Alright, now that we've had some time to absorb the awesome epicness of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (see my review HERE), there is but one question to ask, one that I have asked myself and I'm sure fans of Nolan's Batfilms have been debating since the day after the film's release: Is there, in fact, a "best" film in CHRISTOPHER NOLAN'S DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY?
To answer this question, lets take a look at each film individually, starting with the film that started it all.
BATMAN BEGINS may be the least known to modern Batfilm enthusiasts -- who more than likely jumped on the "In Nolan We Trust" wagon with (and perhaps because of) Ledger's performance in THE DARK KNIGHT (more on that later) -- but Nolan's 2005 Batman opus literally rewrote the book on superhero films as we know it. Nevermind the fact that fans were still trying to wash out the bitter taste of Joel Schumacher's Batnipple double-fiasco, but Warner Brothers trusted Nolan, who up until this point had done only small budget films like MEMENTO & INSOMNIA (both were critically acclaimed though), with undertaking a reboot of their most profitable franchise outside HARRY POTTER. Nolan was a left-field choice, but he delivered. The basis of BEGINS' acclaim was its focus on the man behind the cowl, Bruce Wayne himself, and how Nolan convinced Christian Bale to take on the mantle of the Bat we may never fully know. But Nolan chose to not only focus on Bruce Wayne, but gave the entire film a primary theme which the Burton/Schumacher films lacked: fear. Everything that Bruce Wayne goes through in this film, every shot, revolves around some form of fear, whether emotional, psychological or even physical (talk to Flass about that last one). Bruce Wayne had to conquer his own fear (of bats) in order to be able to turn it on and use it against the criminals who seek to prey on the fearful of Gotham. In turn the villain, Ra's al Ghul, intended to use fear to destroy Gotham itself.
BEGINS also took on Batman's origin, something many comic book aficionados deem their favorite of all superhero origin stories, and yet one that had not been tackled in the Burton/Schumacher films. But Nolan did it, and in doing so allowed Bruce Wayne himself to be as engrossing or (in my opinion) more so than his cowled alter-ego.
We didn't have a Ledger-level performance, we had a Bale-level performance, and it's some of his best work to date, including his Academy Award-winning role in THE FIGHTER. In fact, all of the performances in BATMAN BEGINS are above-par when compared with other superhero trilogies, even the ones that followed it. Liam Neeson gives an inspiring performance as Henri Ducard/Ra's al Ghul, and Gary Oldman's Jim Gordon is THE JIM GORDON. Argue with me, I dare you. And Michael Caine has forever been indelibly embedded in the moviegoing subconscious as Alfred Pennyworth. And let's not, please let's not forget Cillian Murphy as Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow.
It's by far the most "low budget" of Nolan's DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY, but in many ways it's the most introspective. But we can only go bigger from here...
This is a tough question to ask, and even tougher to answer because, like you, I loved THE DARK KNIGHT, and for many reasons outside of Ledger's performance. First off, before this film was there ever a Batman film without Batman in the title? Unless you need to be hit upside the head with a Batarang, the answer is an emphatic no. But, once again, the studio decided to take a chance on Nolan, who put his faith in the Bat-faithful to know their beloved superhero's nome de guerre to put two and two together. And in my opinion, it was a brilliant move. On a side note, will MAN OF STEEL be as innovative as its choice of title? We'll see..
Now that we've gotten through the superficial genius of Nolan's second entry, let's look at the heart of this film: chaos. The Joker, as the self-proclaimed "agent of chaos" (which may or may not be a Get Smart pun, knowing the Joker's sense of humor or, even more eerie, a foreboding of a certain actress's appearance as a certain feline fatale in the following film) permeates Gotham with it, with the sole intention of proving, as in the comics, that all it takes is "one bad day" for someone to go off the deep end as he did. His guinea pig for this twisted mad-science experiment? Gotham's "white knight," District Attorney Harvey Dent. And this is where Nolan's genius as a writer lies. The core of THE DARK KNIGHT is not in fact the Joker, or even Batman himself, but the fall from grace of Harvey Dent. In this respect, THE DARK KNIGHT is a postmodern, neo-noir crime-thriller tragedy, one of a great man's struggle with what is "just," what is "right" and, ultimately, what is "fair."
While we certainly see a lot more Batman in this film than in its predecessor, we don't see as enough of Bruce Wayne, which I felt was one of the strongest points of the series. Don't get me wrong, the scenes in which Bale is cowl-less are top-notch at every turn, but in the end, Nolan recognizes that this is a Batman film, but the way in which he plays it is far more sophisticated than any other in the comic-film genre. And in the end, Batman cannot truly beat the Joker and chooses to take on Harvey's fall as his own, racing into the night as a murderer and a fugitive.
Nolan also showcased his maturation as a filmmaker, utilizing a linear (for which he was heretofore unaccustomed to doing, a la MEMENTO & THE PRESTIGE), briskly paced story that nonetheless holds on to each moment in the story. And it emphatically does not end with the Joker, but with Harvey Dent and the culmination of the Joker's true purpose in the story. It is a brilliant melding of multiple genres into one great film that rises above the restrictions of a "summer movie" and makes us think about our own morality and how breakable it really is.
