Having watched all three movies in Christopher Nolan's take on Batman, it is time to salute what I personally think is the greatest trilogy of all time. A bold statement, I know. With a multitude of trilogies bouncing around, to apply such a tag to it has to be justified, whether it be completely subjective or not and the argument "because I said so" doesn't cut it.
First of all, I am a big fan of Batman. I find the whole mythology of it fascinating, as it is filled with contradictions and ethical dilemmas on a backdrop of action and adventure. I think Batman is the most accessible of all superheroes because he is not a superhero. He's a rich guy, who trained his body and mind long and hard for the task at hand. By that notion, with the right financing, anyone could be Batman. However, Batman was subjected to some bad storytelling. Let's be straight about this, Batman is a vigilante. The fact that he doesn't kill unless he has to doesn't escape the fact that he is a law breaker, acting out of vengeance caused by the murder of his parents. It is the paradox that when a city is engulfed in crime, they have to turn to a criminal to save them. Not only that but his existence spawned more deadly and destructive characters, whether they were reflections or the antithesis of Batman.
However, Joel Schumacher damaged a franchise by trying to camp up Tim Burton's initial gothic entries. Burton's take was satisfying at the time, with the casting of Michael Keaton proving inspired. However, those movies have not aged well. Schumacher's effort is more akin to a crime against humanity, turning a pitch black tale into a kid’s movie. So when Nolan decided to take on this terminal franchise off the back of high quality but not earth shattering movies, such as Memento and Insomnia, hopes were not high. However, I looked forward to the new take on Batman with much excitement. Things could only get better, I thought. Oh if only I had known how much better...
Batman Begins has become the definitive origin story for comic book heroes. From the first hour, you can tell that this is the story of Bruce Wayne, not Batman. Christian Bale doesn't don the cowl for the best part of an hour. Rather it focuses on his training, his motivation and most importantly, his fear. By taking the time to establish this, Nolan seats us comfortably in the journey Bruce Wayne is going to take. We all know that when the mask and cape go on, sooner or later, Batman will win. It is how it will affect the man underneath that becomes our emotional investment in the story. By pitching him against Ra's Al Ghul, Bruce Wayne symbolically battles the evil he so easily could have become. It was a brilliant film and hope was restored in the franchise, with teasers that the Joker was on his way whetting the appetite of me and millions of other fans.
The Dark Knight was a game changer. Described as the "Heat" of comic book movies, it moved away from the fantastical into a murky reality that makes every minute as disconcerting as it is absorbing. In a career defining performance, Heath Ledger's interpretation of the Joker took the Clown Prince of Crime right to the top of the all time villains list. Sure, Darth Vader could strangle you from a different room but the Joker could exist. An absolute madman who wasn't an idiot but a genius, one who was acutely aware of human nature and the frailties within that nature. That is the truly terrifying part of the performance, just how believable it was. We talk about iconic moments for a character and everyone who watches The Dark Knight will remember "I'm gonna make this pencil disappear."
In a cruel twist for our protagonist, the Joker shows Batman that everyone has a breaking point, using Harvey Dent as his trophy. This is torture for Bruce Wayne, who knows that he has been treading an extremely thin line and the Joker is not interested in knocking Batman off it. He wants to keep him on it for as long as possible for his own amusement and the sustained terror of Gotham City. Typically the middle act of any three part story tends to be the best. It is where conflict, darkness and loss are established and the stakes are raised. The Dark Knight did all of these things and seemingly burdened the final act with an impossibly high standard that people thought would not be reached.
They were wrong. In The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan created a final act that raised the stakes even higher. He drew the themes of the first two films together beautifully, embodied in the main antagonist Bane, who exudes the calm control of a Ra's Al Ghul with the destructive desire of a Joker. In a deliberate move by Nolan, none of the main villains have their origin explained because they are irrelevant. The story is not about them, it is about Bruce Wayne. In his grief over Rachel, mirroring the loss of his parents, he has become a broken man but a desire to help leads into a battle with the only opponent who is physically dominant over him. Whilst the subsequent fights are physically brutal, Bruce Wayne finds that his struggle is symbolical of the path he must take psychologically. He must no longer be the fearless warrior and cut himself loose of the rope of responsibility that keeps him trapped.
All of this is wrapped up in an epic tale that soaks us in a stunning spectacle that never sacrifices the story to do so. The Dark Knight Rises is a revolutionary tale turned on its head, where the oppressors rather than the oppressed rise up and overpower the city. It is elevated to a terrifying scale with Tom Hardy delivering a performance of balanced menace. At all times, you're convinced that Bane is in control, that nothing fazes him and that even bumps in his plan will just be bulldozed over. All of the cast turn in stellar performances, with Michael Caine's Alfred worthy of the top mention as the emotional core of the film, where most of his scenes are heart breaking yet beautifully portrayed. It is a finale that is satisfying and leaves enough ambiguity as to what happens next, so that people will talk about it for years until Warner Bros do something with the franchise.
Quite simply, all three parts are different but brilliant. A definitive beginning, middle and end are offered to the story of Bruce Wayne. None of the parts sag in any way, something that can't be said of most other trilogies. I could easily pick out the problems with all the obvious competitors for the Top Trilogy crown but I won't. Instead, I think we should salute the mastermind behind it all. Christopher Nolan is the greatest storyteller in the film industry right now. He is what Spielberg was, he is the franchise, the name you put at the top of movie poster and people will go to see it. Remember, he also gave us Inception in between making the Dark Knight saga, which is also a mind blowing piece of work. Whatever Nolan makes next, I will be there on opening night to see it. For now though, he should bask in the glow of making the finest trilogy ever. Oscar may not pay him with same reverence, no matter how much it is due, but the movie-going public, the box office and history will testify the monumental storytelling feat Christopher Nolan has pulled off. The Dark Knight has truly risen above all.