THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY Was NOT “Too Real” & It DID “Respect the Comics”

Some "Old School BOF" first published in 2015. Enjoy!

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The late Roger Ebert was — and still is — one of my all-time favorite film critics.

I often disagreed with the man, but always respected what he had to say.

So, you can imagine my anticipation (as a lifelong Batman fan), in 1989, opening The Dallas Morning News for his syndicated review of Tim Burton’s BATMAN.  And here’s what  Ebert said of Burton’s BATMAN

BATMAN is a triumph of design over story, style over substance – a great-looking movie with a plot you can’t care much about.

Personally, I give the film a lot more credit than that, but he had a solid point: What WAS the point of that movie, anyway?

As the franchise continued, Ebert’s Bat-Movie reviews got worse. Of the last installment of the Burton/Schumacher era, BATMAN & ROBIN, he says

My prescription for the series remains unchanged: scale down. We don’t need to see $2 million on the screen every single minute. Give the foreground to the characters, not the special effects. And ask the hard questions about Bruce Wayne.

Again, he was correct. The question should be “Who is Bruce Wayne?” Not, “Who is Batman?” Batman IS Bruce. It was the man behind the mask that we needed to learn about. Batman is, as Christian Bale brilliantly states in BATMAN BEGINS,  “just a mask.”

After the disastrous BATMAN & ROBIN, Warners put the Batman film franchise on hiatus until hiring independent filmmaker Christopher Nolan to take it over in 2003.

And what did our dear friend Mr. Ebert say about Nolan’s reboot? Well…

BATMAN BEGINS, at last, penetrates to the dark and troubled depths of the Batman legend, creating a superhero that, if not plausible, is at least persuasive as a man driven to dress like a bat and become a vigilante. The movie doesn’t simply supply Batman’s beginnings in the tradition of a comic book origin story but explores the tortured path that led Bruce Wayne from a parentless childhood to a friendless adult existence. The movie is not realistic, because how could it be, but it acts as if it is.

Finally, a filmmaker who understood what makes this character tick!

As a result, Nolan gave us a beautiful and haunting story about the trials and tribulations of not Batman, but Bruce Wayne.

After the success of BEGINS, Nolan returned with THE DARK KNIGHT in 2008. Four years later, Nolan concluded his trilogy with the highly anticipated finale, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES.

Nolan gave us the best movie trilogy since the original STAR WARS. Furthermore, I would argue, that it’s better than the enchanting universe in that galaxy far, far away.

One of the reasons I love Nolan’s films so much is because of the passion that the entire cast and crew put into all three movies. Christian Bale took the role seriously and didn’t play it for laughs, nods or winks. He approached the role just as Laurence Olivier approached Shakespeare. Thus, the end result was a Bruce Wayne that we cared about, worried about and cheered for.

It made the audience want to see Bruce Wayne succeed, not just Batman.

When I talk to people about these films, or God forbid, argue on Twitter, I often come across two schools of thought: one being that they loved the first two films, but thought RISES didn’t deliver. The second is that they felt the films were “too real” or “didn’t respect the comics.” (The latter only happens mainly when arguing with misguided, angry fanboys and self-proclaimed “Batman Purists.”)

Allow me to address the complaint that THE DARK KNIGHT RISES “didn’t deliver.”

After 2008’s THE DARK KNIGHT, it seemed that Christopher Nolan had outdone himself. After all, he had just given the world the BEST COMIC BOOK MOVIE EVER (still is!) and Heath Ledger had just given the world the most sadistic, diabolical and nefarious cinematic Joker to date. Oh, and hey, guess who agrees with me?!  Here’s what Roger Ebert said about it

Batman isn’t a comic book anymore. Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT is a haunted film that leaps beyond its origins and becomes an engrossing tragedy. It creates characters we come to care about. That’s because of the performances, because of the direction, because of the writing, and because of the superlative technical quality of the entire production.

How could Nolan top that?!

He did it by not trying to “top it,” per se. Instead, he gave us a story that fits perfectly into the DC mythology and was consistent with the tone and reality of the previous films.

Bruce was a reclusive hermit, Rachel was dead, Harvey was dead, The Joker was in Arkham and Gotham City seemed to be safe.

