Let me start with the premise that the Chris Nolan “Batman” series is superior to the previous series’ in just about every way. The original films were very much focused on the villains as opposed to Batman/Bruce Wayne, which isn’t so bad when you’ve got actors like Jack Nicholson or Michelle Pfeiffer inhabiting them. Not so good when it’s Jim Carrey or Arnold Schwarzenegger. And in those films, even Batman was bad–C’mon, Val Kilmer? George Clooney? In that scenario, Val Kilmer was the better one! When have we ever thought Val Kilmer was better than anyone at anything unless it involved the words “Ice” and “Man” (although he was quite good in “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” just not better than Robert Downey Jr.)?
I digress. Chris Nolan’s Batman films focused on Bruce Wayne, Commissioner Gordon, and Gotham in equal parts. And that’s fantastic. That’s what “Batman” is really about. Not nipples on the bat-suit or weird, neon, neo-gothic skylines.
Before we go further, let me warm you there are SPOILERS for the Nolan Batman movies. If you haven’t seen them, I’d recommend not reading this. Take the time you’d use to read this and go watch them. I’m criticizing them, sure, but I still like them a great deal.
However, I would argue that we haven’t gotten a true interpretation of Batman on film. Not yet (“film” is defined as “movie;” the 90s animated series was the closest we’ve gotten to really interpreting Batman’s world in moving pictures). Nolan was so fixated on realism that he eliminated many powerful story lines and rogues, which define Batman. While “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight Rises” are good movies, they are not as great as “The Dark Knight” because where TDK embraces Batman and the Joker in all of their depraved glory, BB and TDKR are ashamed of their “supernatural” and “extraordinary” origins. Those movies suffer from having to water down Batman’s mythology.
That said, Nolan’s take on Ra’s Al Ghul was inspired. Rather than making him literally an immortal man, the Nolan Ra’s was a figurehead creating a myth and symbol around himself to perpetuate the perception that he was immortal. Really, the League had been around for centuries and he was just the most recent leader. This had the added benefit of assisting Bruce Wayne with creating Batman to be the same thing: a symbol of justice that could not be corrupted or killed like a man could be.
“Batman Begins” was a great movie and its take on Ra’s was fantastic. But because Nolan has grounded his Batman in a kind of “hyper-reality,” Ra’s was never more than a man. Certainly not a supernatural figure that had been alive for thousands of years. Batman allowed him to die in the train crash and that’s that. No resurrection. Just dead. I would argue that, in the comics, Ra’s is just a mirror to show us how intelligent and capable Batman is–he can hold his own against a man who has lifetimes of knowledge, experience, and combat.
There are some great Batman stories out there featuring Ra’s Al Ghul. Bruce Wayne’s relationship with Ra’s daughter, Talia, is a by-product of that. Talia rivals Selina Kyle as one of Bruce Wayne’s great loves and this is especially evident in the current comics story where Bruce and Talia’s son, Damien, is now Robin. Talia, of course, appeared in “The Dark Knight Rises,” but I think her use as a pure, mustache-twirling villain is a waste of that character. She’s so much more interesting when she’s ambiguous–torn between her father and her lover.
“The Dark Knight” is the best of Nolan’s Batman movies because it doesn’t water down the Batman mythos. It doesn’t have to. The Joker represents pure nihilism and is a sociopath. His relationship with Batman is purely psychological and that’s OK. It makes for great storytelling and that’s why TDK is the best of the series. Pure Batman from beginning to end. I’d slap Heath Ledger if I could because he created the definitive, cinematic Joker. In TDK, his sights were set on showing Gotham’s people how silly their belief in civilization was and by the end we saw how fascinated he had become with Batman. If only we’d gotten more Ledger Joker with him focused purely on torturing Batman. Hell, I’m sure he would have had a role in TDKR.
Like “Batman Begins,” “The Dark Knight Rises” suffers from its shame over Batman’s more fantastic elements — like Bane, who, in the comics, is a steroid-enhanced goliath who is also a savvy strategist who wants to break Batman purely for the challenge. Fortunately, like with Ra’s in BB, Bane is well-realized here. He’s a terrifying character. I was genuinely worried for Batman if he had to fight him (and of course he must). However, Bane is shown to be merely a thug. A smart, powerful, capable thug, but a thug nonetheless. He’s working for Talia Al Ghul to exact revenge on Bruce Wayne and, finally, complete the campaign of destruction that Ra’s Al Ghul began in BB. This is particularly annoying to me because he was a mindless thug in “Batman and Robin,” the George Clooney led, limping, final chapter in the previous continuity of films. Why can’t he carry a movie on his own? Tom Hardy certainly could have done it.
I was a big fan of Nolan’s Batman series (I have some significant criticisms of TDKR, which I may detail at a later date, but it’s still a gripping, effective film). I simply think that Chris Nolan put Batman in a box that restricted the world and the character unnecessarily.