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The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012)

There are storylines, and then there are variations. Season after season, we see movies harking back to their predecessors: targeting the same audience and using the same time-tested tropes, with varying degrees of critical and box office success. But every so often there comes along a work that is not content with playing by the rules, that changes the game altogether. Off the top of my head: The Godfather, Lord of the Rings, The Matrix—trilogies that changed the platform for all that came after. For the superhero genre, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight series is one such game-changer.

I spent almost six hours preparing for the finale last Saturday. Several hours before the 8:10 PM screening, I saw Batman Begins for the first time and re-watched The Dark Knight. I walked into the theater drugged with Batman information and fortified by an NYFD sandwich. It had been an adrenaline-packed day. By midnight I was dragging myself, but the marathon did give me a 20/20 view of the whole trilogy.

At least for the first half-hour, Batman Begins underwhelms. Although it’s an origin story, it handles Bruce Wayne’s childhood trauma carelessly, using terrible sequencing. The repeated flashbacks don’t work, and the sudden introduction of Ra’s al Ghul (who basically just goes, “Come, I’ll to train you to be badass”) seems too convenient and hard to believe. The story gets progressively better though, picking up when Bruce returns to Gotham. From that point on the plot unfolds gracefully. Bruce’s childhood terror of bats comes neatly into play when Scarecrow unleashes his panic-inducing psychedelic drug. This paves the way for the film’s most poignant moment, which occurs when a heavily-gassed, hallucinating Batman clambers onto a rooftop and rasps into a cellphone, “Alfred, help me.” The scene barely lasts a minute, but it shows Batman at his weakest, his most vulnerable, and he calls out to his oldest friend and says, “Help me.” After an unexpected twist, the conflict escalates into a familiar climax: mentor and mentee fight for the greatest city in the world. It’s not particularly astounding, but as far as superhero movies go, it is gratifying. Undoubtedly the film’s worst decision involves casting Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes. She and Christian Bale have zero chemistry together. Maggie Gyllenhaal doesn’t really embody the character either, but she’s definitely an improvement.

Actually, with The Dark Knight, everything is an improvement. Since its release, the sequel has received worldwide acclaim, overshadowing its precursor by a wide margin, and for good reason. The Dark Knight goes well beyond what a good film should be. As an action movie, it does not disappoint. It is suspenseful, thrilling, and thoroughly captivating. In exploring dark moral themes, it is also thoughtful and fiercely intelligent, offering not black-and-white answers, but motley shades of gray. The ingenious interplay and overlap of the characters’ values creates a spectacle both difficult and incredible to watch.

What props up the movie’s ambition is its stellar cast. Christian Bale gives a consistent performance throughout the series, defining Batman in a way that will affect generations. Aaron Eckhart also delivers as Harvey Dent/Two-Face, rendering his rage-driven insanity credible and at the same time repulsive. Heath Ledger gives his best (and sadly, last) performance as the Joker, often stealing the spotlight from Batman. The Joker has already solidified his status as one of the greatest villains of all time, but through Ledger he becomes even more sinister, even more enigmatic. Thrice he asks would-be victims (including Batman), “Ever wonder how I got these scars?”—hinting, “Ever wonder why I turned out this way?”—and gives different answers, implying that there is no reason, that evil can exist sans cause.

Without a doubt, The Dark Knight marks an industry milestone, by superhero genre standards or any other. Coming on the heels of such an acclaimed movie, the third film was not poised for success. But even with lowered expectations—and as much as I do not want to admit it—the finale disappoints. Whereas The Dark Knight posits questions on meaning and morality, the third installment mostly provokes questions about plot. Its convoluted enemy storyline feels hastily patched together and shows holes in many places. Take just one point: Batman’s return. How did he re-enter Gotham from the Pit? How did he get back all his gear? And, for that matter, why hasn’t Bane destroyed his equipment yet? Five months is a long time to spend waiting around to fail.

Despite his bulging muscles, Bane (Tom Hardy) fails to command respect as a villain because of his lackluster terrorist-thug image. So we’re actually relieved to discover he’s not the mastermind—only to find out that it’s someone even more unimpressive, whose role until then had only been to provide Bruce Wayne with support, financial or otherwise. Uncharacteristically, Marion Cotillard gives a flat performance (maybe her role just isn’t compelling enough). Her final speech falls on deaf ears; we don’t really care about her father issues. What fans feel strongly about, even before production began, is Catwoman. Given Nolan’s previous female lead miscasts, fans had a right to worry. But Anne Hathaway gets to slap all haters in the face when she undergoes an exquisite transformation as the super-hot and versatile Selina Kyle. She easily proves herself one of the best cast choices in the franchise, right up there with Michael Caine as Alfred Pennyworth, Batman’s batman.

