Batman Begins discards the previous four films in the series and recasts the Caped Crusader as a fearsome avenging angel. That's good news, because the series, which had gotten off to a rousing start under Tim Burton, had gradually dissolved into self-parody by 1997's Batman & Robin. As the title implies, Batman Begins tells the story anew, when Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) flees Western civilization following the murder of his parents. He is taken in by a mysterious instructor named Ducard (Liam Neeson in another mentor role) and urged to become a ninja in the League of Shadows, but he instead returns to his native Gotham City resolved to end the mob rule that is strangling it. But are there forces even more sinister at hand?
Cowritten by the team of David S. Goyer (a veteran comic book writer) and director Christopher Nolan (Memento), Batman Begins is a welcome return to the grim and gritty version of the Dark Knight, owing a great debt to the graphic novels that preceded it. It doesn't have the razzle dazzle, or the mass appeal, of Spider-Man 2 (though the Batmobile is cool), and retelling the origin means it starts slowly, like most "first" superhero movies. But it's certainly the best Bat-film since Burton's original, and one of the best superhero movies of its time. Bale cuts a good figure as Batman, intense and dangerous but with some of the lightheartedness Michael Keaton brought to the character. Michael Caine provides much of the film's humor as the family butler, Alfred, and as the love interest, Katie Holmes (Dawson's Creek) is surprisingly believable in her first adult role. Also featuring Gary Oldman as the young police officer Jim Gordon, Morgan Freeman as a Q-like gadgets expert, and Cillian Murphy as the vile Jonathan Crane. --David Horiuchi
The Dark Knight:
The Dark Knight arrives with tremendous hype (best superhero movie ever? posthumous Oscar for Heath Ledger?), and incredibly, it lives up to all of it. But calling it the best superhero movie ever seems like faint praise, since part of what makes the movie great--in addition to pitch-perfect casting, outstanding writing, and a compelling vision--is that it bypasses the normal fantasy element of the superhero genre and makes it all terrifyingly real. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) is Gotham City's new district attorney, charged with cleaning up the crime rings that have paralyzed the city. He enters an uneasy alliance with the young police lieutenant, Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), and Batman (Christian Bale), the caped vigilante who seems to trust only Gordon--and whom only Gordon seems to trust. They make progress until a psychotic and deadly new player enters the game: the Joker (Heath Ledger), who offers the crime bosses a solution--kill the Batman. Further complicating matters is that Dent is now dating Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, after Katie Holmes turned down the chance to reprise her role), the longtime love of Batman's alter ego, Bruce Wayne.
In his last completed role before his tragic death, Ledger is fantastic as the Joker, a volcanic, truly frightening force of evil. And he sets the tone of the movie: the world is a dark, dangerous place where there are no easy choices. Eckhart and Oldman also shine, but as good as Bale is, his character turns out rather bland in comparison (not uncommon for heroes facing more colorful villains). Director-cowriter Christopher Nolan (Memento) follows his critically acclaimed Batman Begins with an even better sequel that sets itself apart from notable superhero movies like Spider-Man 2 and Iron Man because of its sheer emotional impact and striking sense of realism--there are no suspension-of-disbelief superpowers here. At 152 minutes, it's a shade too long, and it's much too intense for kids. But for most movie fans--and not just superhero fans--The Dark Knight is a film for the ages. --David Horiuchi
The Dark Knight Rises:
Of all the "most anticipated" movies ever claiming that title, it's hard to imagine one that has caused so much speculation and breathless expectation as Christopher Nolan's final chapter to his magnificently brooding Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises. Though it may not rise to the level of the mythic grandeur of its predecessor, The Dark Knight Rises is a truly magnificent work of cinematic brilliance that commandingly completes the cycle and is as heavy with literary resonance as it is of-the-moment insight into the political and social affairs unfolding on the world stage. That it is also a full-blown and fully realized epic crime drama packed with state-of-the-art action relying equally on immaculate CGI fakery and heart-stopping practical effects and stunt work makes its entrée into blockbuster history worthy of all the anticipation and more. It deserves all the accolades it will get for bringing an opulently baroque view of a comic book universe to life with sinister effectiveness.
Set eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, TDK Rises finds Bruce Wayne broken in spirit and body from his moral and physical battle with the Joker. Gotham City is at peace primarily because Batman took the fall for Harvey Dent's murder, allowing the former district attorney's memory to remain as a crime-fighting hero rather than the lunatic destructor he became as Two-Face. But that meant Batman's cape and cowl wound up in cold storage--perhaps for good--with only police commissioner Jim Gordon in possession of the truth. The threat that faces Gotham now is by no means new; as deployed by the intricate script that weaves themes first explored in Batman Begins, fundamental conflicts that predate his own origins are at the heart of the ultimate struggle that will leave Batman and his city either triumphant or in ashes. It is one of the movie's greatest achievements that we really don't know which way it will end up until its final exhilarating moments. Intricate may be an understatement in the construction of the script by Nolan and his brother Jonathan. The multilayered story includes a battle for control of Wayne Industries and the decimation of Bruce Wayne's personal wealth; a destructive yet potentially earth-saving clean energy source; a desolate prison colony on the other side of the globe; terrorist attacks against people, property, and the world's economic foundation; the redistribution of wealth to the 99 percent; and a virtuoso jewel thief who is identified in every way except name as Catwoman. Played with saucy fun and sexy danger by Anne Hathaway, Selina Kyle is sort of the catalyst (!) for all the plot threads, especially when she whispers into Bruce's ear at a charity ball some prescient words about a coming storm that will tear Gotham asunder. As unpredictable as it is sometimes hard to follow, the winds of this storm blow in a raft of diverse and extremely compelling new characters (including Selina Kyle) who are all part of a dance that ends with the ballet of a cataclysmic denouement. Among the new faces are Marion Cotillard as a green-energy advocate and Wayne Industries board member and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a devoted Gotham cop who may lead Nolan into a new comic book franchise. The hulking monster Bane, played by Tom Hardy with powerful confidence even under a clawlike mask, is so much more than a villain (and the toughest match yet for Batman's prowess). Though he ends up being less important to the movie's moral themes and can't really match Heath Ledger's maniacal turn as Joker, his mesmerizing swagger and presence as demonic force personified are an affecting counterpoint to the moral battle that rages within Batman himself. Christian Bale gives his most dynamic performance yet as the tortured hero, and Michael Caine (Alfred), Gary Oldman (Gordon), and Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox) all return with more gravitas and emotional weight than ever before. Then there's the action. Punctuated by three or four magnificent set pieces, TDKR deftly mixes the cinematic process of providing information with punches of pow throughout (an airplane-to-airplane kidnap/rescue, an institutional terrorist assault and subsequent chase, and the choreographed crippling of an entire city are the above-mentioned highlights). The added impact of the movie's extensive Imax footage ups the wow factor, all of it kinetically controlled by Nolan and his top lieutenants Wally Pfister (cinematography), Hans Zimmer (composer), Lee Smith (editor), and Nathan Crowley and Kevin Kavanaugh (production designers). The best recommendation TDKR carries is that it does not leave one wanting for more. At 164 minutes, there's plenty of nonstop dramatic enthrallment for a single sitting. More important, there's a deep sense of satisfaction that The Dark Knight Rises leaves as the fulfilling conclusion to an absorbing saga that remains relevant, resonant, and above all thoroughly entertaining. --Ted Fry