The 10 Best Moments in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy was so ground breaking and so full of ideas and innovations to explore that I don’t think fans and film reviewers will ever stop talking about it. Below I focus on 10 moments in the trilogy (in order of appearance) that stick out as tent pole sequences which shape the philosophies, style, and contributions that this film brings to the comic book movie genre. Caution, I do give away spoilers for those reading who have not seen the movie(s).
Batman Begins - Ice Fight
One of the strengths of the Batman Begins script is that it takes its time to tell the origin story, and it’s so well done that you forget to miss the cape and cowl. Nearly half of the film is spent telling Bruce Wayne’s history from falling into the cave of bats to his parents’ murders to running away to train with The League of Shadows for seven years. Since four mainstream Batman movies were released before this one, it was safe for audiences to assume that they were familiar with the character. So, this film decided to work backwards to explain how this identity was formed.
The training sequence with Henri Ducard provides an overview of this Batman’s fighting style, his mindset, and his discipline. He learns how to be stealthy, controlled, and mindful of his surroundings. These lessons all culminate into a swordfight on thin ice surrounded by the frozen Himalayan mountains where Bruce is taunted by Ducard in order to help him understand his true feelings and motivations about why he wants to join The League of Shadows. While building a city inside a soundstage leads to stylistic and impressive results, bringing Batman into a real location with real dangers presents the audience with never-before-seen visuals and a serious tone that sets up the kind of journey that the audience will go on with this incarnation of the character.
Taking Batman out of Gotham City in each of these films gives new settings for him to play with. The thunderous crackling of ice in the background, the frigid blues and whites of the mountains, and the careful footwork of the two combatants circling each other represents the uncertain ground that Bruce is on at this stage of his life and provides a lesson in awareness and motivation. He strikes at Ducard because Ducard insults his father’s legacy. As a result, he loses the fight because he is too concerned with expressing his anger rather than focusing on his opponent. It’s the first time in a Batman film that we see Bruce Wayne lose a fight and digs deep into his past to set up his future as a crime fighter and damaged soul. For those who ever questioned why a billionaire would put himself through this torture, this scene explains it all.
Batman Begins - Standing on the Building at Dawn
When he returns to Gotham as Batman, Bruce must make a decision about how to use his training to defeat the powerful and corrupt men who are running the city into the ground. Taking his friend, Rachel’s, advice, he decides to go after Carmine Falcone, a major mob boss who is known for exploiting his connections and for working with a mysterious drug smuggler who is bringing a large quantity of drugs into Gotham for reasons unknown.
This is the first time that we see a Batman who plans ahead, recognizing that it is not just enough to catch a bad guy, tie him up, and leave him on the stairs of police headquarters. When he catches Falcone, he needs to face a system that will put him away and keep him there. This is a sophisticated world that mirrors our own. He needs to get those who Falcone has corrupted on his side so that Falcone will be fairly prosecuted and put away. On his first successful night out, he saves Rachel from being attacked by Falcone’s men, gives her the blackmail tools needed to get a corrupt judge to support the DA, and stops Falcone’s latest drug import, catching and chaining the mob boss himself to a giant spotlight which creates the illusion of a bat signal in the sky.
This is the first major step toward progress, and Batman celebrates by standing atop a building just as the light of dawn starts to break through on the horizon. The camera pans around him, level at such a great height, and the audience sees Batman as fully established as the vigilante protector of Gotham City. It's one of the few colorful shots in the movie. It's eye catching, dramatic, and exactly the kind of image that you want to see in a Batman movie without sacrificing its realistic format.
Batman Begins - Rescuing Rachel
Even if the city wasn’t full of corrupt law enforcement and judges, what Batman does is not considered legal or even welcomed by both sides. Aside from James Gordon, who sees Batman as a chance at a fair fight between good men like him and the corrupt system and criminals that Gordon deals with every day, many of the good and bad are trying to catch him in the act so that he will get out of their way.
They almost get their chance when Bruce follows Rachel to Arkham Asylum where she discovers The Scarecrow’s secret operation for Ra’s al Ghul and is in turn exposed to his nerve gas. The fight becomes personal for Batman as he works to save Rachel before the poison kills her. This is when he gets to break out his toys for the first time, including bat sonar, the Batmobile, and his glider cape.