Hathaway aside, the finale still holds a lot of room for disappointment. Its clear division between good and evil may be fine for a regular superhero movie, but we’re not talking about a regular superhero movie. We’re talking about the conclusion to The Dark Knight series! We’re talking about the follow-up to the one film that changed the rules! Unfortunately, like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, the much-anticipated finale finds a hard time reaching the high standards it set for itself.

Let me make this clear: The Dark Knight Rises is not a bad movie, far from it. It still attempts to ask big questions, but instead of soaring the way its predecessor does, it kind of flops and sputters along the runway. The film spends a long time cultivating a classist undercurrent, but it never really takes off because we don’t get the sense that things change after the riots. Presumably, order resumes, and up stays up, down stays down. Not like in The Dark Knight, where the Joker shakes Gotham to its core. I at least found one gem in a conversation between Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Detective John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), when the latter admits the former’s point about structures becoming shackles and relinquishes his badge in favor of a more…unorthodox crime-fighting path.

If The Dark Knight Rises fails at setting up a convincing conflict, it nonetheless succeeds in wrapping up the series. And it does so admirably, doing justice to each of its characters. Thematically, the conclusion of Batman echoes several points in his life: his emotional struggles, his failures, his parents’ vision, their subsequent death, Rachel’s death. All three scripts reflect this cohesion. Even Selina’s chilling whisper of “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne” from the 2012 trailer recalls a scene two films earlier, when Batman tells then-Sergeant Gordon, “Storm’s coming.” Subtle, but shows just how much care was put into the making of these scripts. No wonder Nolan was so damn protective of them.

“Haven’t given up on me yet?” “Never.” In Batman Begins, we see Bruce and Alfred regularly exchanging these lines. During their final confrontation, under different circumstances, Alfred gives a different answer—heartbreaking, but necessary all the same. This argument sets the audience up for the conclusion, which, in hindsight, seems to be what trilogy has been heading towards all along. From Rachel’s letter to Alfred’s ultimatum, the finale makes it clear that the story no longer belongs to the symbol, but to the man—that the day has finally come “when [Bruce] no longer needs Batman.”

Although obviously an action franchise, Nolan’s series is invigorating in more ways than one. While remaining strikingly original, it calls to mind other landmark works that develop the same themes. Ra’s al Ghul’s insistence on becoming “more than just a man” finds similar incarnations in V from V for Vendetta and Zero from Code Geass. And Bane’s point about the Pit, about there being “no true despair without hope,” calls to mind a line from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Among its achievements, the trilogy’s greatest feat lies in how it pushes boundaries. It shows us the philosophical possibilities of superhero movies, a genre until now largely confined to entertaining but safe productions like the recent Spider-Man reboot.

But, as the Joker would say, “Why so serious?” For all its intellectual high-wire twists, the series triumphs because it works on a more basic level: it knows how to please an audience. All three films come out generously sprinkled with action sequences featuring top gear from Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), among other visual spectacles (“Anne Hathaway on a motorbike? So worth it!” my friend TJ avows). It also doesn’t hurt that the movies weave key truths and emotions into their storyline, creating more than a few tearjerkers. “Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”

Nolan’s trilogy is not perfect, but even with the worst of its warts, it still comes extremely well-recommended, even for non-geeks like me. It remains the best superhero series out there, and one that is not likely to fade from memory.

Batman Begins

‘A vigilante is just a man lost in the scramble for his own gratification. He can be destroyed or locked up. But if you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can’t stop you, then you become something else entirely.’

‘Death does not wait for you to be ready! Death is not considerate or fair! And make no mistake: here, you face Death.’

‘Crime cannot be tolerated. Criminals thrive on the indulgence of society’s understanding.’

‘Haven’t given up on me yet?’ ‘Never.’

‘Ignorance is bliss, my friend. Don’t burden yourself with the secrets of scary people.’

‘It’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.’

The Dark Knight

‘You either die the hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.’

‘If you’re good at something, never do it for free.’

‘Tonight you’re all gonna be a part of a social experiment.’

‘That’s the point of Batman. He can be the outcast. He can make the choice that no one else can make.’

‘They’re only as good as the world allows them to be.’

‘Sometimes the truth isn’t good enough. Sometimes people need more.’

The Dark Knight Rises

‘There can be no true despair without hope.’

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