That was, at least, until the last great threat to Gotham presented itself to her, in the return of The League of Shadows. Or, at least, the final remnants of that crumbled organization.

This, to me, was perfect. Bruce was forced to come out of hiding and confront his last great challenge. He had to “save” Gotham, just as he’d set out to do in BEGINS.

And it’s not just Bruce Wayne whose character arc gets major fulfillment in RISES. I love the arc that Alfred has in this film, having to leave Bruce because he loves him so much, and I absolutely LOVE the introduction of “Robin” in the form of John Blake. And the villains were perfect, as well.

But most importantly, I love the ending. In fact, I think the final scene in RISES is my favorite moving ending of all time. It is right up there with THE USUAL SUSPECTS and GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS.

Including the magnificent ending, RISES also has two of my top five favorite scenes in the entire trilogy. The other is the scene where Bruce escapes “the pit.” Both are perfectly done and truly capture the essence, pride, determination, and resolve of Bale’s Bruce Wayne.

When I reflect on RISES — particularly with those that do not like the film or found it very disappointing — it is its nontraditional timeline that comes to mind. The first two films have a more cohesive timeline, but RISES takes place over the course of several months — maybe even up to a year. I think this confuses people a bit, and I can see why. But for me, it was one of the many elements that I love so much about it.

I also think there was no going back after Ledger’s Joker. Some rumors claim that he would have been in the film if he had not died, but I’m not so sure about that. To me, it seems that, for Nolan, less was more with The Joker. I just don’t see Ledger making an encore appearance. Besides, it wasn’t about “topping” The Joker; it was about giving Bruce an honorable finale. This is also why we were given Bane (Tom Hardy), as opposed to The Riddler, for example. Nolan got as far away from The Joker as possible. And Bane was the perfect choice to do so.

RISES was indeed a very different film than TDK…which is why it worked. And if the ending doesn’t give you chills, well, I can’t help you.

I have friends that love BEGINS and TDK but didn’t like RISES (although a few of them have grown to love it after its first HBO run), and Roger Ebert actually didn’t care for it as much either. So, in all fairness, here is a more critical blurb from my favorite movie critic of all time

Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) emerges reluctantly from years of seclusion in Wayne Manor and faces a soulless villain as powerful as he is. The film begins slowly with a murky plot and too many new characters, but builds to a sensational climax.

OK, he didn’t hate it, but I still respectfully disagree with my man Ebert. The film was never “slow.” It was gripping with character development and it gave us the most touching scene in the TRILOGY: Alfred leaving Bruce.

But I have a whole other misguided complaint to disassemble! The fervent fanboy’s pedantic avowal that the entire trilogy was “too real” and “didn’t reflect the comic books!”

Regarding the “too real” complaint – a common criticism from self-proclaimed comic book purist – Nolan’s films were indeed grounded in “reality.” In fact, the filmmakers referred to it as “heightened realism.”

After the macabre and weirdness of BATMAN RETURNS and the utter goofiness of the Schumacher films, Warner Bros. had to go in an entirely different direction. Enter Chris Nolan with a fitting and grand vision which was actually pretty simple: What if Batman inhabited a world that was grounded in reality? What if he inhabited a world where nothing was supernatural? What if he inhabited a world where there was nothing like him in existence? (which, side note, is exactly why Bale’s Batman could not continue on in BATMAN v SUPERMAN or JUSTICE LEAGUE). What if he inhabited a world where Batman’s time in action would be limited due to the physical damage he would naturally do to himself? What if he existed to have just one single noble single mission…

Save Gotham.

And guess what? That is exactly what Nolan gave us…and it was brilliantly done.

I find the “too real” thing to be an extremely overrated and unwarranted complaint. I mean, at the end of the day, you STILL had a man dressed as a BAT, running around, wreaking havoc on the mob, everyday criminals and a psychotic clown who is trying to destroy the city.

Is this “reality?!”

Fine, if you needed Bane to be 9 feet tall, or The Joker to be permawhite, or Batman to be able to fight tirelessly until the end of time, or Ra’s Al Ghul to literally be immortal, or have a teenage boy fighting alongside Bale’s Batman, then yes, these movies are not for you.

