In 2012, “The Dark Knight Trilogy” delivered its epic conclusion. We’ll never really say “goodbye” to this incredible series, though, and looking back on it is sure to be a frequent, popular pastime for fans. We begin our own never-ending journey down memory lane by counting down the top 10 scenes from director Christopher Nolan’s Bat-trilogy.
This list is more than just one man’s opinion. In order to truly honor the series and compile as close to a definitive list as possible, rankings were solicited from a panel of Batman experts and diehard fans of “The Dark Knight Legend.” The participants include The Gentlemen from our podcast, documentary filmmaker Brett Culp (who’s currently in production of “Legends of the Knight,” a film about the power Batman stories have in our lives), Batman-On-Film and Modern Myth Media contributor Robert Reineke, Forbes Reel Estate blogger and screenwriter Mark Hughes, and last but certainly not least, Batman-On-Film founder Bill “Jett” Ramey. We invite you to read along and debate us afterward.
So… are you ready to begin?
Goodbye, Alfred- “The Dark Knight Rises”
Perhaps the most controversial scene in the entire trilogy, some fans felt Alfred’s decision to leave Bruce was just too out of character for the butler who once said he’d “nevah” give up on his adoptive son. For our panel, however, no contradiction could be found. Alfred was not giving up on Bruce, but rather taking a stand, refusing to serve as Batman’s #1 enabler any longer. Bruce Wayne is a cowl junkie and Alfred is not going to help the former kill himself with his addiction. It is a harsh, but necessary step in their relationship that forces each man to confront the truth behind some of the lies told in “The Dark Knight.” Sometimes the truth isn’t good enough, but you can only ignore it for so long.
The Batpod Chase- “The Dark Knight”
Thrilling chase sequences were so commonplace in “The Dark Knight Trilogy” that our panel may be guilty of taking them for granted in this list. The introduction of the Tumbler in “Batman Begins” is no slouch and The Bat tracking down a ticking time bomb is thrilling in “The Dark Knight Rises,” but as always, it’s hard to top The Joker. Slaughter really is the best medicine, as The Joker barrels down on Harvey Dent after Gotham’s beloved district attorney falsely surrendered himself as Batman. The real Dark Knight does his best to block Dent’s armored car from a barrage of RPGs fired from Joker’s 18-wheeler, leading to the death of the original Tumbler and the birth of the Batpod. This long, pulse-pounding sequence never lets up from start to thrilling finish, which gives us a semi truck flipping end over end. Says Robert Reineke, “If Nolan’s trilogy has an iconic action image, this is it.”
The Docks- “Batman Begins”
Ever since Michael Keaton identified himself to a thug he was dangling off a rooftop in 1989, audiences have waited for each new live-action Dark Knight to utter two words, “I’m Batman.” Christian Bale introduces himself to a higher ranking criminal, mob boss Carmine Falcone, to cap off an undeniably cool debut in which the Caped Crusader dispatches a number of Falcone’s thugs who were trying to split up a drug shipment. For the first time ever on film, Batman really fights like Batman. He strikes from the shadows, becoming a terrifying monster in the eyes of the criminals he preys on. In their cowardly and superstitious minds, it is as if the darkness has come alive to devour them all. Now THAT is Batman!
The Top 10
10. Agent of Chaos- “The Dark Knight”
Villains sharing the screen is not an atypical sight in Batman movies, but The Joker’s corruption of the physically and emotionally scarred Harvey Dent will always stand above the rest. It is a seduction into the world of villainy by way of surprisingly logical rationalization. The Joker, adorned in his hilarious nurse costume, successfully tempts Dent with the idea of not having a plan even though The Joker in fact has many plans and Dent is at the center of his biggest one. Harvey feels wronged by his own physical deformity and the death of his beloved fiancé of roughly five seconds, Rachel Dawes. Dent and his love did the right thing; they stood up against the mob and never wavered (minus that little incident with Thomas Schiff) in their sense of right and wrong. The reward they got for their good deeds was not fair at all. One cannot make his own luck forever, and with The Joker bending his ear, Dent finds fairness and his new sense of morality in the flip of a coin.
