This piece was originally published on July 31, 2020, as part of our Spotlight on Christopher Nolan.
As the world consumed itself in a never-ending cycle of praise for The Dark Knight back in 2008, I was a hater. A true hater of all things Batman – specifically, his spoiled rich-kid act turned self-appointed savior overnight – but also for a film that was allegedly miles better than anything before it. For me, that was some blatant disrespect against Spider-Man 2, the Sam Raimi-helmed sequel that marked The Last Great Spider-Man Until Homecoming in 2017, and a superhero that felt far more relatable and down-to-earth than Batman.
It turns out, however, that the truest victim of The Dark Knight forever-fandom is none other than Batman Begins. 15 years later, Begins not only stands as the gold standard of origin storytelling but also as the foundation that Marvel Studios could have copied on their way to $22 billion worldwide. But in a Disney-dominated landscape, Marvel found their path of least resistance in exchange for bucket loads of cash with Iron Man and – notable exceptions aside – have rarely strayed.
The pithy one-liners – looking at you, Star-Lord – and overstuffed opening chapters have become undeniable staples of the comic book theater experience. And the masses can’t argue with the success – people young and old flock to those dark rooms a few times a year without question. Over the course of 23 films, Kevin Feige and company have cycled through origin stories, teased larger arcs and crossovers, and wrapped them up in a generally satisfying conclusion. But with Phase Three’s merciful conclusion at the hands of Avengers: Endgame, Marvel Studios is faced with a question that hasn’t challenged them in a decade – what now?
The COVID-19-related delay of Black Widow this summer will keep the superhero genre shrouded in secrecy for a bit longer – though it’s presumed that the looming set of franchises will finally lose steam if they attempt to hit all the same notes again. Either way, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is at a fascinating crossroads. The studio has the established domains of Spider-Man (with and without Tony Stark), Black Panther, Doctor Strange, and Captain Marvel looking like the four most-likely franchises to forge ahead. Toss in the enticing Thor 4 and an inevitable-but-unscheduled Guardians of the Galaxy 3 romp, and the MCU has a fairly high floor moving forward.
But with the recent acquisition of Deadpool, X-Men, and Fantastic Four rights – plus the long-awaited The Eternals and Shang-Chi debuts – the MCU will be right back where they began in many ways. Should they reinvent the wheel or stick to a billion-dollar plan that hasn’t failed them yet?
As painful as it might be for this former anybody-but-Batman team captain, Marvel should echo Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy – not Iron Man’s.
While Iron Man itself initially presents the hero in a rewarding fashion, its two sequels are uneven and scattered. But the spots in which they came up short with the Tony Stark icon, Nolan absolutely smashes.
Relatively new to the movie circuit at this point, Christopher Nolan had only directed the independent Following (1998), the slightly-higher budget Memento (2000), and Insomnia (2002) before he seized the reins to Batman. And although Batman works from a place of higher cultural significance than any other superhero, the unconventional Nolan makes sure that Begins doesn’t waste too much time on well-known parts of the origin story.
Instead of the pain and trauma regularly associated with Batman, the opener brings to life Gotham just as much as it does Bruce Wayne. The breathing, decaying city has been an easily-identifiable constant in Batman as long as he’s been written, a leading villain right alongside the classic enemies. We associate Batman with Gotham just like we see Peter Parker as our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. And Nolan took that to heart better than the Disney machine: Once the MCU takes the web-slinger out of Queens and into outer space in Endgame and Europe in Far From Home, he no longer feels like the character we know and love.
Nobody feels more at home than Batman does in Gotham, and Nolan knows it.
So as Marvel literally returns to Earth following the defeat of Thanos, they’d be wise to reset the stakes and put a focus on each superhero’s home turf. Of course, this is what Nolan does so exceptionally well in Begins, crafting a city worth rooting for and people worth investing in – all long before a significant nemesis even enters the picture. Importantly, the plot-building force of the film is the League of Shadows setting off to destroy Gotham, not Batman – forcing the latter into his first set of reluctant night shifts.
The villains in Begins – plus those in the successful sequels – also operate with Gotham as their central reference point, believing the city is beyond saving and that total destruction is the only option. There are no dreams of infinity stone collection, magic-wielding Gods, or finger-snapping permanence – just one on-the-fly vigilante trying to do his best.
