DVD REVIEW: Batman Begins & The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight Rises has quite a reputation to live up to. Not only because the previous two installments of this Batman series have proved massively successful, but also because this film has been billed as the end.

Whether this means simply hanging up his cowl until the inevitable next reboot or the actual demise of the caped-crusader, there’s a lot riding on this. Christopher Nolan’s vision of Bruce Wayne’s alter ego was never going to be similar to Tim Burton’s dark-but-not-too dark philanthropist. No, no. Instead, Nolan has developed the characters psychological issues to a whole new, darker level, leaving little room for a classic Hollywood happy ending.

Christian Bale’s incarnation of the Bat is everything one would expect when you think about his oeuvre (American PsychoThe MachinistPublic EnemiesTerminator SalvationEmpire of The Sun…and Pocahontas) – all quite intimidating, especially the last one. There is no joking with Bale’s Batman, and his Bruce Wayne displays quite the frightening fractured psyche too. In the Batsuit, he is physically imposing although his much maligned Bat growl seems to be deepening as the trilogy continues. This Bruce Wayne exudes a suitably tormented and unstable persona. Bale shines in scenes with Michael Caine’s Alfred, as these scenes showcase Wayne’s preparation for an ensuing battle alongside wise warnings from his butler.

In Batman Begins, Wayne’s sense of morality grows from a desire to avenge the murder of his parents. Gradually this morality teeters on the edge of insanity as the character transcends into The Dark Knight. Wayne’s relocation to Asia after the death of his parents becomes the catalyst for Batman’s creation. There, he is mentored by Ra’s Al Ghul to become a crime-fighting warrior and ninja, in order to wipe out crime in Gotham City. Then Bruce encounters a rather large problem during his training – namely, that he refuses to accept Ra’s Al Ghul’s teaching that execution is a necessity. Slight problem when you want to take on the dark forces of a city gone haywire. Liam Neeson impresses hugely as Ra’s Al Ghul, partly because he conveys a fine mixture of educator and nemesis. Neeson is regularly cast in mentoring roles, so the juxtaposition of his being a villain works very well here. Against Bale, he provides an excellent foil to Batman’s sense of decency, a sense which begins to decline in the second film.

Every set piece, costume and piece of dialogue is meticulously thought out in both films. The characters also seem to have been reinvented from scratch. In particular, Gary Oldman’s interpretation of Jim Gordon makes a formerly bland character far more engaging. As the chief of police, Gordon finds an equilibrium in his relationship with Batman that enables them to seek out the dark forces of Gotham together. It seems strange that this relationship has not been explored in any considerable depth previously, as the two people most active in saving Gotham are notably polarized characters. Gordon is employed to protect Gotham, whereas Batman does it for personal gain, but the two have a common interest; saving their city at any cost. The relationship is also symbiotic in the films, as Gordon is the head of an incompetent police force; an insufficiency that creates a requisite for Batman’s presence. Another character that has been expanded upon to considerable benefit is Alfred. Michael Caine makes for a more active Alfred than in previous portrayals. Caine created his own backstory for the role whereby, he served in the Special Air Service and was sought after by Thomas Wayne for his toughness as well as his civility. Caine’s steady, measured performance has allowed the viewer to engage with Alfred on a higher level and this is arguably his best role.

The transition from Batman Begins to The Dark Knight is remarkably smooth considering the change in actress for the character of Rachel Dawes and the slightly questionable ending of the first film. Luckily, The Dark Knight is such a frenzied tornado of action and quick-witted dialogue, that any doubts about the story are soon put to rest. While Batman Begins showcased Christian Bale’s ability to play the part, The Dark Knight is undoubtedly Heath Ledger’s film. Premature death aside, his performance placed the movie into a whole new league. Unlike Jack Nicholson’s Joker, excellent and humorous in its own right, there is a malevolence and almost tangible sense of real danger to Ledger’s portrayal. Particularly sinister are his introduction scene (an economic introduction if ever there was one), where he proceeds to pencil-pack a competing villain and the infamous truck-chase sequence; incidentally one of the finest sequences in modern cinematography.

Aaron Eckhart’s performance in The Dark Knight was, arguably, excessively lauded. The fact that Harvey Dent becomes Two-Face more than halfway through The Dark Knight, results in the character receiving less of an exploration; thus his performance feels slightly overrated at times. A strangely unrealistic facial disfigurement proves quite distracting from taking the acting seriously also. Thankfully, Maggie Gyllenhaal provides some relief in scenes with Eckhart. Replacing Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes, Gyllenhaal plays the part with more relish and gives a far more enjoyable performance overall. The most consistent and impressive performance is that of Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox. Over the course of the first two films, Freeman has encompassed all the intelligence that the character has from its comic book origins. Fox’s supposed unknowing management of the business interests that supply Batman with his equipment and financial requirements is one of the few elements that makes its way from the comics into the films. Freeman portrays the role with class, dignity and an excellent sense of humour.

The supporting villains are easily the most creatively reimagined part of both films and The Dark Knight Rises looks fit to follow this lead. Dr Jonathan Crane’s ‘Scarecrow’ is still a frightening presence, seven years on from the film’s debut. Cillian Murphy excels as the inhumane psychopharmacologist, using patients as experiments for his fear-inducing drugs. This character stood out in both films, as he is neither physically imposing nor a skilled fighter but, he is a master at manipulating the mind. In a similar vein to Ledger’s Joker, the character of Scarecrow provides an insight into psychological disturbance and how it can be controlled. With a small but effective array of villains playing staple roles in both films, the introduction of Bane and Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises promises not to disappoint.

Both films have stunning soundtracks created by Hans Zimmer. The compositions are hauntingly melodic, even when listened to without the films playing. Just as Danny Elfman’s eerie, gothic intonations were the perfect accompaniment to Tim Burton’s Batman films, Zimmer’s compositions encapsulate all the danger and intrigue that Nolan has made so central to this series.

Hence, under the careful eye of Christopher Nolan the creation of one of the most complicated and mentally sophisticated comic book characters has well and truly begun. So far, Batman has risen from the ashes of Hollywood simplicity to become a dark, challenging force in films that have something interesting to say. Let’s hope The Dark Knight Rises follows suit.

GS Reviewer: Michelle Lacey

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