Reviews: The Dark Knight Trilogy

Three Great Films, Featuring a Man Dressed Like A Bat

Taken as a whole, the Dark Knight films are all genuinely great films. Each has a unique visual style compared to the others, from the hyper-gritty slums of Batman Begins to the urban sprawl of The Dark Knight to the sleek city falling to decay in Rises, tracing Gotham's evolution under the Batman. Each genuinely tries to wrestle with higher themes and ideas while also being a fun popcorn movie with action sequences and suspense. And each features great performances by a variety of talented actors and actresses.

But, more than that, the three films are remarkably prescient, straddling, as they do, the gap between the campier, sillier superhero films before them and the modern franchise films that have replaced them. They not only stand as great films, but as interesting commentary on the superhero film.

First, Batman Begins is simply a tremendous origin story. It starts in media res, it contains very little time-wasting or dillying about, and it actually has the character engage in a bit of soul-searching about who he is and why he needs to dress up like a bat. It's a Batman film about Batman, first and foremost. If that seems obvious, keep in mind that, of the four Batman films that preceded it, only one was even arguably really about Batman.

The Dark Knight is rightly regarded as a classic of the superhero genre and one of the best action films ever made. But it also, interestingly, critiques many of the themes of the superhero genre. It questions whether having a vigilante unfettered by the law is really a viable long-term solution and ends the story on a very ambivalent note on the subject. When so many superhero films take it for granted that they will go on forever in an endless status quo of punchable villains, Batman actually makes progress in cleaning up Gotham and has to question what place there is for him once he's fixed things. There is genuine applicability here, made with rare subtlety and often unnoticed.

And, finally, Rises, the most controversial of the three. But it does something rare: it ends.

Endings are unpopular for superheroes, even in the source material. That old joke that Batman has always been protecting Gotham for about ten years now is rooted in the very-real observation that Status Quo Is God. That if a villain dies, or Gotham starts to get better, or if he finally is satisfied with his work and settles down to try to live a normal life, the media empire built around Batman comes crashing down. That's no less true for any other superhero.

But, for me, that's what's best about Rises: it represents hope for the character. That I, who love Batman, finally get to see him win. Gotham has gone from a grimy slum to a shining city of tomorrow. Bruce Wayne gets to lay down his sword and be happy. And, rather than force the series on to rake in unlimited money forever, the people behind it respected the story enough to let it end.
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