Batman Begins (2005) Christopher Nolan
The Dark Knight (2008) Christopher Nolan
I liked Batman Begins a lot when I first saw it, and I think part of the reason why it was so well received was because we hadn't really seen a take on Batman quite like this in the movies. By 2005, when that movie came out, I'm sure comic book fans were pretty accustomed to seeing a self-serious take on Batman, but for the movies it still felt exciting enough to have Batman be a grumpy street-level vigilante. However, people seem to gloss over the fact that Batman Begins still deals with some pretty goofy elements. Most of the first third of the movie is about Bruce Wayne joining up with the League of Assassins, and the endgame of the bad guys is to put fear poison in Gotham's water supply and then use some wacky macguffin to evaporate all the water so that everyone inhales fear gas and goes crazy. There are more than a few strange elements that are played entirely straight in this movie, but Nolan does a great job of fitting them into this street-level motif that he's pushing. In fact, out of all three of Nolan's Batman movies, Batman Begins is the most willing to incorporate the more outrageous elements of a comic book superhero into its self-serious, "realistic" take on Batman.
The Dark Knight, on the other hand, pushes self-serious realism even further, keeping the outrageous elements mostly outside of the workings of the plot, and limiting its use to the aesthetics of its villains. There is very little to distinguish this movie from a crime movie, and it's reflected in the way Nolan shoots scenes as nods to Michael Mann or Ridley Scott. It's a perfectly valid choice to make, treating a Batman movie as a kind of louder crime movie, and it's the kind of blending that could potentially elevate it above the trappings of either genre, but it is completely hamstrung by Nolan's distrust of his audience. It seems like every other scene we get a character explaining the thematic weight of what has happened or what is happening. Typically it's Alfred, sometimes it's Jim Gordon or Lucius Fox, every now and then it's The Joker or Rachel Dawes or Harvey Dent. We know exactly what everyone's doing and why they're doing it and what it means on the grand stage that Nolan insists he's presenting us with. I thought this movie was amazing when I first saw it, but this time around I just couldn't get past how all these characters are constantly explaining the movie to you. I remember a few movie critics online at the time going on about how Nolan crafted a modern Shakespearean tragedy or whatever bullshit, and maybe in some ways that's true, but the most apparent similarity to me is how both Shakespeare and The Dark Knight Rises are big on explaining themselves to you. It has the components of a great movie, but its inherent distrust of its audience and of itself keeps it from reaching its full potential. I'm still ride or die with Heath Ledger's Joker, though.
I'll write about The Dark Knight Rises next time because I feel like I may have more to unpack about that movie than these two movies combined?