This is gonna be a bit of a doozy, so strap in.
Batman Begins hit theaters in 2005 and blew everyone away. It may be hard to remember, but back then the idea of a new Batman film was weird, to say the least. While The X-Men and Spider-Man films were already established mega-hits, the onslaught of comic book films was slowly building and the genre was still finding it's footing. Not only that, but the idea of a shared cinematic universe was still nothing but a fanciful "what-if" in the minds of fans. Nobody ever thought it was possible to be where we are today.
Batman was a joke for a very long time. The legendary travesty Batman and Robin made sure to destroy any credibility and goodwill The Caped Crusader had with critics and audiences for years to come. I remember seeing the first teaser for Batman Begins and thinking "What? Why?" Not only was the modern comic book film genre still in it's infancy, the reboot craze had yet to take off. So you can blame Batman Begins for not only further legitimizing and endearing comic book films to the public, but also making studio's reboot crazy.
As the film neared its release date word trickled out that it may actually be good. And not just good, but great. I sat in the theater waiting for the film to start not knowing what I was in for and I left the theater having just had one of the best movie going experiences of my life. Like 90% of the world's population, my favorite superhero has always been Batman and seeing him done this amount of justice was an emotional moment for me.
While I loved films like the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man and the two Bryan Singer X-Men films, I didn't know a superhero film could move me the way Batman Begins did. There has yet to be a superhero film released that has topped Batman Begins for drama, thrills, character, and emotion. And yes, that includes its two sequels, which always seem to overshadow it in discussions.
Here's where the article starts to get serious.
The hype for The Dark Knight was insane. People. Were. Pumped. I can't remember a film in recent memory than was more anticipated than The Dark Knight. It came. It made a mega shitload of cash and it blew people away and cemented itself as not only the most universally beloved superhero film of all time, but a modern classic. And here I am, thinking it's arguably the most overrated film of the last decade. Now before any of you explode I'd like to make it clear I don't hate TDK. I just think it's highly flawed and not at all a worthy follow up the Batman Begins.
Of course Heath Ledger is phenomenal as The Joker. I'm not that contrarian. I also loved Michael Caine as Alfred and Gary Oldman as Gordon. But if I had to get down to the core of why TDK largely doesn't work for me it would be that I simply don't care about anything going on. Christian Bales Bruce Wayne/Batman was the most interesting thing about the first film. In the sequel, he feels like he's shoved to the side for literally every other principle character. On top of that, Bale is lacking the passion and intensity he displayed in Begins. He just looks bored to me. The whole love triangle between Bruce, Rachel and Harvey Dent did absolutely nothing for me. None of the actors shared chemistry together and I simply didn't believe in the love any of them had for each other. Why should I believe Bruce would give up being Batman for Rachel if I can't even sense the slightest spark between them? So much of the tension and suspense of the film is generated by the peril the characters find themselves in and it all falls flat for me because I just don't care.
The last act of the film is also a massive rush job. For the first two acts the film maintains a respectable pace. But once The Joker blows up the hospital it's like the film realizes it only has 30 minutes or so to tie up all it's loose ends and deliver on all of its promises before the end credits roll. Consequently, Two-Face's arc and fate is rushed and unsatisfying. His turn to villainy is predicated on a madness we are only briefly shown in one scene where he struggles with whether to shoot a henchman dead or not. No further insight into his true psyche is forthcoming. So when Two-Face emerges during the last act it just feels like a good guy who went crazy, nothing more. Most comic book movie villains get less screentime devoted to character development than Dent, but most comic films at least give us the basic on who the villain is and why they're villainous before they turn dark. With Dent, he just feels like a good guy who went crazy, nothing more. There is this disconnect between what we are shown about Dent and his whole schtick as Two-Face that fails to compute with me.
Two-Face also spends his short amount of screentime crying and moaning about how unfair everything is; a far cry from the imposing figure he should have been. I wanted him to shut up more than anything, because he sounded like a petulant teenager. And then he dies. Maybe if I cared about the why's behind his turn I could believe in the character and his motivations more. Alas, that's not how it played out. It was also a big mistake for Nolan to kill off Two-Face almost as quickly as he showed up. He could have helped fill the void left by The Jokers absence in Rises. On top of Two-Face being disappointing, the themes injected into the last act feel tacked on and pretentious. The ferry boat scenario in particular is laughable to me. It's execution was basic as hell, but it was presented as this profound moral quandary. It felt like it belonged in a more light-hearted and less self-serious comic book film, but it got jammed in TDK and Nolan did his best to Nolan it up only for it to feel elementary compared to everything else happening around it. By the time the finale rolls around I just feel numb, wanting the film to end already.
