Christopher Nolan spends money like nobody else in Hollywood. So to speak.
If Inception showed his ability to focus the extended machinery of blockbusting on a single, momentous image – hours of dizzying action pinned to a spinning top – then The Dark Knight Trilogy is equally impressive for sustaining a coherent set of themes across the grand landscape of a billion-dollar franchise.
Here, huge budgets are lavished not just on action and explosions but on ideas. His Batman films extend and connect to become an arcing, articulate response to the post-9/11, recession-era world from which they emerged. A response, it’s worth restating before we get too pseud-y, built with a man in a cape piloting a range of super-vehicles.
Batman Begins (2005) works hard to resolve the inherent conflict of smart movies featuring a dude in a mask, crafting a backstory that lends near-credibility to Bruce Wayne’s campaign (“You must become more than just a man in the mind of your enemy,” to quote Liam Neeson’s Ra’s al Ghul).
It’s a tone that sets Nolan’s Batman apart from most super contemporaries, even if it’s stretched by the scale of the two sequels. Bat sonar built from intercepted mobile phone signals? If you say so, The Dark Knight (2008)…
The knock-on effect for Christian Bale in the lead role is that he arguably convinces more as Batman than as Bruce Wayne. The arc of the trilogy takes our hero from boyish to broken, but the iconography occasionally overpowers the performance. But perhaps that’s apt, given that the idea of who or what Bruce can be is supposed to be more interesting than the man himself.
And, more practically, because Bale is surrounded throughout by brilliant support: Michael Caine is a damp-eyed wonder as Alfred; Morgan Freeman is a sparkling co-conspirator as Lucius Fox; and Gary Oldman (as Lieutenant-cum-Commissioner Gordon) earnestly manning the barricades against new waves of lawlessness he can barely comprehend.
The devils ride out
The trouble, perhaps, is that with superheroes, subtext becomes a walking alter-ego. As such, it can be difficult to stay interesting as the straight guy, even if your parents are dead.
But Batman in particular is also defined by his enemies as much as his other identity. Ra’s al Ghul makes sense for Batman Begins as the ideological foil to Bruce’s burgeoning double-fisted philanthropy, but Liam Neeson barely shifts gears between warm mentor (‘Dad’) and secret immortal anarchist (‘disappointed Dad’).
The best of the baddies arrives, of course, in The Dark Knight. Heath Ledger’s Joker is a monster of gleeful malice and unpredictability, a genuinely unsettling presence that, even imprisoned and undone, seems beyond Batman’s powers.
Bane is an imposing cipher whose presence mocks our hero’s doubts, infirmity and everything else that The Dark Knight Rises contends with. He’s effective but also disconnected - funny voice aside, there’s not much for Tom Hardy to do except be big and work the eyes.
After parts one and two, it seemed the series might have an issue balancing this charismatic rogues’ gallery with capable women characters. Swapping Katie Holmes (Begins) for Maggie Gyllenhaal (TDK) gives the unfortunate impression that love interest Rachel Dawes is only a generic character with interchangeable specifics (although Gyllenhaal’s own steely performance battles against this).
So part three offers a pleasing step forward in this regard: as Selina Kyle/ Catwoman, Anne Hathaway is a wonderful, withering voice of reason in the midst of a sendoff that just occasionally threatens to slip into po-facedness as it gears up for a big finale.
In the end, TDKR is able to go epic without becoming bombastic or losing its core cool.
This management of tone is one of Nolan’s greatest achievements.
Superhero films are dominating the flicks like never before and Nolan’s Batman films are the cream of the crop, because they earn the right to take themselves seriously, not to have actors wink at the camera when the plot stretches too far into fantasy.
They’re never going to be confused with Ken Loach movies but they find a sophisticated sweet spot of heightened reality that allows the grand stories to tackle big themes, and for the intricate whole to mean something without looking out of its depth.
This six-discer rounds up existing extras and throws in two new ones. Documentary The Fire Rises: The Creation And Impact Of The Dark Knight Trilogy has previously unseen footage and an impressive talking-head roster including Guillermo del Toro, Michael Mann, Damon Lindelof and Zack Snyder.
Meanwhile, Christopher Nolan And Richard Donner: A Conversation sees the two directors comparing notes and discussing the influence of Superman: The Movie (1978) on Nolan. A measure-up between DC’s biggest titans? Now there’s an idea…
Rounding out a bumper package are three Mattel collectibles (The Tumbler, The Batpod, The Bat), art cards and a 48 page book stuffed with stills and behind-the-scenes shots.
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