The scene where he has to jump down a flight of stairs while hundreds of bats circle him is one of the most comic book-friendly shots in the movie, even becoming the cover of the DVD in its initial release. This is where you get to see a human man become superhuman using his gadgets, training, and his previously described “will to act”. What follows is a clumsy yet successful car chase helped by a rejected military tank that has become the design base for all Batmobiles since this one. The dark lighting, fast pace, and practical effects make the audience feel like they are on Batman’s shoulder the entire time, providing spectacle without losing the realism that the film has worked so hard to establish.
The Dark Knight - Armored Car Chase
I could have chosen several scenes in The Dark Knight that came before this one, including the opening bank robbery that is so well shot and well timed, but in limiting myself to 10 sequences, the armored car chase beats out everything that comes before it in the movie. The goal of this sequence is to get Harvey Dent safely from a press conference to jail after he publicly outs himself as The Batman. He has an entourage of help including a bullet-proof armored car that he is stashed in during the ride, but with The Joker loose, nothing goes as planned.
This scene starts off very quiet and far away. Then, as that long, one note warning of The Joker’s theme starts to swell as the camera gets closer, you know that something big is about to go down. This sequence contains little music, booming sounds, and realistic driving stunts that seem like giant versions of toy cars being smashed thrown off of roads, ending in a long cargo truck being flipped forward in a non-CGI stunt which proves that you can blow up as many fake buildings as you want, but it will never be as impressive as a stunt done on set. Just as awesome is Batman running his bat pod vertically up the wall and wheelieling so that he lands in his desired direction without having to make a wide, time consuming turn to rejoin the chase. Not only that, but the fact that the bat pod emerges from the wreckage of the totaled Batmobile gives the audience hope that if anyone can beat the loose cannon that is The Joker, it’s Batman, who always has a trick up his sleeve himself, just in more subtle ways.
Aside from that, there are the little moments: the painted red “s” in front of the phrase “Laughter is the Best Medicine” on the side of The Joker’s stolen truck, The Joker’s dazed stagger out of his flipped vehicle, Batman’s exasperated cry as he charges at The Joker with the bat pod before turning at the last second to avoid hitting him, even though it would have been so easy to end it there like the immovable object that he is.
This scene one-ups the car chase from the first film. Not only is Batman following the police this time, but the villains are in on it too, creating a three-way fight without a single punch being thrown. The action in this trilogy never deters from the story. Instead, it adds to it along with providing character development and reaffirming the mantras that they all live by and use to get in each other's way.
The Dark Knight - The Birth of Two-Face
The audience gets about 10 minutes to breathe between the Harvey Dent rescue and the real kidnapping of Gotham’s District Attorney. In between that time you get a tense interrogation between Batman and The Joker where they truly sit down and try to figure each other out. Once Batman beats Harvey and Rachel’s locations out of The Joker, he takes off in a second pursuit fueled by his unflinching choice to save Rachel over Dent, despite the fact that Harvey’s death would undo all of the progress that has been made in Gotham up to that point.
The fact that he doesn’t hesitate to save Rachel over Harvey shows that Bruce is not entirely a slave to his heroism. In the end, this Batman wants to do his part and then settle down with his childhood best friend. What he doesn’t realize is that The Joker sees this too and goes about ruining his plans by switching the locations on him, which leads him to Harvey instead of Rachel. His rescue is only half-successful as the explosion rips off half of Dent’s face and triggers the madness that consumes him with the loss of Rachel.
You also get to see what The Joker was up to the whole time and how flawlessly his plan unfolds. His insight rivals Batman’s and ultimately gets the best of him in all ways but one: his trying to get Batman to kill him and bring him down to his level, even if succeeding means that he doesn’t get to enjoy the aftermath of Batman’s downfall. In the meantime, he gets to enjoy bringing down Gotham’s DA, good practice for him before he takes down his main opponent.