Part of the “too real” criticism ultimately ties into the last common complaint: Nolan’s films basically ignored the source material/Batman comic books. To that, Hogwash I say!

In fact, I would argue that Nolan paid more respect to the source material than any filmmaker before him; certainly, more than Tim Burton ever did (yes, I do love BATMAN ’89, of course).

I would like to approach this segment with a basic bullet point of all the main characters in the Trilogy. Here she goes…

Bruce Wayne/Batman – The common complaint is that Batman would NEVER retire! OK, really? Comic books live forever, with an array of writers at the helm. This is a movie – well, 3 movies/one story – and is meant to have a beginning, middle and an end. Since these films are grounded in (*cough cough*) ”reality,” it was only natural that Bruce had a small window to save his beloved city.

Alfred – How can you even complain about Michael Cain’s Alfred? My god; if you find anything wrong with his performance or his character, please seek psychiatric help. Alfred was the soul of the entire TRILOGY!

Jim Gordon – Gary Oldman is a chameleon. I mean, the guy can play anything. And man, oh, man, he brought it home in these films. Also, it appears that the comic book hating Chris Nolan made Oldman’s Gordon look awful like certain comic book incarnations of Gotham’s Police Commissioner

Lucius Fox – Straight out of BATMAN #307 (1979). Morgan Freeman was responsible for some of the Trilogy’s much needed comic relief! “Too expensive for the Army?” asks Bruce. “I don’t think they tried to market it to the billionaire, spelunking, base-jumping crowd,” Lucius quips.

Ra’s Al Ghul – In the comic world, he is described as “An international criminal mastermind whose ultimate goal is a world in perfect balance. He believes that the best way to achieve this balance is to eliminate most of humanity.”

And that’s exactly what Nolan and Liam Neeson gave us via an amazing character and performance!

How on earth do “fanboys” complain about this incarnation of this incredibly electrifying villain? Yes, there was no Lazarus Pit and no, he was not physically immortal.

But in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, there is plenty of chatter regarding “a pit” and someone shows up in Bruce Wayne’s dream to taunt him in this chilling scene: “I told you I was immortal,” taunts the dream Ghul. “I watched you die” says Bruce. “Oh, there are many forms of immortality,” the telling reply.

And where was Bruce was when this scene took place? You are correct…in “The Pit”. Now, are we are getting somewhere?

The Scarecrow – Cillian Murphy’s psychotic Dr. Jonathan Crane (Scarecrow) was lifted straight from THE LONG HALLOWEEN. In fact, I see quite a bit of that comic in various parts of BATMAN BEGINS.

Other than Murphy’s Scarecrow not donning a full-blown scarecrow costume as if he stepped out of THE WIZARD OF OZ, this character is straight from the comics. Honestly, it would have been pretty silly if he had the full costume; the mask was all he needed.

When he douses Batman with his poison in the apartment complex and then sends The Bat into a psychotic frenzy- all the while taunting him with evil, antagonist, fear mongering jabs and then sets Batman on fire…wow…I get chills just thinking about it! How can you be a fan of Scarecrow in the comics, and not absolutely love that scene?!

Harvey Dent/Two Face – I can’t say enough amazing things about Aaron Eckhart’s portrayal of Harvey Dent. It is stunning, absolutely stunning. His transformation to “Two Face” is one of the most riveting things that I have ever seen in a movie theater. Yes, his lifespan as “Two Face” was short-lived, but it worked in the context of the film. His alter ego destroyed everything that Harvey Dent stood for in just a matter of days. He was, as stated by The Joker, anarchy.

Bane – Tom Hardy’s performance should be studied in film acting schools all over America. In film acting, it is all about the eyes – other than his menacing body, that is all Hardy had to work with. (Revisit the scene where he tells Bruce in the prison that he is going to “torture his soul” and watch his eyes!).

