EDITORIAL: Why BATMAN BEGINS Is The Best Of Nolan’s Trilogy
Movie reviewer Josh Lewis highlights the major points that make Batman Begins the best film in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. Click on for his thoughts and to give your own in the usual place..
Between the success of The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises - both critically and financially – often it’s forgotten just how could good Batman Begins was. From a storytelling point of view it remains Nolan’s strongest of the trilogy, while also covering the most difficult aspects of the series.
The reason I say from a storytelling point of view is because as far as production design, cinematography, score, acting etc the three films are on level ground, essentially having the same creative team take on each project - the only major difference being a larger budget. I’m sure some will insist that Ledger’s performance puts The Dark Knight above the others in acting, and that might be true. However while acting can excel a movie, it can’t be the foundation of the film and there is a clear lack in story in regards to The Dark Knight. This leads me into the only difference we can make between the each film in the trilogy - the writing.
The first thing Nolan’s trilogy did as a whole was present us with the character of Bruce Wayne, not just Batman. While we can argue semantics over Batman being his real personality etc, in Nolan’s universe we spend A LOT of time with the real Bruce, and his character is extremely well established in Batman Begins. Covering the never-been-told origin story of Bruce’s transition into Batman, the entire first hour of the film is dedicated to finding out who Bruce is and what motivates him; a realistic look into the mind of the tormented orphan. In this movie alone we’re introduced to the real Bruce, the playboy millionaire façade and the caped crusader.
What makes Batman Begins stand tall above its sequels is its structure. Nolan is extremely well versed in the non-linear story structure, using it in most of his early work including Following, Memento, The Prestige and of course Batman Begins. A non-linear story allows for the audience to continually reassess the relationship between characters. A prime example of this is the relationship between Bruce and Rachel; early on the flashbacks show them as childhood friends and then later another flashback shows her slapping him, thus by the time we actually meet Rachel we have a very good understanding of their relationship AND our perspective on it changes multiple times throughout the movie. Nolan does this in such a way as to emphasize our incomplete understanding of the character, and that way each new scene we have a chance to learn something about the characters and how they interact with each other. Nolan tried to do similar structures with the Joker and Bane, but neither paid off, mostly in The Dark Knight because it was strictly linear.
Also while Ra’s Al Ghul may not have been a fan-favorite villain he was very well written into the story, especially in comparison with Bane and the Joker. The Joker was well acted by Ledger - no denying that - but as far as fitting into the story he was completely irrelevant. He shows up in Gotham, tells everyone he doesn’t have a plan while he secretly has a plan and then is defeated in the most lackluster climax of the three films. Instead they cashed in on Harvey Dent and and made his ending eventful but lazy, turning him into a villain at the end to distract from the idea that they had no idea how to end the Joker’s storyline. You can tell the The Dark Knight was as chaotic and unplanned as the Joker wanted to be because they ended up disregarding the film entirely when The Dark Knight Rises came around. While watching the trilogy you could skip The Dark Knight and still understand what was happening. That goes to show you how poorly written The Dark Knight really was in comparison with Batman Begins, and why when ending the trilogy they returned to the Ra’s Al Ghul storyline.
I started off that last paragraph as Ra’s Al Ghul being well written… I got off topic for a bit there. Ra’s Al Ghul was masterfully written, both as a character and a symbol. Ducard started off as mentor to Bruce, feeding into the theme of Bruce’s need of a father figure and teaching him about being more than just a man but being a symbol. The mentor dialogue would feel forced in any other movie, however Ducard’s personal experience behind being a symbol gave his lessons a sense of legitimacy, and that was BEFORE revealing his true identity as Ra’s Al Ghul, making that scene more than just a “What a twist!” moment. The other theme of the film was fear, which was cleverly written into Ducard’s storyline early. We have him teach Bruce to overcome his fear, which is ironically how Batman brings down Ducard. Also Scarecrow is considered the villain for most of the film preying on the fearful, his main weapon being a toxin that exploits people’s fears. So now we have two different cases of fear as a theme playing into the story, the clever part being how they intersect when we find out Ducard is behind the plan, and that his lessons are what Bruce use to bring him down.
