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Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Nolan Trilogy: Which Film is the Best Bat-film?

Most of us love the Nolan films, but which one is the most like the comics?  Shane looks at how each film adapts the 75 year old character!

Out of all DC's superheroes, Batman is easily their most adapted to film (talking cinematic endeavors here, not direct-to-DVD animated).  From all of these incarnations, easily one of the most discussed and most well-regarded is the trilogy of films directed by Christopher Nolan.  This is a series of films that dared to take the idea of the superhero and give it an approach which was more firmly rooted in reality, something that, believe it or not, was almost laughable in 2005.  What was laughable then has become the paradigm for not only many new superhero franchises, but the effects of the Nolan trilogy can be seen all across the action genre, even in James Bond's recent adventure, Skyfall.  There's definitely no denying the success this trilogy has had, and more than a few discussions of its cinematic merits have been held, but not too many people have taken the time to delve into how well these films really adapt the character of Batman.  Thus, in honor of Batman's 75th anniversary, I've decided to do just that.  I have re-watched the Nolan trilogy with an eye for what feels like Batman, and you may find and agree/disagree with my thoughts below. 

NOTE: This is not a discussion of how each part of this trilogy works (or doesn't work) as a movie, but is instead a strict look at which ones feel most true to the comics.

In looking at these films, I decided to look at three criteria:
  • How the film honors Batman's rich history (including which sources are pulled from)
  • Truthfulness to the spirit/tone of the comics
  • Characterization feeling accurate to what has been seen on the page

Batman Begins  
Released in 2005, Batman Begins tells the story of the formative years of Batman's training and early career, but does it adhere to what we have seen countless times in the comics?

What is Bat-like
  • Origin: Although Batman Begins certainly creates is own unique spin on the classic Batman origin (one which we have always gotten in pieces in various comics), Bruce's journey to become Batman in this film feels more than accurate to the movie's themes as well as those of the comics.
  • Gadgets: The costume of this film certainly works with the more grounded take Nolan was going for.  It would not make a ton of sense for a man trying to blend in with the shadows to wear a ton of gray, but the costume in this film is not terrible by any means.  The various technologies used as well as the Tumbler/Batmobile, which is arguably the biggest change made in this area, also reflect the spirit of the grounded approach.  Despite the more realistic look, feel, and (pun intended) utility of these objects, they are definitely in line with the more dark spirit of more recent Bat-stories
  • Gotham: This is arguably the only film in this trilogy where Gotham actually feels like its own city.  Though real locations were certainly used in the making of the film, none of it feels like just another city standing in...it all feels like it is in its own little world.  With the city playing such an important role in this entire trilogy, it is pivotal that Gotham feels real but also feels like it is a place we have never been.
  • Source Material: The only clear source used in the making of this film is Frank Miller's Batman: Year One.  This movie is more of a thematic adaptation than direct one, but it definitely honors what Miller wrote.
  • Bruce/Batman: Remember the days when Christian Bale's Batman voice was tolerable and not something EVERYONE mocked?  This is pretty much the only film where that's the case.  Batman Begins just may be the only film in the trilogy where Bale plays both characters perfectly.  Batman has been written so differently over the past 75 years, but Bale gives a performance that is all his own while also honoring what makes the character likable
  •  Alfred/Fox: Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman.  What else can you say?  Both actors do fantastic jobs of portraying the characters that help to make Batman who he is, and both feel most necessary in this film.
  • Crane/Scarecrow: Although he originally auditioned for Bruce Wayne, thank God Nolan ended up casting Cilian Murphy as Dr. Jonathan Crane.  Some slight changes are made to the character to suit the story of the film, but, overall, Murphy delivers a performance that is, at times, bone-chilling and tonally accurate to the comics.
What is NOT Bat-like
  • Ra's al Ghul: Liam Neeson is certainly a terrific actor.  He certainly delivers a great performance in this film.  Unfortunately, Nolan's re-interpretation of Ra's al Ghul feels like a far cry from the comics character.  Having Ra's train Bruce is not a terrible idea by any means, but nothing that really happens in this film with Ra's aside from giving him a killer goatee feels like the character who lives in the DCU.
  • Rachel: Bruce has had a wide assortment of love interests over the course of his 75 year history, but Rachel Dawes may go down in as one of the worst.  An utterly forgettable character who does very little aside from being an emotional tether to the city for Bruce and become his damsel in distress several times over.
  • "I don't have to save you": In a post-Man of Steel cinematic landscape, it's easy to forget that Batman commits the exact same sin as Superman.  The film's climax (pictured above) just may be the biggest mistake of this entire film, and one which ALMOST unravels all the good that was accomplished.  Nolan clearly understands a lot about how Batman works, but this is a line that the character in the comics would NEVER cross.

