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Why The Dark Knight trilogy is the gold standard in comic book adaptations

Revisiting the iconic trilogy as Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight turns 15

Why The Dark Knight trilogy is the gold standard in comic book adaptations

Last Updated: 08.54 PM, Jul 19, 2023


Christian Bale recently revealed in an interview that people scoffed when they were informed that he would be playing a darker version of the caped crusader. This is surprising considering Batman stories are widely regarded as among the darkest of all popular superhero adaptations. But back in the early 2000s, the character's stock had plummeted after a couple of forgettable films such as Batman and Robin and Batman Forever — films that featured the unholy union of Adam West’s version from the 60s and Michael Keaton’s version in Tim Burton’s films from the late 80s and early 90s. Frank Miller’s bestselling graphic novels The Dark Knight Returns, and Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s award-winning iconic Batman in the animated shows voiced by Kevin Conroy, certainly revolutionised Batman into a dark, brooding, and complex character. But the general audience failed to associate Batman stories with gritty crime capers. 


When Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins hit theatres in 2005, there was very little fanfare from global audiences. It largely alluded to the fact Batman was already adapted into several versions with four popular live-action adaptations. People were craving something new such as Spider-Man and X-Men. And there was scepticism about a relatively lesser known British duo of Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale making a film about the iconic dark knight. Batman Begins, despite being lauded by critics, didn’t have the best box-office numbers when compared to today’s superhero movie standards, where anything less than a billion dollars is deemed a failure. But Nolan’s first Batman film did enough to warrant a sequel, and the fact that it is one of the best superhero origin films ever made certainly helped its cause.

The sequel The Dark Knight, which celebrates its anniversary this week as it turns 15, was a monumental success. It shattered box-office records and is rightfully revered not just as the greatest comic book adaptation of all time, but as one of the greatest films of all time. It is a riveting political thriller, a far cry from any screen adaptation of the caped crusader. Bale, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, and Gary Oldman essayed incredible performances, only to be overshadowed by the brilliance of the late Heath Ledger — a performance that has been etched in the annals of cinema history. In fact, if not for Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn as the Clown Prince of Crime, Eckhart may have been considered for several awards for his measured and nuanced portrayal of Harvey ‘Two-Face’ Dent. At the time the Academy wasn’t probably too keen on awarding their most coveted prize to a Batman film or even nominating it for Best Picture. But it was without a shadow of a doubt the best film of 2008.

The Dark Knight Rises which was released in 2012 was originally rumoured to feature Ledger’s Joker in some capacity. But his tragic passing in 2008 meant that Nolan had to create something different for the final film of the trilogy that would not only test Batman psychologically but also physically. So the obvious choice for a villain was Bane, a character who is among the very few who has physically overpowered the dark knight in the comic book lore — a man who mentally and physically broke the Batman. However, like most of the villains from Batman’s ‘rogues gallery’, Bane is a watered-down version grounded in realism in The Dark Knight Rises. Tom Hardy essayed a unique take on the iconic character with a completely different backstory.

The trilogy’s greatest strength was how it was able to bring realism to these surreal characters. It asked the question, “what if Batman were real?”. In Batman Begins Liam Neeson plays the role of the mythical Ra’s Al Ghul, the leader of a powerful organisation called the League of Shadows (League of Assassins in the comics) who has appointed themselves as the gatekeepers of society — who would resort to even genocide in order to maintain order and balance. In the comic books, Ra’s Al Ghul is an immortal who uses a pit called the Lazarus Pit, the waters of which heal his body and grant him immortality. It is rooted in real-life myths and legends about the Elixir of Life and Gilgamesh's quest for eternal life. But in Nolan’s Batman Begins Ra’s Al Ghul’s immortality is merely metaphorical. In the third act of Batman Begins Ra’s returns to confront Bruce Wayne/Batman, who had presumed that Ra’s was dead, and asks a visibly confused Wayne, “But is Ra’s Al Ghul immortal? Are his methods supernatural?”. This was Nolan’s way of bringing out elements from the source material without hindering the tone and aesthetic of the story he was trying to tell.

Similarly, the Joker is not a man with bleached white skin as a result of falling into a vat of chemicals, but instead, he is a deranged human being, an anarchist who cut his own face with a blade and uses white makeup. This is also in fact a nod to a comic book version of the Joker who cut out his entire face and wore it like a mask — an act he committed just to make a point. While these alterations to these two iconic villains never really bothered the highly opinionated comic book fandom, it was the changes made to Tom Hardy’s Bane that stirred the pot and created controversy. The Bane in Nolan’s trilogy was not the hulking 6-foot-8 giant of a man seen in comics. Nor did he use the special serum called venom from the comic books that enhanced his size, strength, and speed. These were understandably creative choices Nolan had to make in order to maintain consistency in his films. But it was surprising that the Mexican ‘luchador’ backstory was completely abandoned. Regardless, Hardy was exceptional in the role and was able to help deliver a compelling and engrossing final film of the trilogy. Some of the other cast members across the trilogy such as Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Anne Hathaway, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Marion Cotillard play excellent supporting characters, with Hans Zimmer's score being the cherry on top.

The Batman mythos has since been adapted in several formats over the last decade — Robert Pattinson and Ben Affleck in blockbuster films, Iain Glen and David Mazouz in TV shows, and Kevin Conroy, Bruce Greenwood, Jason O'Mara, Diedrich Bader, and Jensen Ackles in animated versions. Even Michael Keaton reprised his role as Batman, from the Tim Burton films from 30 years ago, in the 2023 film The Flash. It is unlikely any future adaptations can replicate Nolan’s success. While an argument could be made that Matt Reeves’ The Batman is certainly of the calibre as Batman Begins, Reeves would have to pull a rabbit out of the hat to enjoy the same success and acclaim as The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises.

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