Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Retro Trio: The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012)

Director: Christopher Nolan

Once in while, I'm in a mood to watch a movie which will give me a balance of not challenging me with anything new but still being rich enough to avoid dullness. Often, a good action or adventure movie I've seen before does the trick for me in these situations, so when just such a mood recently struck me, I fired up director Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy. Over a few nights, I re-watched Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises.

I think this trilogy is an impressive accomplishment. I own all three, and I enjoy returning to them every few years. This will not change, though there are certain gripes which I have developed regarding a few aspects of the series, as much out of over-familiarity as anything else. Let's get those out of the way:

One thing that irked me is that Bruce Wayne's scientific and detecting genius is almost completely absent. In fact, it is virtually spat upon. Since his very inception in Detective Comics in 1940, Bruce Wayne/Batman was noted for his intellect. He was virtually a Sherlock Holmes. Still, in Batman Begins, after Bruce Wayne is gassed with Scarecrow's hallucinogenic toxin, he awakes to have Lucius Fox rattle off the advanced chemical processes he needed to perform in order to produce an antidote. In response, Wayne simply states, "Is that supposed to mean anything to me?" Wayne's utter inability to comprehend Fox's chemistry jargon has always struck me as a severe oversight in terms of one of Batman's greatest strengths - that he is supposed to be phenomenally brilliant, especially with the forensic sciences, including biochemistry. Almost never in the entire trilogy is his scientific intelligence exhibited. The real shame is that it wouldn't have taken much effort to include it. My guess is that Christopher Nolan was so very focused on Bryce Wayne's tortured psyche that he ignored his considerable intellect, despite the fact that it could have been another avenue along which to explore his obsessive personality.

There's absolutely no way that the Joker (right) could have
been sure that his fellow crew member wasn't going to just
blow him away before his full plan unfolded. Just lucky,
I guess. This happens quite a bit. 
Another general area which exhibits cracks is in the little details and transitions from one plot point to the next. All of Christopher Nolan's movie's virtually crackle with great energy and pace, so that the eyes and mind are stimulated through the entire picture. However, when one watches his movies a second or third time, certain unanswerable questions arise. This was true with Memento, Interstellar, and every movie in between. In the Dark Knight trilogy, they are sprinkled around in plenty of places. In The Dark Knight, during the Joker's interrogation scene, how did the villain know that he would be able to break out at exactly the right time to call and set off his bombs while Wayne raced to save Rachel and Dent? In The Dark Knight Rises, how on Earth does even Batman recover from a broken back and return to peak fighting condition in a few short months? Though none of them ever torpedoes the overall stories, a few of these nagging little problems can be found in each film.

One of my lesser issues is that the dialogue can, depending on the mood I am in, feel overly polished. While there are plenty of thoughtful and brilliant lines (as I'll explore later), I sometimes cannot help but smirk at how nearly every character has a slick, clever line right on the tip of his or her tongue, at virtually every turn. Again, this is a minor issue, as many of the lines are great, but it does rob the characters of a certain level of authenticity.

And oh yes, Christian Bale's and Tom Hardy's respective Batman and Bane voices were strange and distracting choices. But they don't bother me nearly as much as they clearly bothered a lot of people. On to why I continue to return to these movies...

The Dark Knight trilogy did for superhero movies what Alan Moore and Frank Miller did for popular superhero comics two decades earlier: they brought a sense of maturity, depth, atmosphere, and intellect which simply had not been there before. Even some of the really enjoyable superhero movies from before Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, like Tim Burton's Batman and Bryan Singer's first two X-Men movies, still bore hallmarks of PG-rated "bubble gum" comic books. Sure, there was a touch of psychological depth in them, but they still remained primarily plot-driven stories which relied a bit more on colorful visuals than on probing character study. With his Batman trilogy, Nolan decided to take a very close look at Frank Miller's work with Batman in the 1980s, when the writer and artist dug into the damaged and arguably unhinged mind of "the world's greatest detective." Nolan combined this with the question, "What if a real billionaire truly went sort of nuts and decided to take justice into his own hands by pummeling criminals?" Nolan decided to set this story in a world which asked us to suspend our disbelief far less than any previous superhero movie, especially in terms of the powers and abilities of the primary characters. This was very different territory for the movies, and I've greatly appreciated it. Admittedly, things get a bit sillier in the final installment, but it doesn't spoil Nolan's overall realistic take on costumed vigilantes.

Though not a primary character, Lucius Fox was one of the
most consistently entertaining through the trilogy. Morgan
Freeman was the perfect choice to play the sly tech genius.
I also feel that any viewer, even those who have major issues with this series, must admit that there is some rather strong writing throughout the trilogy. Yes, I also get a tad annoyed that so many characters speak in slick, unrealistically clever and didactic epigrams. But there are some truly great lines, all the same. When Jim Gordon, at the end of Batman Begins, says, "I never thanked you", Batman's response "And you'll never have to" is solid gold. In The Dark Knight, virtually every exchange involving the Joker has hypnotic gravitas. I particularly enjoy The Joker's exposition to a burned Harvey Dent on the connection between chaos and the blindness of justice. There are plenty of others, and even minor characters like Lucius Fox and Alfred have some great one-liners, further enhanced by the impeccable deliveries of world-class actors Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine. Even after seeing these movies multiple times, I still derive no small pleasure from the dialogue.

On a purely aesthetic level, the movies look fantastic. Nolan always showed a keen eye for pleasing visuals, even back to his first color pictures Memento and The Prestige, there is often a brilliant color palate and expertly-arranged sets that are wonderfully pleasing to take in. The trilogy is no exception, exhibiting the "Blade Runner" feel that Nolan wanted for Gotham City just as well as the expansive long shots in the Himalayas or Hong Kong. And working within those scnes are some outstanding actors. Certainly some actors and performances are better than others, but I have a very hard time saying that anyone in the Dark Knight trilogy (or any Nolan movie) turned in a bad performance. Even Katie Holmes was tolerable, and that was about as bad as it got for the entire series.

While the trilogy has its detractors and those who might even argue against some of the above-mentioned aspects which I enjoy, I'm a fan.