The Dark Knight
Three years later, The Dark Knight was unleashed on to the world.  Whether from being a damn good film or from the unfortunate circumstances of Heath Ledger's death, the film would become a giant and one which would change the action/comic book genre forever.....but is it really like the comics?

What is Bat-like
  • Source Material: The Dark Knight pulls a bit more directly from the source material it adapts this time around.  Namely, the two primary sources for this film seem to be The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb and The Killing Joke by Alan Moore.  Both are classics in their own right and are adapted effectively here.
  • Action: Perhaps the most Bat-like aspect of this entire film is its numerous action set pieces.  From the fight in the parking garage to the Batpod chase to the climactic finale, any action scene in this movie that features Batman feels like it was ripped right from the page of a Batman comic.
  • One Rule: Unlike its predecessor, The Dark Knight makes sure that Batman diligently follows his one rule and does not cross it for any reason...even if it means letting someone like the Joker live.  This ideal also extends to Bruce, who we see avoiding alcohol in the movie; a very nice, subtle nod to the comics.
  • Themes: There are a lot of themes which guide this movie.  Among them are Batman's role in society, what it means to be a hero, and the sacrifices one must make in order to make a difference in the world.  Each of these themes (except for the first) is one that extends far beyond the movie, making it relatable, but these are also themes which are discussed often in the comics.  This gives the film a nice thematic tie back to its roots.
  • Gordon: Yes, Gordon is technically in Batman Begins, but his role is easily much larger in this film.  There is not much that can be said about Gary Oldman's performance that hasn't already been said.  The man just may have been the most perfect casting in the whole trilogy.
  • Joker: Once again we have an aspect to this trilogy that has been discussed at length a multitude of times (and for good reason).  Heath Ledger's portrayal of Batman's arch-nemesis is unlike anything we had seen on film to that point.  The Joker is, when done well, the exact opposite of Batman, and Ledger's Joker is definitely the exact opposite of Bale's Batman....making the connection to the comics even stronger.
  • Harvey Dent/Two Face: I may be a bit biased here as he is my favorite villain, but Aaron Eckhart's portrayal of Two Face/Harvey Dent is easily the most underrated part of this entire series.  Eckhart truly understands this character, and plays him with a tremendous amount of depth.
  • Dent - Gordon - Batman: This trio working together is a common image in the comics and it is done wonderfully well as the main story driving this film.

What is NOT Bat-like
  • Genre: It is really quite fascinating to look back at The Dark Knight as one of the most influential films on the comic book movie genre as the movie, at its core, is hardly much of a traditional superhero movie.  So what genre is this movie then?  Quite simply, this movie blends political thriller with crime/noir...and it all just so happens to feature Batman.  While this may help the movie gain extra points with the film snob crowd, it definitely feels like it should be the other way around in order to truly be a Batman story.
  • Chicago: This may be the most disappointing part of transition from Batman Begins to The Dark Knight: Gotham is completely lost.  Much of the filming of this movie took place in Chicago, and Nolan is not subtle by any means in telling us.  Establishing shot after establishing shot shows off the Windy City's skyline with no real attempt to make it seem like another place.  Even Wayne Enterprises' building changes inexplicably in the film, only helping to take away from the uniqueness of the setting.  The Dark Knight makes  Gotham such an integral part of its story, but does absolutely nothing to characterize it as its own city.  A shame, really.

