Blockbuster cinema today exists in the wake of The Dark Knight Trilogy. What has now become standard operating procedure was a seismic shift for genre filmmaking when Christopher Nolan very quietly unleashed his vision of Batman onto the world with ‘Batman Begins’ (2005), shattered expectations and the comic book genre itself with ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008), and raised cinematic hell with ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ (2012). In their wake, you could practically hear the studios scrambling to work out what Nolan had done, to find the secret of how he took a comic book character that had already existed in television and film for decades, and do something no one had ever done before - turn it into truly great cinema. Now, over a decade after it began, the trilogy is about to be released in a Special Edition set, with a host of new special features for fans.
In many ways, it feels inadequate to call the three films "comic book films", so exemplary is their craft, but what they proved was that pop culture origins did not mean a watering-down of cinematic integrity. There had been great comic book films before (‘Superman: The Movie’, ‘Spider-Man’, even Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’ films), but none had struck such a balance between honouring the source material and exploring complex psychology and thematic depth. They might have been set in a fictional world, but they always felt contemporary and immediate, as much about us as that fictional world. Even now, with Nolan’s trilogy done and dusted, most other superhero films seem inadequate by comparison. ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’ had the impossible task of stepping into its shadow, something it had no hope of doing. Their shadow is just far too big and far too dark.
As a first act, ‘Batman Begins’ somehow makes the origin story we’ve seen so many times (four times the past 25 years and counting) and makes it feel intriguing and fresh. It helps that it places Bruce Wayne - not Batman - as the central figure of the film and consequently the trilogy. Bruce’s journey of redemption is relatable and powerful, certainly in the hands of an actor as skilled as Christian Bale, and it’s through Nolan’s focus on Wayne that we can connect with Batman on an emotional level we arguably hadn’t before. It’s a gorgeous, gothic film, dense and rich, and yet incredibly fun at the same time. It’s also surprisingly contained, a pin-sharp focus that sets all the pieces in place for where the films were to go. If ‘Batman Begins’ had been the end of the road, it would still be one of the finest superhero films, and its modest success didn’t guarantee a sequel. That we got one was a surprise and a blessing.
If the first act was the controlled, contained introduction, the second act hit audiences like a meteor. I remember seeing ‘The Dark Knight’ in the cinema the day it was released, and I walked out (along with hundreds of other people) in a state of shock. It completely redefined what a blockbuster could be: enormous and shattering, complex and thunderous, enormously intelligent and endlessly entertaining. Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker is still jaw-dropping, but ‘The Dark Knight’ is one of the finest ensemble films so far this century - a remarkable cast working from a superb screenplay, one that juggles its many threads and an enormous villain and still manages to always be about Bruce Wayne. Its twists and turns take you constantly by surprise, and the grey morals that have always been part of the Batman mythos are pushed to their limits. There was a reason many considered ‘The Dark Knight’ an Oscar contender - for the first time, a comic book film had been pushed to the point of art. The bar had been raised so high that no one since has been able to reach it.
By all rights, the third act should have been sublime, but whether it was expectation or success that got in the way, ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ doesn’t land anywhere near as well as its predecessors. There’s so much to love about it (remarkable set-pieces, a hypnotic performance from Tom Hardy as Bane, a delicious Selina Kyle from Anne Hathaway, an amazing score from Hans Zimmer), but it ends up being convoluted. There are too many new characters, too many subplots, the story is too complex, the climax never gets there. It’s a pity, because as a closer for Bruce Wayne’s arc, it takes the character into even more interesting directions and presents Bale’s finest work in the trilogy. After starting with a bang and continuing with an eruption, the trilogy unfortunately ends more with a whimper.
It’s a remarkable, singular achievement, one that forces you to see the cinematic potential in genre material.
That said, the short-fallings of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ don’t take away from the enormous and important impact The Dark Knight Trilogy has had on the cinema. It’s a remarkable, singular achievement, one that forces you to see the cinematic potential in genre material. In many ways, it is to the superhero film what ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is to fantasy and what ‘Star Wars’ is to sci-fi. And at only three films, it is an entirely contained entity. We will never see its like again, and personally, I wouldn’t have it any other way. The Dark Knight Trilogy is the stuff cinematic dreams are made of.
PICTURE & SOUND
For this Special Edition boxset, the original discs have been repurposed. This means the same picture and sound transfers from their first Blu-ray releases are repeated here.
All the original special features from the individual releases are preserved, but what makes this Special Edition worth the double-dip (certainly compared to the older, more expensive set that this is a budget version of) is the disc of new special features. The crown jewel of this new material is ‘The Fire Rises: The Creation and Impact of The Dark Knight Trilogy’ (1:16:48), a fabulous feature-length documentary covering the making of the entire trilogy. The material on the original discs was always somehow lacking, but this detailed and rigorous documentary makes up for that, not only discussing the technical side of the films but the emotional and thematic. It’s filled with fascinating behind-the-scenes material, including screen tests and extensive interviews.
The documentary is complemented by ‘Christopher Nolan & Richard Donner: A Conversation’ (25:11), a discussion between the two directors. Donner’s original ‘Superman’ was an enormous influence on Nolan and his Dark Knight films, so it’s great to hear the two directors discuss their respective films and how they approached such beloved material. The set is finished off with the complete and remastered IMAX sequences from both ‘The Dark Knight’ (36:56) and ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ (70:33), finally presented in their original IMAX aspect ratio (far taller than the 2.40:1 ratio of the rest of the films). The film discs open up the image with this footage on occasion, but not to their full height, so it’s great to have it here.
The set also includes the same collection of haunting Mondo postcards and the letter of introduction from Nolan that was included in the original set, but this smaller version is a welcome arrival. The original was too large and too expensive in the Australian market, and this new version finally gives more consumers a chance to collect these great films together and take in the fantastic new material included on the bonus disc.