The Dark Knight - Saving Reese
Probably my favorite sequence in The Dark Knight is the hospital evacuation interspersed with Commissioner Gordon trying to rescue Coleman Reese from the TV studio once The Joker puts out a hit for him for trying to expose Batman’s identity. In true Batman fashion, it is Batman who has to come to his rescue, despite the fact that he nearly destroyed the Batman identity, but Bruce has saved those who have done worse to him. An added challenge is the fact that it is broad daylight, and Bruce must show up out of costume and pull of heroic feats without seeming heroic and preserving the playboy image that he relies on in order to keep his night job.
This sequence gets a lot done amid the chaos. Harvey Dent escapes as the fully formed Two-Face with The Joker’s help, Bruce keeps Reese from blabbing about him by saving his life, and Gordon’s leadership ends in a successful evacuation that levels a hospital with no fatalities.
The Joker’s plans are reliant on humanity showing the worse of itself. So, when he puts the word out that he is blowing up a hospital if Coleman Reese is still alive after one hour, those with loved ones in the hospital resort to desperate measures to maintain their family’s safety. There are three assassination attempts in this short time: gun shots through the studio doors, an officer in the car attempting to shoot Reese to save his sick wife, and a man in a truck who tries to ram the police car that Reese is in. All three are unsuccessful but still prove The Joker’s philosophy right, that when a person’s life as they know it is threatened, they will do anything to maintain it.
What he doesn’t count on is heroes like Batman and Commissioner Gordon to recognize this as well and block the bad things from happening, whether those they are happening to deserve them or not. One of the most brilliant lines in the movie is when a terrified Reese says to Gordon, “They’re trying to kill me," an impatient Gordon replies, “Well, maybe Batman will save you.” You can hear in his voice how tiring it is to constantly do the right thing when so many others are trying to do wrong. However, this is the lesson to take away from the trilogy. You have to do the best that you can, even when the chaos and evil around you are doing so much damage.
The Dark Knight - Skyscraper and Ferry Rescue
Batman and Gordon grow more anxious as The Joker throws the city into chaos with his final threat. While evacuating a ferry full of prisoners and one full of innocent citizens, those aboard are met with the realization that The Joker has planted bombs on both vessels and threatens to blow both up at midnight if one of them doesn’t blow up the other using a provided detonator. This, along with a stakeout to The Joker’s location where he has dressed up a bus full of hostages from the hospital as his henchmen unbeknownst to the SWAT team scoping out the Joker’s location, causes Batman and Gordon to butt heads as to how to take care of all threats and carry out the most successful results possible. Gordon believes that Harvey Dent is one of the hostages being held by The Joker since he wasn’t accounted for among the victims of the hospital bombing. His mission to save him is personal, not realizing that Harvey is now Two-Face and has it out for Gordon by way of his family.
Batman is generally a loaner in this movie, but without a Robin or Batgirl to team up with, he regularly relies on help from Gordon, Alfred, and Lucius to help him carry out his missions. Because of his extreme methods and one-man show, he clashes with his cohorts in one way or another. Lucius disapproves of his using his sonar technology to detect the location of The Joker through private cell phones yet unwillingly agrees to help him use it to find The Joker. Gordon disapproves of his wanting to infiltrate The Joker’s location alone ahead of the SWAT team, but because he is a vigilante, Batman doesn’t wait for permission. A frustrated Gordon even aims his gun at him when Batman proceeds to jump off the building they are on and glide into the next.
To be on different ends of the same side creates added confusion to the situation. When Batman finds out that the people inside dressed as clowns are actually the hospital hostages, he can’t relay this to Gordon or the SWAT team. So, he has to get creative in saving the hostages while detaining the SWAT team without harming any of them. This gives The Joker time to unleash the chaos that is his specialty, but Batman has quickly caught onto The Joker’s schemes, not only with figuring out about the disguised hostages but by stalling The Joker long enough to show him that neither ferry has elected to blow the other up, signaling that there is still hope for humanity and that The Joker’s theory about chaos in society isn’t 100% accurate.
It’s rare for a superhero movie to be dependent on the victims to save the day. What’s even more inspiring is how a prisoner takes the detonator from a guard and throws it out the window without hesitation. There’s nothing cheesy or sappy about this scene. Instead, it presents a rare moment in the story where things are not black or white. The gray area wins out, and that gray area is the hope that Batman holds onto in pursuit of a better city where organized crime cannot take lives like they took his parents'.
