more light-hearted interpretation of Batman with Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, a significant shift from Tim Burton’s Gothic tone for Batman and Batman Returns. The caped crusader was still treated seriously but any sense of realism was thrown out the window as Batman utilized his branded credit card and ice skates.
Then in 2005, enter Christopher Nolan with his own take on the character. While the more realistic tone (as realistic as you can get about a man dressed as a bat) was far from new to this character, Nolan realised the time was ripe once again for a serious take on the iconic superhero. The look and feel of the character was now decidedly different and modern. His gadgets were more versatile rather than outrageous and this interpretation of Gotham was modern but gritty and downtrodden. This tone also allowed for a resounding origin story that delved into why Bruce Wayne is so traumatized.
In an interview with The Guardian, Nolan had this to say about Batman:
For me, Batman is the one that can most clearly be taken seriously. He’s not from another planet, or filled with radioactive gunk. I mean, Superman is essentially a god, but Batman is more like Hercules: he’s a human being, very flawed, and bridges the divide.
Although it could be argued such a serious tone has seen somewhat of a backlash in recent superhero films such as Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, The Avengers and Fox’s upcoming mature feature Deadpool, this tone works for Batman because it is how the character was originally imagined and it is typically where Batman has found the most success on the big screen. One of the reasons audiences gravitated to the trilogy was because it often reflected real-world issues extending its appeal beyond readers of the comics.
The Dark Knight Trilogy wasn’t afraid to take itself seriously and once audiences bought into that concept it allowed more creative freedom so that when Batman raced across rooftops in the Tumbler and escaped a skyscraper by hooking onto a plane audiences didn’t overthink such actions.
Lots of Talent
The Dark Knight Trilogy attracted numerous, big Hollywood stars including Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway and Gary Oldman. All of these actors gave fantastic performances but credit should also go to those behind the scenes. For example Director of Photography Wally Pfister who gave us astounding shots of Batman silhouetted against the Gotham skyline or those such as Jonathan Nolan or David S. Goyer who worked on the script and story for much of the trilogy. Further acknowledgement should go to Hans Zimmer for an incredible soundtrack which for me remains the most iconic superhero theme in recent times.
Christopher Nolan receives a lot of the credit and perhaps deservedly so. In addition to influencing the story and script he managed to direct three films that were hits critically and commercially at a time when the Marvel Cinematic Universe was still finding its feet and superhero films were just about to take over Hollywood in a big way. From numerous interviews and statements it is clear that Nolan allows his actors creative freedom in their roles and never loses his cool despite the pressure that was put on him.
Gary Oldman, speaking to Empire about Batman Begins, had this to say:
He’s just got such a vision, and he’s a nice guy, to boot: warm and funny. There’s a good atmosphere on set, very calm, relaxed. He doesn’t feel he has to justify the fact that he’s the director of this big movie. And a great director knows when not to say something. And Chris will not give you direction for direction’s sake, for the sake of opening his mouth and listening to his own voice. He lets you have the space to find things in the scene, and if he needs to tweak something he will simply step in and give you a note.
Such an approach has suited Nolan well not just in The Dark Knight Trilogy but throughout his career. His films never fail to attract big talent and there’s a reason why he reuses some actors in multiple films, it’s simply because they each enjoy working together.
Once Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises had their casts though, the actors still had to deliver and the trilogy has produced some fantastic performances. Whether its Tom Hardy’s menacing Bane, who as an actor was restricted by what he could do by his mask, Heath Ledger as a mesmerizing and vicious Joker or Gary Oldman as loyal Commissioner Gordon the series of films showcased plenty of acting talent.
Special credit should go to Christian Bale too for giving an all encompassing performance as Bruce Wayne/Batman. Wayne is a tortured soul haunted by his past and Bale emphasises this in his performance while as Batman he is a force to be reckoned with. He clearly takes the performance seriously and offers a fantastic interpretation of the character.
