Dan’s Top 100 Everything: #31 The Dark Knight Trilogy

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My brain is kind of fried and scattered right now, so this is not going to be the most cohesive of posts. In fact, I’m not even going to try. This entire post is going to be a series of mini-articles and lists. Enjoy!

Six Reasons Batman is Intrinsically Awesome and Badass

1. He’s a superhero

People love superheroes, and Batman is one of the legendary ones. It’s fun fantasy to imagine having abilities and power beyond the ordinary, having arch-nemeses, and knowing unambiguously that you are improving the world.

2. He’s not a superhero

But Batman is also very distinctly NOT a superhero. He doesn’t have superpowers (except wealth and willpower). He’s vigilante and morally ambiguous despite his best intentions. His humanity makes him relatable, flawed, and interesting.

3. He has a dark past

He’s the sexy, brooding mysterious man in dark. He’s haunted by demons and phobias. He copes with this by transcending his flaws into badassery.

4. He has the best villains

Classic comic aphorism: A hero is only as good as his villains. And that’s why Batman’s the best. From a chaos-obsessed, killer clown, to a terrorist who uses fear toxins to control people, to a lawyer who goes deranged when half his face is burned, to… um… a guy who shoots condiments at people. Moving on…

5. “The Rule”

The best Batman conflicts are driven by his vow not to kill — a vow that seems noble on the surface, but which is explored through so many interesting lenses. (The fucked up extremes of Batman’s refusal to compromise to “gray area” ethics are brilliantly explored with the character Rorschach in Watchmen.)

6. He gets the best stories

Well, this is starting to get a little chicken-or-egg-y here, but Batman is the most interesting superhero mostly because good writers have used his character to tell enticing, character-driven, powerful stories. Simple as that.

Important question: Is this trilogy the most enjoyable way to consume Batman’s story?

I think the answer is “yes,” pretty easily. The movies aren’t perfect, but the have the high-octane action of cinema paired with the dense, knotty plotting and rumination of Batman’s best novels.

Christopher Nolan is one of Hollywood’s strongest voices the past decade, and unlike most acclaimed directors, he strives to tell the biggest stories possible while still retaining craft and intelligence. Most directors just go for big or smart, so let’s celebrate that Batman was given to someone who can do both.

Honorable mention to Batman: TAS and some of the better graphic novels and this campy masterpiece, but the Nolan Trilogy is the definitive version of Batman as far as I’m concerned.

Three big-picture things I like about Nolan’s Batman trilogy:

1. Gotham is America

The problems that plague Gotham City are all ripped from the headlines, thinly veiled behind symbolism and posturing. It makes for writing that is occasionally heavy-handed, but is always charged and fiery. Superheroes are a lot more interesting when they connect to our own lives.

2. The acting

No blockbuster series has ever been blessed with better acting, I don’t think. Along with the best Bruce Wayne ever played by Jack Kelly… I mean Christian Bale, we get Morgan Freeman as his engineer, Michael Caine as his butler, and Gary Oldman as his police chief. And that’s not even touching the incredible lineup villains and side characters.

3. The plotting

Okay, some of the twists don’t actually stand up to much scrutiny. (The worst offender of this would have to be the entire police squad getting trapped underground for three months in TDKR.) But these were the first Batman movies to really give us pulpy, twisty, exciting plots. Jack Nicholson is fun, Tim Burton gave us an intense, spooky atmosphere that totally reframed Batman to a public that best knew him as Adam West, and Michelle Pfeiffer is more seductive than Anne Hathaway — but I scoff at anyone who thinks that any film version of Batman is superior than Chris Nolan’s version. Simply: More stuff (and interesting stuff) HAPPENS.

Ranking the Villains

7. Talia al Ghul

Marion Cotillard is gorgeous and has great screen presence, but that’s not enough to overcome a hastily written character whose treachery is projected pretty obviously.

6. Joe Chill

I always had a soft spot for Joe Chill as a compelling character. Obviously he’s the root of Batman being Batman, as well as “The Rule” — which Batman is briefly willing to break to deliver vengeance to the killer of his parents. Wish he could have been even more prominent.

5. Bane

There is a lot that I find strange about Bane’s portrayal in TDKR, but he earns this spot for that badass scene at the stock exchange alone. I can take or leave his whole French Revolution thing, but he has his moments.

4. Ra’s al Ghul

I never gave enough of a crap about the League of Shadows as the movies wanted me to, and Liam Neeson was never menacing enough for me to really respond to his presence as a villain, but I appreciated the scope of his plot to destroy evil by eradicating Gotham (and the way it was mirrored in the trilogy conclusion).

3. Scarecrow

The thread that ties Batman Begins together is “fear,” so of course Scarecrow had to be one of the main villains. He’s not quite as iconic as some other Batman villains, but he’s put to good use here, and Cillian Murphy is a delight.

2. Two-Face

How can you not love Harvey Dent’s saga in The Dark Knight? It’s a fantastic and tragic rise and fall. This version of Two-Face is the greatest I’ve encountered and adds extra depth to an already iconic character. I love the way his life is intertwined with Batman’s — it raises the stakes and tension. That mutilated face is haunting.

1. Joker

The most obvious #1 in the history of countdown lists. Heath Ledger, in his swan song, gives one of the most mesmerizing film performances I can remember seeing. From the incredible opening scene, through each bit of insanity, to his final showdown with Batman, this is a Joker that you can truly believe is a criminal mastermind.

Ranking the Movies in the Trilogy

3. The Dark Knight Rises

Though it’s the most incoherent and flawed of the three movies, I have trouble feeling too much animosity towards it. It’s stuffed with plenty of great scenes and performances. Bane is okay. Catwoman is pretty great at the start of the movie, but becomes less interesting when she starts to grow attached to Batman. The ending is uplifiting and memorable, and that’s frankly all I was hoping for.

2. Batman Begins

Ah, 2005. The release of Batman Begins was confirmation for me and a few of my friends that we were entering the golden age of comic book movies. The only thing we couldn’t settle on: Is Batman Begins or Spider-Man 2 the best superhero movie? (That competition would get blown away three years later, of course.) I found BB’s lack of iconic villains and convoluted moments to drag it below the emotional, exciting Spider-Man 2. I’d now put BB higher on the list as its sequels made this origin story seem more essential.

1. The Dark Knight

Heath Ledger as The Joker. The rise and fall of Harvey Dent. That jaw-dropping final monologue (Batman’s retiring? They’ll think he’s a villain?). The two boats that can blow each other up. “Why so serious?” You can just go on and on and on listing the great things about The Dark Knight, and the biggest argument against it is that it’s a little bit too comic book-y and implausible, which is not a flaw at all as far as I’m concerned. (Okay, I also wish Maggie Gyllenhaal and Christian Bale had more chemistry.)

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Dan S.

Dan is the editor of Earn This. He co-founded the site in 2009.

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