Writer David S. Goyer called Batman “the crown jewel of the comic book world.” For reasons known to most by now, he’s also the crown jewel of the film world. In the last ten years, we’ve seen two cinematic interpretations of the character, and are about to see a third. He’s at the heart of the superhero universe, of DC, and of Christopher Nolan’s oeuvre. Fifteen years ago, Batman Begins, the first part of The Dark Knight trilogy, released. The opening scene — Bruce Wayne’s childhood, also the root of all his nightmares — anchored what we know of the trilogy today, more than a hero’s journey and a little less than mythology.
To honour what I personally consider one of the finest stories ever told, here are some of the best moments from each of the three films. Some of you may take offence, possibly consider this sacrilegious, but there’s no rigid yardstick of measurement here. These are scenes and moments from the trilogy that motivated me to write this, and those that left me quivering with awe and wonder.
The opera, right before the killing of Martha and Thomas Wayne
This is why I love movies. These fine-drawn scenes, brimming with symbolism, define an entire movie or character even if they play for a mere 10 seconds. Moments before Bruce’s parents are shot, we see the avant-garde Mefistofele play out at the opera. The lush and gorgeous dancing demons rise, the score gets louder, Bruce is frightened as those demons remind him of bats. At first or even second glance, this may seem like an arbitrary build-up to a horrific death. But this harvests the tonality of a character that doesn’t yet exist — Batman.
Operas (and their flamboyance) are known for their costumed theatrics, driven by carefully orchestrated scores. It’s a grand, dramatic spectacle, and one that is not quite different from the workings of these three films. Is there a difference between the opera and Batman anyway? He’s a masked, caped crusader, fending off the demons within and outside, in a rather operatic and extravagant manner (props to Hans Zimmer there). This scene lasts less than a minute but doesn’t need a second more to display the script’s meticulousness.
Ra’s al Ghul burns Wayne Manor down
The tragedies of Nolan’s characters are a thing of beauty. There is no superhero armour that can shield them from pain and suffering. They are brought back down to our reality, or maybe we are elevated to theirs. They can’t give up, even with their crippling self-abasement and defeat. And it’s their fancy, glorious rise and redemption that makes us call them superheroes. That makes them aspirational. This is that moment.
Generations’ worth of property is reduced to ash. And as Bruce’s home turns into a literal hearth, he is knocked unconscious, trapped under a log. Ra’s al Ghul, who steadfastly believes that justice is balance, is here to serve it. It doesn’t matter whether that justice spills over into the Wayne legacy. He is a terrorist masquerading as Gotham’s saviour, and will do whatever it takes to achieve his goal. But his terror pales in comparison to Bruce’s (not Batman’s) resolve and relentless determination. Bruce’s steely, kevlar armour is simply a crutch — it’s his persistence that places him in the league of superheroes. No matter what you take away from him (his house, love interest, or his city), his grit will remain. He will get back up. And fight right back.
The Dark Knight
Batman airlifts Lau from Hong Kong
Nolan’s proclivity for airplanes is not unheard of. He used one here, another in Bane’s entry, and is about to crash one in Tenet (not mid-air, unfortunately). But this, arguably, is the most fascinating use of one. I mean — the audacity of this! Extraditing Lau from Hong Kong is impossible, so, the only other plausible way to get him to Gotham is to… airlift him, without the plane ever landing. Nolan’s penchant for the theatrics makes for riveting cinema, and it’s almost as if he wants to one-up himself with each consecutive film. Couple that with the Hans Zimmer staple ‘A Watchful Guardian’ and you’ll see how the duo can, and do, push the limits.
Batman’s inability to kill the Joker
This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. This is the moment that represents that paradox best. What really can happen when explosive sadism faces rigid moral fibre? Their fight is on the street, and as the Joker’s truck topples over, he dares Batman to hit him with his Batcycle. This is the Joker at his most unhinged. His menace is psychological — their fight may be physical, but the battle is of their minds.
This is one of Joker’s few failures in The Dark Knight — he cannot manipulate Batman. And we’ve seen him use this skill on others throughout the film — in the opening bank scene, when he gets the mob to hire him and finally when he turns turning Gotham’s white knight, Harvey Dent, into a vindictive murderer. He loses the larger philosophical battle — the one in which he believes that everyone can be as depraved as he is. Batman, too, fails. He cannot stop the Joker. He cannot let go of his uber-moral persona, even just this once, for the greater good of his city.
The Dark Knight Rises
Bruce climbs out of the pit
It was a difficult choice between this and Bane’s opening scene and I didn’t want to devote another slot on this list to Nolan’s plane antics. This is the sequence I treasure most in the trilogy. This is Bruce’s last fight, so it better be grand. And it is. He is in Bane’s territory, an inescapable prison, “the worst hell.” The pit is abyss-like, a breeding ground for hopelessness and despondency. No matter what escape strategy is employed, the prisoners always come up a little short. The only way to escape is to embrace fear — the very mythos behind Batman (or the one that defines Bruce Wayne). “Why do we fall? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.” Literally.
If anything, I’m a hopeless romantic when it comes to The Dark Knight Rises. Despite all its shortcomings and the jarring loopholes that Reddit enjoys pointing out, I love it with all my might, irrationally. That’s why the final scene in this list must be the end. I don’t look at it as Bruce nodding to Alfred. It’s his goodbye to us, those who’ve stood by the highs and lows of this trilogy for over half a decade. This is our bittersweet moment.
This world of superheroes is a seductive fantasy. We want their formidable presence, their might and power. Their hubris and tragedies, too, are majestic and romanticised. But Nolan strips the trilogy of this — it’s not the superhero that elicits all of this, but the man behind the superhero, Bruce Wayne. These films are largely propelled by Bruce and not his alter-ego. We see his downfall and his redemption. And The Dark Knight Rises is not very subtle about that either. We know it’s Bruce’s film. We know that this is his conclusion and not Batman’s — “It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done. It is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”