The Dark Knight Rises - Police Chase
Like Batman Begins, The Dark Knight Rises spends a lot of its first act without Batman, but when he does appear, it’s epic, kicking off a police chase of the largest scale of the trilogy. It takes a villain as cunning and brutish as Bane to lure Batman out of retirement, and as always, he’s pursing his target as if he is the only one able to help. Given his reputation as the murderer of Gotham’s hero, Harvey Dent, he soon becomes the hunted and has to use his trusty bat pod, and later his flying vehicle known as “The Bat,” to escape.
The clarity and boldness of iMax film really compliments the movie in this scene as the flashing red and blue lights of dozens of police cars consume the roads and give chase from all ends. Batman uses some quick thinking to jump some ramps and retreat into an alley so that he can fly away from the pursuit. It’s a thrilling reintroduction of The Dark Knight for both Gotham and the viewing audience.
The Dark Knight Rises - The Gotham Police vs. Bane's Army
This movie earned a lot of criticism for its third act, especially when the city is put under siege for five months, trapping all citizens inside thanks to its blown up bridges and blocked tunnels. What’s worse is that most of the city’s police officers are trapped underground, being given food and supplies so that the death toll remains high when Bane’s bomb finally explodes. It conveniently gives Batman just enough time to get well, break out of Bane’s prison, and get home to stop the bomb before it goes off and levels the city. While this does seem like a bit of a plot hole, it provides the opportunity for a battle on the city streets once the cops are freed from their prison.
Batman’s attempts to improve Gotham mean nothing if the city itself doesn’t improve internally. The police in Gotham are notorious for their corruption and cowardice when it comes to true heroics. This scene turns that all around as the police emerge weaponless yet ready to fight to the death to reclaim their city. They are brave enough to show up in droves and head for Bane’s headquarters where dozens of armed men stand ready to take them all out. As a reward for their bravery, Batman appears in the air above them and blocks a missile from striking them which gives them the motivation they need to charge at Bane’s men and erupt into a mob of hand-to-hand combat. Again, Batman’s faith in humanity wins out as the army distracts the henchman long enough for him to get to Bane and learn the truth about who is actually in charge of this plan.
Later, when he is flying the bomb out of the city, there is a look of calm on Batman’s face, as if a weight has been lifted. Knowing that the city is safe for now is one thing. Knowing that it is populated with good people who will rebuild it better than it was fulfills his legacy.
The Dark Knight Rises - Ending Montage
How do you end a trilogy for a character whose stories span decades and twists and turns in many directions? You stick to the personal angle of the story that has been told over three movies, and you send him off in a deserving yet final way.
This film does a great job of convincing the audience that Batman died in the bomb detonation. From his goodbye kiss with Catwoman to the subtle reveal of his identity to Jim Gordon as he takes off, it feels like this is truly the end for Batman. We see his small but meaningful funeral party mourn him. We see the city honor him with a statue. We see his assets being handed out to a grieving Alfred, grateful orphans, and pensive John Blake. But then Lucius questions some employees about the potential autopilot fix on The Bat and learns that the autopilot was fixed. The subtle look on his face and change in music cue creates a revelation for the audience that somehow, he's gone but not in the way they thought.
What follows is a P.S. to Alfred, John, and Jim’s stories. Jumping from one to the next, we see Alfred taking refuge at his favorite café, Jim Gordon on the roof of police headquarters going through a case file, and John Blake following a map given to him as part of his inheritance from Wayne. As the bats envelope Blake, Gordon comes across a shiny new bat signal on the roof, and Alfred looks across the restaurant as a familiar figure, we already know the truth before we see Bruce and Selina sitting at a table in the café, creating the perfect ending to this particular Batman story. It's not just that he lived, but he is now living, relieved from the burden that he placed on himself as a young man and fulfilled by a mission finally accomplished.
I own this copy of the trilogy. It's packed full of extras, photos, and even models of Batman's vehicles used the movies.
What are your favorite moments in The Dark Knight Trilogy? Leave your answers in the comments below!