CONTAINS SERIOUS BAT-SPOILERS
One of the problems with ongoing franchises is that you sometimes feel obligated to watch the previous instalments in order to get back up to speed with the who, why and where that you last saw three years ago. I'm not a big fan of this: for a start it feels like homework and I'm also of the belief that movies should stand alone without the need for a mass of background knowledge about who these people are. And it's certainly a daunting task if the films you're revising are ones you didn't much care for in the first place.
In 2005 I really didn't like Batman Begins at all and in 2008 I thought The Dark Knight was just about okay: I felt both films were too long and dark and had absolutely no levity or humour to them, though I preferred them to the two Tim Burton films and particularly the Joel Schumacher sequels. But with the imminent release of the third and last (?) of Christopher Nolan's epics in cinemas this very week, I rented the first two to catch up on just who or what Two-Face and the League Of Shadows were. Who's Ra's Al Ghul? What happened to Rachel? Who was The Scarecrow? It's homework. But I'm glad I did: one of the films completely confounded me by being so much better than I ever remember it, while the other confirmed exactly what I thought first time around.
The genuine surprise was Batman Begins, the 2005 origins story which puts all the pieces in place: Bruce Wayne's fear of bats (after falling down a well as a child and being attacked by them), the meaningless deaths of his charitable and endlessly kind-hearted parents, his travels to understand the criminal mentality and to find his true purpose. He's mentored in ninja skills and martial arts as well as spiritual discipline by Ducard (Liam Neeson) and invited to join the League Of Shadows, but refuses, returning to sort out the rampant crime wave in Gotham City his way, rather than participate in the League's plans to destroy the entire decadent society....
I still believe it's too long (though at 140 minutes it's the shortest of the three) and I still believe it takes itself far too seriously and desperately needs to lighten up a little. But it's a brilliantly made film. Gotham City is dazzlingly realised in sets and CGI - as instantly immersive and believable as the Los Angeles of Blade Runner. The cast are all great: it's graced by a particularly good turn from Michael Caine, though I'd submit that Katie Holmes looks too young (even though she's only four years younger than Christian Bale) for an assistant D.A. role. And Bale is also excellent in a difficult (dual) role: difficult because it has to claim Batman back from the idiocies of previous films. It's a role that's impossible to take seriously but at the same time it has to be taken seriously; maybe Bale goes a tad too far in the latter direction but surely it's indisputable that he's leagues ahead of Kilmer, Clooney and Keaton.
If overseriousness is a problem in Batman Begins, it's more of a problem in The Dark Knight, which I thought was okay but nothing special back in 2008 and, having watched it again on BluRay, I still think it's okay but nothing special. At its heart it does have a breathtaking, swaggering performance by the late Heath Ledger as The Joker, a purely anarchistic force of nature with no interest in money or power, a man who commits apparently irrational acts (though plotted in meticulous detail) with the ultimate intent of demonstrating some kind of moral philosophy of the nature of chaos and good and evil. In a sense the film isn't even about Batman: the Joker's main interest is in corrupting DA Harvey Dent, Gotham's White Knight and the public face of honesty and integrity. When he falls, so will the city.
The Dark Knight is longer, and despite all the action and effects (which are exemplary - like Batman Begins, the film-making is faultless) it feels even longer. Despite the theatrics of The Joker (a far more unfathomable sociopath than Jack Nicholson's version) and the repeated refrains of "why so serious?" it's still po-faced, it has no sense of fun and it ends in darkness with Batman rejected and unwanted. This really isn't what I want from a superhero movie - did anyone ever tell Spiderman or The Fantastic Four to get out of town and attract huge amounts of destruction somewhere else? - but it seems that's what's required when you're making a proper Epic out of something like Batman.
So while I admit I was wrong - seven years ago - about Batman Begins, my opinion of The Dark Knight hasn't changed. However, it'll still be interesting to see The Dark Knight Rises, to see where they do take the character and, more importantly, where they leave it. Further sequels or a reboot? I can't see them leaving the property to moulder in the vaults for too long. Meanwhile, Batman Begins is the best Batman movie thus far (let's ignore the two imbecilic Schumacher films) and The Dark Knight Rises is certainly brilliantly made but doesn't really come together. Fingers crossed that The Dark Knight Rises gets it finally right.