9. Bruce Embraces his Fear- “Batman Begins”
Physical and practical realism are mentioned more often, but emotional realism is at the heart of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy. This was never more important than in the construction of Bruce Wayne’s decision to become Batman. Gone was the comic book idea of a bat crashing through the window of a room where Bruce was brooding. In its place, Nolan made bats a symbol of fear for Bruce, dating back to a childhood trauma that indirectly led to the death of his parents. All of the fear, guilt, and shame Bruce has felt for the majority of his life are contained in the image that will inspire the costume for his crime-fighting persona. Before he could turn his fear against others, however, Bruce had to conquer it for himself. He does so in a beautiful, cathartic moment in what we will come to know as the Batcave. After initially hesitating, Bruce Wayne stands tall as he is swarmed by the creatures that once terrified him. Batman is born.
8. The Climb- “The Dark Knight Rises”
The trilogy began with a young Bruce Wayne falling down a well and needing to be lifted out by his father. He is told we fall so that we can learn to pick ourselves up. In order to save Gotham from nuclear annihilation, Bruce must literally pick himself up and climb out of Bane’s prison in a setting that looks awfully similar to that old well. As he makes the climb, Bruce is afforded an opportunity to embrace his fear once more as bats emerge in a moment that calls back to the #9 scene on our list. The story of Bruce Wayne is brought full circle as he earns the right to go on his last mission as Batman. Reineke sums it up best, “The score swells, bats fly, and Christopher Nolan lets loose with his most operatic sequence as we see Batman reborn before our eyes.”
7. Always Mind Your Surroundings- “Batman Begins”
It’s Bruce Wayne and (spoiler alert) Ra’s al Ghul sword fighting on a glacier. It is the kind of scene fans never even bothered hoping for, but Christopher Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister delivered in a big, wide-angled way. This scene could play without any audio since it is just that beautiful to look at, but it offers more than mere fanboy eye candy. The real sound of ice cracking during filming provides tension to a fully immersed audience that witnesses the education of Bruce Wayne. Ra’s, whom Bruce and the audience only know as Ducard at this point, takes Bruce through the school of hard knocks, forcing the young, lost soul to confront his own guilt and warped truths about where the blame for his parents’ death really lies. The first hint of something more sinister is seen in the eyes of Liam Neeson’s Ra’s as he defeats his student in mock combat, setting up a genuine rematch later in the film.
6. The Mission Statement- “Batman Begins”
Though it ranks sixth on this “best” list, this scene contains arguably the most important conversation in the entire trilogy. It is in this first meeting between Alfred and Bruce in seven years where the latter defines the purpose behind his entire mission. In this iteration, Bruce is not looking to bruise and batter random muggers until the day he dies. Here we learn that Bruce aims much higher, as he wishes to inspire fear in those who do wrong, and hope in those too scared to stand up for what is right. To do that, he must be a symbol and, thanks to Alfred’s facetiously self-serving advice, create a persona independent from Bruce Wayne to protect the people he cares about. He may not know exactly what that symbol is when this scene ends, but Bruce’s search for, “something elemental, something terrifying,” will lead him to The Bat.
5. Breaking The Bat- “The Dark Knight Rises”
Run a search through your favorite message board for “Batman 3” posts in 2008 through 2010 and see just how many predictions you’ll find that list Bane as the lead villain. Based on his comic book roots, the eight-feet-tall, roided-out luchador did not seem to fit within the confines of Nolan’s grounded Gotham. This is also true of Bane’s signature moment, breaking Batman’s back. Surely Nolan would steer clear of that, right? Absolutely not. Christopher Nolan found his version of Bane in actor Tom Hardy, who systematically took down The Batman without the aid of an Arkham Asylum breakout or a steroid called Venom.
There’s no music, save for the percussion of primal grunts and strikes to the body and head of each man. Bane allows the physically unprepared and utterly outmatched Dark Knight to punch himself out and empty his bag of tricks before Bane truly unleashes his barrage of brutality. Never before had an audience really believed Batman would not prevail in a physical confrontation, but this entire scene was laced with the dread of knowing Batman had no chance of winning the fight. Still, even with his victory in hand, Bane punctuated the scene in shocking fashion when he hoisted Gotham’s champion over his head and broke Batman’s back over his knee.