In the comics, Bane is an escaped convict from an island prison in South America and a super-villain/assassin. Bane has abnormal physical strength as a result of having had undergone experiments involving a derivative of the drug Venom. He became known as “The Man Who Broke the Bat.” He also happens to be 9 feet tall. Yes, Nolan had to take some liberties with this character to make him somewhat “realistic,” but what was really missing? A pro wrestling mask? Venom shooting through his veins? Come on! The mask was villainous and perfect. And there was “Venom” attached to his mask. Maybe it didn’t give him strength, per se, but it was a tremendous help in maintaining his strength by masking his chronic pain. I thought Bane was perfectly portrayed, and the fact that Nolan gave us the iconic backbreaking moment is all I needed anyway.

Selina Kyle/Catwoman – Introduced in 1940 “The Cat” was a cat burglar that had a love/hate relationship with Batman. OK, I have no idea how fanboys complain about Ann Hathaway’s sexy, seductive, kick-ass portrayal. Why? Because she wasn’t carrying a whip? Ugh. Well, she liked guns too much – sorry. I love every second Hathaway is on screen. I don’t have a preference of her wearing the Cat costume or not. She chews up the screen in every scene she is in. Particularly when she is dancing with Bruce, and when she ambushes Daggett demanding a clean slate. “Cat got your tongue?” Awesome.

The Joker – Psycho. Anarchist. Murderer. Clown. Chaos. What else can you say about Heath Ledger’s Joker? I know that in some comic book incarnations The Joker has a definitive origin story.

What I loved about Nolan’s Joker, though, is that he just IS. “Nothing. No matches on prints, DNA, dental. Clothing is custom, no labels. Nothing in his pockets but knives and lint. No name, no other aliases,” states Gordon. This is why this Joker was so menacing —  he didn’t care about the outcome. He didn’t care if he lived or died. He didn’t care if you lived for died. All he wanted was to be “an agent of chaos” in the short time that he walked the Earth.

Some fanboys complain that he didn’t laugh enough or have enough gadgets. Gadgets?! His evil ways were his gadgets and he only laughed right before chaos. That is why, unlike any Joker I have ever seen, the laugh really meant something. He laughs right before he butchers his hostage, he laughs right before he throws Rachel out of a fifty-four story window, and he laughs right before Batman takes him into custody. It gives me chills to think about Ledger’s performance. It also taught me a very valuable lesson regarding a director’s choice of casting: Never, ever underestimate one’s potential.

John Blake/”Robin” – The very moment that Officer Blake shows up at Wayne Manor and tells Bruce his heart-breaking story about also being an orphan and having to wear the symbolic mask (“It is the same look that I taught myself”), I knew that Joseph Gordon Levitt was this version of Batman’s Robin (it didn’t hurt that he looked like Robin, either).

But in the Nolan universe, there is no way a teenager could run around fighting bad guys with Bale’s Batman. However, Nolan — being the class act that he is — wanted to give all of us Batman geeks a little wink.

Yes, even in his universe, Robin was very real. The aforementioned scene is one of the finest moments in the TRILOGY, in my opinion. Did you notice his father was killed over a gambling debt? Does Jason Todd, come to mind? And read the Batman comic book story “Nine Lives” and tell me if you don’t see what is going on here.

Nolan combined several elements of various Robins in the comics to give us his “Robin” – the man that would take over for Bruce as The Batman when his time was up. That “Robin reveal” scene in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is pure perfection.

I am a 40+ year-old man and I have been a fan of The Batman since the ripe age of five. I grew up on the 60’s TV show, the comics, and later, the movies. I can debate the most avid Batman fan on the planet on any and everything Caped Crusader, and I will either come out the winner, or at the very least, a noble opponent.

When I think about all of my favorite Batman moments in life (and there are dozens), nothing compares to my first viewing of BATMAN BEGINS. I sat in awe as I watched The Batman crouch for the first time, on screen (“Storms coming”), and in the moment that you really see the Batman and Gordon’s relationship development, and, most importantly, the moment I truly felt Bruce Wayne’s purpose in life (“…but as a symbol…I can be…incorruptible”). When Batman leaps off the rooftop at the very end and responds to Gordon’s statement, “I never thanked you,” I teared up! What an amazing response: “And you’ll never have to.”

My daughter once took a nasty, and, while I was comforting her, I looked into her beautiful, teary eyes, and without thinking I asked her, “Why do we fall?”

Thank you, Mr. Nolan. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. – Rick Shew