What this final film gives us is a truly diverse yet simultaneously complete story of Bruce Wayne's journey as Batman. Having faced his fears in BATMAN BEGINS and defeated chaos in THE DARK KNIGHT (albeit with a lie), RISES begins with Bruce Wayne as a recluse, refusing to look beyond the mission. Commissioner Gordon is weighed down by his part in "the Lie" and yet all seems to be well in Gotham, with the exception of Wayne Enterprises which has fallen into disrepute.
Enter Bane. Tom Hardy gives a performance on par with Ledger's Joker, a truly frightening mishmash of villainy ranging from Hannibal Lecter to King Kong, with a dash of Napoleon thrown in for good measure. Many of RISES' most powerful lines are delivered by him, and Bane vs. Batman Round 1 should forever go down as one of the most brutal fistfights in cinematic history. Nolan also took it to a place I honestly didn't think he'd go, recreating the very imagery of Knightfall and having Bane literally break the Bat.
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES brings to the trilogy a hybridization of the first and second installments of the trilogy, and while Bane has some of the best lines in the film, the scene-stealers of the Trilogy go to Bruce's time in the Pit. We've all been at our lowest point, but we've never seen Bruce Wayne in an equivalent place, and in this film we literally see him at his lowest point, which makes his reascendance even more stirring on a pure emotional level. Everyone's on their game for the last installment, even the newcomers. Anne Hathaway is at her sexiest and fiercest as Selina Kyle, and Marion Cotillard can really do no wrong (well, she actually can, but you get the point). And am I the only one who enjoyed the hell out of Matthew Modine?! But JGL, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is just so great as John Blake (or Nolan's Robin as I call him). Nolan is a master wordsmith, and so it should retrospectively come as no surprise that he'd be a master wort-twister as well. After declaring that Robin would never, ever appear in his films, with Christian Bale going so far as to refuse to return should the Boy Wonder make an appearance, Nolan took a believable turn with Batman's sidekick by, well...not making him Batman's sidekick. Instead, Blake shows us a different facet of what I call the "Bruce Wayne archetype", whereby the hero figure isn't solely driven by vengeance, but out of a desire to do what's right, fulfilling a story arc begun by Harvey Dent but never completed. Blake is us if it were possible, and he gives a very believable and rousing performance.
RISES is without a doubt Nolan's most "comic-booky" film of the trilogy, but by now we've earned that, and he's earned that. From the "tight-geometry urban pacification" vehicle known to us as "the Bat" (but to me as the Bat-Lobster -- let's face it, the thing looks like a flying lobster!) to a fusion-reactor-turned-4 megaton-neutron-bomb, this is the type of gaudiness we love about comic books. But in any other film, with any other director, it would come across as gaudy and ridiculous. Nolan's use of source material (Knightfall, which was already mentioned, and The Dark Knight Returns by the incomparable Frank Miller) lends surprising credibility to the aesthetic of the story.
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES isn't without its flaws, though. So before you start decrying me as a Nolan fanboy (which I am, by the way, and I fully intend to pursue him as director of the MATHION film adaptation, mark my words!!), I am not above having my gripes with this film. For further proof, see my review (link above). But what I want to get at now is the ending, so if you for whatever reason haven't seen it, get off your computer/iPhone/iPad and GO SEE IT. Then come back and read the rest.
I wanted Bruce to die. Not stage his death, actually die. That is my single biggest gripe with the conclusion. In my opinion, Bruce Wayne cannot live without Batman, because they are one and the same. Screw all the "realism" crap, that is the single most believable quality of Bruce's character, and it is more of a fitting end for him to die a hero, sacrificing his life for the city he set out to save, and then to allow his mantle to be passed on. But we have the ending we have, and I see why Nolan would want Bruce to go out that way. Regardless, this is my own personal opinion of the ending. And while we're on the topic, I have to, have to, give credit to Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Any man who can keep a secret like that deserves to be Batman, and kudos to you, sir.
So we've dissected the Trilogy, but do we have an answer? In fact we do: the best film of CHRISTOPHER NOLAN'S DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY is your favorite of the three. They're markedly different from each other, too different to be directly compared despite the fact that they're all about the same character. My personal favorite is TDKR because, for all its flaws it is a perfect melding of its predecessors, but many will choose TDK for Ledger's performance alone. Others still will choose BB as it portrays Batman as he should truly be. But the point is that no one is wrong.
So what's your favorite installment of CHRISTOPHER NOLAN'S DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY? Comment below, and let the fanboyism/fangirlism ensue! Ladies, if you're going to insist on going full fangirl, please do your best to restrain your squee, whether over Bale, Ledger, Hardy or Levitt. I do, however, give full squee permission for Gary Oldman.
IN NOLAN WE TRUST. LONG LIVE THE DARK KNIGHT.