"Why do we fall? So we learn to pick ourselves up."
That's how Warner Bros. felt in the years after Joel Schumacher's Batman & Robin.
While the kitschy, colorful 1997 art-pop movie is undergoing a slow but deserved reevaluation, once upon a time and not long ago, Batman & Robin was a blight on Batman's utility belt and all but killed the possibility of DC superhero movies. But by 2003, desperate for new franchises, Warner Bros. hired Christopher Nolan, whose cerebral yet grounded thrillers Memento and Insomnia made him a choice auteur to bring back the Dark Knight for a new, darker era.
Enter: Batman Begins (2005) and its seismic sequel, The Dark Knight (2008). While the series, which starred Christian Bale and co-stars Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, and Morgan Freeman, ended as a trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises in 2012, the first two have just returned to Netflix. And there's no better time than now, with a new Batman rising next year, to revisit two of the most important superhero movies of the 21st century.
You know the Batman story by now: Rich orphan, parents dead, pearls scattered, black cape. Or, rather, a "nomex survival suit," in just one of many instances of Nolan grounding Batman into something resembling a tangible reality. (The new Batmobile, a visual offspring of a Lamborghini and a Hummer, gets a new name evocative of a military prototype: "The Tumbler.")
Batman Begins, a dramatic reinterpretation of Batman's origins, gives root to Bruce Wayne's crusade against crime in childhood fear and trauma. Its story inspirations are rooted in iconic comics like Batman: Year One and the 1989 Dennis O'Neil story "The Man Who Falls," while Nolan aimed for a scope similar to the 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia.
The era-defining sequel, The Dark Knight, released in 2008 at the height of the financial crisis, introducing Aaron Eckhart as crusading district attorney Harvey Dent (later Two-Face, whose "reveal" actually stunned the suburban New Jersey movie theater I watched the movie with) and the late Heath Ledger as the still-magnetic, still-mysterious terrorist, the Joker, in a sweeping crime drama evocative of Michael Mann's Heat.
These two movies, and to a lesser degree its 2012 finale The Dark Knight Rises, are giants for superhero movies. Blade and X-Men get credit for kicking off superheroes as mainstream hits, but it's Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer's innovative concepts like "gritty reboot" and "dark superheroes" that gave modern superhero films dimension beyond crowd-pleasing fare. In a time now where Hollywood is overrun with costumed heroes, Nolan's Batman movies remain outliers. They are unusual thanks to Nolan's insistence on grounded, hyper-realism.
Just one example: There is a severe lack of universe-expanding Easter eggs. In a 2008 interview with the L.A. Times, Nolan said Batman is the only superhero in his movies, and that Bruce Wayne is the lone innovator of the very concept.
"It goes back to one of the first things we wrangled with when we first started putting the story together: Is this a world in which comic books already exist?" Nolan said. "We didn’t address it directly in the film, but we did take the position philosophically — that superheroes simply don’t exist. If they did, if Bruce knew of Superman or even of comic books, then that’s a completely different decision that he’s making when he puts on a costume in an attempt to become a symbol."
It maybe helps that Batman is inherently one of the more "realistic" of all superheroes in any universe. “He is the most credible and realistic of the superheroes, and has the most complex human psychology," Nolan told Variety in an earlier 2003 interview. "His superhero qualities come from within. He’s not a magical character."
Indeed, there's no magic in Nolan's universe. Not even Ra's Al Ghul, a mystic played by Liam Neeson (in Batman Begins' third act reveal) has a whiff of the supernatural, only dogmatic fanaticism. In the comics, Ra's Al Ghul is the custodian of a resurrection pool called the "Lazarus Pit." Here, he has an army of ninjas who carry automatic weapons. In these movies, Nolan curated a small rogues gallery of the Joker, Catwoman, Bane, and in a recurring role, Scarecrow, all characters that can feasibly exist. The likes of Killer Croc stay in the sewers.
As both the Marvel and DC film franchises expand with multiverse realities and streaming TV spin-offs, Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are as important now as they've ever been. The two movies not only continued the momentum for superhero movies, they also gave the genre a new dimension. Simply imagine a world where these movies don't exist, with only the uniformed action-comic tone of the Marvel franchise in the superhero space. These movies probably would have fallen out of favor again. Luckily, like the Dark Knight, they have only risen.
Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are streaming now on Netflix.