The great villain-reveal has been a huge deal recently between Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness and of course The Dark Knight Rises. This is something Batman Begins turned into a trend. Nolan tried foolishly to recreate his wonderful conclusion of Batman Begins in The Dark Knight Rises when he revealed Talia Al Ghul was behind Bane, like he did with Ra’s Al Ghul behind Scarecrow. However with no deep involvement with Talia early on and Bane’s consistency as the villain (Scarecrow being inconsistent because he kept hinting at someone being in charge) it ended up ruining the film. The first half of Batman Begins spent more time with our real villain (Ducard) and then introduced the fake one (Scarecrow). The Dark Knight Rises spent so much time with Bane as the villain and didn’t even hint at there being another. It was a good plan to make the audience surprised, but the goal is to also make them thrilled about the surprise. This is something that Iron Man 3 did well. It’s an unpopular opinion I realize, but there’s no denying the writing was structured well in keeping the audience distracted from Killian with the Mandarin regardless of fan backlash. That shows you that the issue isn’t with revealing a villain but it’s in the build-up to the reveal. I realize there wasn’t any build-up in Iron Man 3 but they switched it up by having the reveal early on. If the Mandarin reveal had been at the end of Iron Man 3 as it was with The Dark Knight Rises I would understand. I digress… again.
The action was very well handled with Batman Begins; we see most of the action from the perspective of the thugs, playing up the fear and animal-like brutality of Batman. The sequence where he empties out a warehouse is horrifying and intense. It plays out similar to a horror film and then builds up to him taking down 10+ men simultaneously. A lot of people think that the shots with the camera circling the fight in a fairly nonsensical manner were because the choreography was weak, but really it was there to give you perspective of the thugs barely being able to see what was happening. This was also the first scene with Batman in his full suit, and it’s stronger than most of the action sequences attempted in the sequels. While there are throwbacks to this stealthy action sequence the other films never do a scene quite like that. Instead they show it more from Batman’s perspective as he’s hunting down the villains, since the curiosity was then focused on the Joker/Bane.
Batman Begins is also a much more focused film; the sequels being bloated and overstuffed with content each trying to up the stakes. You can see this just in the locations. A lot of Batman Begins takes place in the Narrows, which were essentially Gotham’s slums (that were never referenced in either of the sequels). Having the film take place there gave Gotham this very dirty feel to it, which contrasted well with the cityscape atmosphere. It’s the only film of the three that’s tone is suggested through the scenery, unless of course the tone they were going for in The Dark Knight was bland cityscape. Clearly they realized this since they desperately tried to fix that with The Dark Knight Rises by adding in some international travel (not to another city) to switch it up. In both sequels they tried to add a level of intensity by making the scope of the film bigger and doing nothing new with their terrorist-based plots. Also both ended with convoluted and illogical anti-climaxes While Batman Begins had an eventful and emotional climax that fit the story. For example the bombs on the boats was what they tried to pass for a climax in The Dark Knight, and it had just as many holes as those who hate The Dark Knight Rises insist that film has. Some will argue that TwoFace is the climax but structurally he’s not.
Regardless Nolan and Goyer were the first to show us who Batman is and what motivates him, something that was lacking from all previous Batman films and while they continued to work their hardest, they never made a film that topped Bruce’s journey of self-discovery in Batman Begins. It’s unfortunate that The Dark Knight always manages to overshadow this gem.
I find it hard to have a conversation with anyone, mostly because people just yell “HEATH LEDGER” at me over and over again until I admit The Dark Knight is the best one. I’ve made this opinion public on the Internet twice and both times I’ve received an onslaught of attack, including a death threat. I think that says something about the hardcore fans of The Dark Knight.
I was also someone who managed to like The Dark Knight Rises, so maybe you’ll all just disregard my opinion. I find the popular opinion I come across is this:
Batman Begins is ok, The Dark Knight is the best movie ever made, and The Dark Knight Rises is awful.
What do you guys think? I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on Nolan’s trilogy. I love talking about it because it is a well-done trilogy that I’ve watched many times. Leave a comment below or let me know on twitter @thejoshl. Unless it’s a death threat, then just go back to jerking off to The Dark Knight.
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