Batman is only as good as his villains and The Dark Knight Trilogy certainly gave us worthy villains for Batman to fight against. Each villain offered the character a different challenge to take on. Scarecrow was a psychological threat for Batman that mirrored his fears as a child when losing his parents. Joker was a threat that you simply couldn’t beat because he had no motive and Bane was a physical threat that matched Batman for strength and intellect.
In Batman Begins, Scarecrow played by Cillian Murphy, was a creepy, sinister and twisted villain. Visually, Scarecrow along with his freaky mask was nightmarish and Murphy did a good job of portraying a disturbed individual. His actions were being manipulated by R’as al Ghul, played by Liam Neeson who deserves much more credit for his role, but his fascination with fear offers an intriguing parallel with Batman. They have many similarities; each seeks to use fear to their advantage and go to extraordinary lengths to impose themselves as beings to be feared. Bruce Wayne dresses as a bat to strike fear into the hearts of criminals just via his presence. This is born out of a fascination of his fear of bats which began as a child. He very much embraces fear to better himself as an individual. Scarecrow also embraces fear but with more sinister intentions, he wants everyone to experience this process. It is this symmetry that makes Scarecrow work as a villain and it juxtaposes nicely with Bruce Wayne’s origins as Batman.
The Dark Knight gave us the fan favourite villain from the trilogy and likely one of the greatest villain performances ever in Heath Ledger’s Joker. Batman was starting to become more comfortable in his role in The Dark Knight and along with Gordon is closing in on Gotham’s mob leaders. Then the Joker becomes involved and all hell breaks loose with tragic consequences for Bruce Wayne’s love interest and Batman’s ally Harvey Dent. Ledger gave an incredible performance showing a man without motive, with no origin or purpose other than chaos. The Joker is given some truly amazing monologues but its the scene in the interview room with Christian Bale’s Batman that really hits the mark. In one scene, Nolan, Bale and Ledger manage to epitomize the relationship and dynamic between the pair. Credit is due to Aaron Eckhart too who loses himself to Joker’s ideals of chaos and gives a good performance as someone who fights crime with as much vigor as Batman but who lives long enough to see himself become the villain.
Finally The Dark Knight Rises gave us a physical match for Batman in Bane. Batman, who spent years training to become the ultimate crime fighter is bested by a superior force. Outgunned and outmatched, The Dark Knight Rises is a redemption story as much as it is a war film. The film did a nice job of showcasing Bane as an intellectual threat too as he discovers Batman’s identity and ruins Bruce Wayne’s financial position. Unlike Scarecrow or Joker we got to see how Bane came to be adding another dimension to his character. Tom Hardy did a wonderful job of making Bane imposing, brutal and fearsome yet ultimately a very human character.
Story is King
Bruce Wayne and Batman have a clear arc throughout the three films and yet each film is remarkably different. Batman Begins is a more traditional, action packed superhero origin film, The Dark Knight is a crime thriller and The Dark Knight Rises is a redemption story based in a war film. Despite this we end up with a radically different Bruce Wayne by the end of the trilogy as he is satisfied with his new life and has passed the mantle of Batman to a new protegé.
The films offer plenty of action and spectacle but its the characters that keep you interested. In the end, The Dark Knight Trilogy taps into why Batman is so popular. He’s a character suffering from fear and loss, something everyone can relate to. His pursuit of happiness and bettering himself as an individual is a very human trait despite his vast wealth and complex lifestyle. He’s an endearing character you want to see exceed.
The Dark Knight Trilogy was a resounding success and because of that its obvious DC’s cinematic universe is taking cues from it in terms of tone and by keeping Nolan on as an executive producer on Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. Snyder’s vision for Batman will obviously be less grounded and its own interpretation however its an interpretation that will come under a lot of scrutiny because of the legacy The Dark Knight Trilogy has created. It remains to be seen whether Batman v Superman can be just as successful in its own right.