And I have to echo a complaint some of the few and brave detractors of The Dark Knight have voiced in the past: It just doesn't feel like a comic book film. Batman Begins (and to a lesser extent, The Dark Knight Rises) manage to balance the grounded tone and comic book nature of the story and characters much better than TDK. Christopher Nolan's vision is one I respect, but can't get on board with it completely. His attempt at making TDK as realistically grounded as possible works against the very nature of the characters and comics. Gotham lacks any kind of distinct visuals or personality. It's just a city-a bland city. It's just a crime film-a crime film where the protagonist dresses a little funny. I know I'm coming off as overly facetious here, but when I'm watching TDK I never really feel as if I'm watching a comic book film. Be grounded, be gritty. But don't take out the comic book in your comic book movie. I hate to say it, but The Dark Knight just feels cold and sterile to me because most of the actors lack chemistry together and that creates a vacuum where any and all emotionally involvement in the story is gone.
Which brings me to The Dark Knight Rises. This film is genuinely well received by most, but there is an ardent faction of people out there convinced it's absolutely terrible and doesn't deserve to be in the same film series as The Dark Knight. Well, I, uh, like it much better than The Dark Knight. For one thing, Bruce is actually interesting again as the protagonist and Bale looks like he's actually giving a shit again. The emotional core of Batman Begins is back and I appreciated how Nolan tied the themes and events of Rises into Begins, having everything come full circle. It also manages to feel like a comic book film with a plot more overtly comic booky in nature, more elaborate set pieces and varied locations.
Rises is properly epic in scope and execution. The tension Nolan creates as the plot escalates is much more expertly handled than in TDK, because by the time the finale for Rises comes around I'm fully invested, not exhausted. The characters of John Blake and Selena Kyle are more interesting than Dent or Rachel and their arc's have a more satisfying conclusion. Too bad the inclusion of Talia Al Ghul didn't work so well. Like Bruce and Rachel before, the relationship between Bruce and Talia never works. There's that damn lack of chemistry again. I know Talia playing Bruce, but (and here's where I get nerdy) they are supposed to be genuinely attracted to each other. Talia, in the comics, loves Batman in her own way and desires him passionately. None of that comes across onscreen.
Much fuss has been made over plots hole and inconsistencies in Rises. To that I can only point to TDK. Rises does indeed take some shortcuts when it comes to logic, but TDK is just as guilty. The Joker's schemes and machinations almost wholly depend on him being an omniscient being. If you stop to think logically about 99% of the shit he does in the film, it all falls apart. Granted, Batman surviving the explosion at the end of Rises is eye-rolling in it's execution and John Blake just knowing Bruce is Batman because feels is stupid as hell. As unbelievable as most of the plot mechanics of TDK are, I can't get over how asinine Blake just knowing is. Lastly, the best and engaging thing about The Dark Knight is sadly missing in Rises. I'm speaking of course about Heath Ledgers Joker. We all know that his absence couldn't be helped, but the plot simply begs for him, or at least some kind of brief acknowledgment of his whereabouts. I understand Nolan and co. where devastated by Ledger's passing and wanted to respect his work, but Rises could not completely overcome the fact that it was originally intended to feature The Joker. It's not a case of fan nitpicking or entitlement either. The question of where The Joker is and what he's doing is a legitimate question the film could have at least paid some lip service to to not feel like it was missing something. As it stands, Rises almost makes TDK feel irrelevant.
For my money, The Dark Knight Rises is overall a far more emotionally engaging and fulfilling Batman film than The Dark Knight. It's build up and execution is paced far better and the political and social commentary isn't as sloppily shoehorned into the narrative. But it's still highly flawed. At the end of the day, I wish my relationship with this trilogy could be like everyone else's. I like, and even love, some aspects of both sequels but they aren't strong enough on a plot level nor a character level to stick out as the best of the best. To most, these are THE Batman adaptations. To me, they dropped the ball...