In fact, Nolan doesn’t even let Batman taste much success in that first movie, instead letting the crusader flounder at nearly every early turn. From struggling to make a difference against mob boss Carmine Falcone to a defeat at the hands of Scarecrow, Nolan is able to embody the most compelling parts of Batman without a focus on the overdone parental murder and big-time baddies.
Without Gotham, there is no Batman; without Batman, there is no Gotham – and establishing that link is inherently crucial to the superhero. Despite the trilogy being fondly remembered for that cat-and-mouse game with Joker in The Dark Knight, even that plot is offset by the necessity to protect Gotham above all else and offer the city a much-needed hero to trust. In the end, that means Nolan opts for memorializing Harvey Dent in lieu of announcing the murderous Two-Face alter ego, even though that decision only puts Batman in further danger. Thankfully, this is a gambit that Spider-Man will face with his identity revealed at the end of Far From Home and one that led to the tense clash in Captain America: Civil War – but the local, low-scale peril is an emotional charge that the MCU should use to literally re-ground their Phase Four efforts.
Take a moment and consider the cities that many of our now-MCU-leading superheroes are sworn to protect. Outside of Spider-Man and Black Panther, how many even jump to mind? Captain Marvel and the ragtag Guardians belong to the final frontier, Asgard was destroyed at the Ragnarok climax, and Doctor Strange certainly isn’t much of a stay-at-home savior. Ant-Man and its sequel take place in San Francisco, but Pym Technologies could have been dropped anywhere and most wouldn’t bat an eye. The hometown city is an integral part of any worthy hero’s DNA and yet – Wakanda withstanding – these smaller-sided showdowns were eschewed in favor, for lack of a better term, of the endgame.
But Nolan recognized it. As the director and writer on Begins, he understood what made Bruce Wayne tick – and, spoilers, it’s not just revenge for mom and pop. While Batman (1989) couldn’t wait to introduce The Joker as the foil – and then somehow manages to stuff the gauntlet with Catwoman, Penguin, Two-Face, Riddler, Mr. Freeze, and Poison Ivy across three sequels – Nolan knows the toughest match for Wayne is Gotham itself.
It’s the city that makes the hero – not any two-bit mobster or experiment-gone-wrong nemesis. There’s a reason that one of the most famous lines from the trilogy focuses on the city: “Because he's the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now.”
So that’s mostly who Batman faces off with during Begins, give or take a few Scarecrow moments tossed in for blockbuster-marketing and a bookended twist by Ra’s al Ghul. Gotham, a city that is simultaneously on the verge of collapse and a vehicle for the well-trodden double homicide, is what pushes Wayne forward. Even with bloated two-hour-plus runtimes, superhero movies often provide seamless transitions from the cataclysmic identity-forming event to a rhythmic, comfortable crime-fighter – but Nolan was unafraid to show Batman scuffle with his new forced-upon fate.
Once he’s reckoned with his inner-demons and the growing pains of buying into superherodom, only then is Nolan ready to unleash the franchise’s most well-known enemy – teased simply by a playing card just before the credits roll.
The patience and understanding of Begins have since become a lost art in the age of Marvel. Hell, Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment, so jazzed on the successes of the Dark Knight trilogy, even hired Nolan to produce Man of Steel and they still messed it up by relying on a worn-out origin story and a flippant dismissal of Superman’s most crucial character traits – sorry about that whole not-killing-thing, Zod. These days, superhero movies hardly reach the first act before there’s a world-threatening doomsday device, and the result is a washed-out cycle that only serves to get viewers interested in the sequel.
Remember, the higher the stakes seem, the fewer consequences there actually are.
But Nolan kept it tight and at home for three consecutive films – something unheard of in the MCU. Regardless of his efforts, Batman can’t be successful unless the city is. By intrinsically tying Batman to Gotham in Begins, the eventual rise from crime bosses to Joker and then Bane works better than any other superhero arc that came before, after, and, most likely, indefinitely.
Long before DC Comics dreamed of a shared universe that could rival Marvel, Batman proved that it was possible to build a narrative worth investing in across multiple sequels. Even prior to Marvel creating a predictable formula for box office money-makers, it was the Dark Knight trilogy that set the table for modern superhero movies.
And now is the perfect time to return to it.