The Dark Knight Rises
The third and final film in what is now called The Dark Knight trilogy received perhaps the most mixed reviews of the lot.  Following a film such as The Dark Knight was not going to be an easy task.  While Nolan and company may or may not have succeeded in ending their story, was it a conclusion which felt close to the comics?

What is Bat-like
  • Source Material: With this film, Nolan pulled from perhaps the greatest Batman story ever written: Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns.  The film also takes a few ideas from Knightfall and No Man's Land.  Much like the previous film, this one more attempts to adapt certain elements, and actually does so quite successfully.
  • Climax: Say what you want about the way the third act of this story unfolds, but the idea of Batman trying to save Gotham from a giant bomb, like it or not, sounds exactly like something from the comics.  Done in a way that is much less ridiculous than Adam West running down a boardwalk carrying the bomb, the movie's climactic action scene most definitely feels like something Batman has done before.
  • Themes:  It would seem that, thematically, Nolan's entire trilogy does an excellent job of staying true to the comics.  This film is no different as the themes of redemption, the role of Batman in Gotham, and the need for a hero to look up to have been ever present in the 75 years of Batman's history.
  • Selina Kyle/Catwoman: Although Selina has a few problems in this film (more on that in a bit), it is hard to argue that Anne Hathaway does a bad job of playing the character.  Catwoman feels different from any incarnation we have seen, but she also feels very in line with the grounded vision Nolan brings to the series.  At the same time, there are plenty of things Selina does in this film that feel like the character we have come to know and love.
  • Bane: Bane has not had a very happy history in being adapted to film.  Fortunately, Tom Hardy does an excellent job of bringing this character to life, on par with even Ledger's Joker.  While some changes are definitely made from the comics, this is a Bane that is still intelligent, devious, and a force to be reckoned with....character traits that still feel very in line with what DC established.
  • Pretty much anything with Batman: For a Batman movie, this is a film which unfortunately has very little Batman in it.  That being said, any time Batman is on screen, Nolan is once again able to capture the feel of the comics.  The Wall Street heist and subsequent chase feel so much like something from the comics that it is sure to make any Bat-fan happy.
  • The Batcave: It took until the last movie, but we finally get a true Batcave!  The lair of Batman presented in this film keeps in line with Nolan's realistic take while also blending several elements that feel true to the source material.
What is NOT Bat-like
  • Miranda Tate/Talia al Ghul: Perhaps the worst kept secret of this entire movie also turned out to be one of its biggest mistakes.  While it can certainly be appreciated that this movie makes Batman Begins necessary, that movie's ill-adapting of Ra's al Ghul applies to his daughter as well.  Miranda is certainly a better character than Rachel, but nothing about this character feels like what we have come to see in the comics.  It may tie up the story of this film series well, but it just doesn't feel like the comics.
  • Motivations: This is perhaps the only problem in this entire article that is also a problem with the film itself.  Character motivations in this movie are all over the place, but perhaps what feels the most untrue to the comics is what is driving Catwoman.  The Clean Slate is an idiotic idea to begin with, but to boil down Selina's character to that of just someone looking for a new start does not honor the emotional depth we have seen from that character on the page.

After taking a look back at all three of the Nolan Bat-films, it seems the one that feels the most like the comics is...Batman Begins!  While it may not be the best film of the trilogy (a fact which is certainly debatable), Begins captures the spirit, tone, themes, and characters of the comics in a way that feels much more true and accurate than any of the other films.  The linchpin in this decision?  Gotham.  Gotham is such an integral part of this entire series, but Batman Begins is the only film where Gotham truly feels like a unique space and not just another city standing in.  You may not agree with this line of thinking, but we can at least all agree that it was pretty awesome to have a series of Batman films that did a more than able job of honoring the 75 year history of this fantastic character.

So, what do you think?  Which one of the Nolan films feels more accurate to the comics?  Agree or disagree with anything presented here?  Sound off in the comments below!
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