4. Escalation- “Batman Begins”
Few relationships in the entire Bat-mythos are as integral as the one between Batman and Gordon. The poor representation of that relationships stands as one of the great missteps in the Burton/Schmacher era of the franchise. This gap was closed in the new era’s first entry thanks to a handful of meetings between The Dark Knight and Gotham’s top cop. None were better, though, than the final scene in “Batman Begins” with the city’s two biggest heroes talking shop in front of the brand new Bat-signal.
After defeating Ra’s al Ghul and locking up mob boss Carmine Falcone, Batman is understandably confident in his and Gordon’s ability to, “bring Gotham back.” It is Gordon, however, who offers a reality check and warns his masked partner of a simple reality- escalation. The audience is told that the story will go on and things are going to get worse before they get better, starting with a calling card left behind by Batman’s greatest foe. Batman has no idea what he’s about to be up against, but we do. It is this final shot of adrenaline that demanded “The Dark Knight” be made.
3. A Dark Knight- “The Dark Knight”
Night after night, Batman puts his life on the line to protect and inspire hope in the people of Gotham. His selflessness reaches as an all-time high, though, when he sacrifices his own legacy in order to reward the public’s faith in Harvey Dent. The Joker won by corrupting Gotham’s “White Knight” district attorney to the tune of multiple murders and taking Commissioner Gordon’s family hostage. Batman’s intervention to save the life of young James Gordon, Jr. results in Dent’s death. Gotham does not yet know, however, just how far Dent figuratively fell. To preserve the symbol of Gotham’s hero with a face, Batman takes the blame for Harvey’s “appalling crimes” and becomes the villain in his own city.
Commissioner Gordon objects, but ultimately complies with Batman’s plan to lie in place of a truth that isn’t good enough. The last line of the scene and the film belongs to Gordon who essentially knights Gotham’s watchful protector. In epic, poetic fashion, Batman earns his titular nickname, The Dark Knight, by learning for himself and teaching the audience who loves him just how adaptable his symbol can be. He is whatever Gotham needs him to be; he will always be whatever we need him to be.
2. A Hero Can Be Anyone- “The Dark Knight Rises”
The trilogy’s closing minutes are a mashup of several interwoven scenes, so for the sake of keeping score, we’ve consolidated every moment after Talia joins her father in eternal slumber. In this emotional, engaging finale, Christopher Nolan pays off major themes while making smaller moments from the previous films feel much bigger, starting with Batman’s non-confession of his identity to his “now we’re two” crime-fighting partner, James Gordon. Batman then takes off to his apparent death in order to save Gotham from Bane’s nuclear bomb. Gotham was never meant to know who’s saved them so many times over the last decade, just that the hero could have been any of their own. The legend of Batman is cemented, or bronzed as it turns out, and a new hero rises in the form of “Robin” John Blake, whose background is similar to Bruce Wayne’s, less the trust fund.
This is the story of Bruce Wayne, though, so we share Alfred’s grief over his fallen son before aligning with the absolute joy he feels upon seeing a simple nod from a still-alive Bruce Wayne at the cafe mentioned earlier in the film. This iteration was never about a boy who swore to fight crime for his entire life. This is the story of a man who chose to inspire positive change in a city that no longer believed in itself. He saved a city from internal and external threats while establishing an incorruptible, everlasting symbol to inspire Gotham to fight for itself and its future. With that accomplished, Bruce Wayne, a man who is only flesh and blood, rediscovers his will to live and moves on from the pain and grief that have ruled him since that night outside the opera. Bruce Wayne, with Selina Kyle by his side, finally enjoys his life just as his parents, both biological and adoptive, would have wanted.
1. The Interrogation Scene- “The Dark Knight”
Batman vs. The Joker. It is the greatest adversarial pairing in all of modern mythology. “The Dark Knight” demonstrates this not via fisticuffs, but by a conversation that wonderfully and frighteningly articulates the philosophical differences between the two freakish foes. The Joker has no interest in killing Batman, instead seeking a much bigger prize. Why kill The Batman when The Joker can simply invalidate the former’s entire purpose?
Per The Joker’s assessment, Batman is wasting his time fighting to preserve a morality that doesn’t exist. He is risking his life to save a citizenry that will turn on him. Perhaps nothing is more compelling than the potential that The Joker just might be right. As The Joker hammers away at the foundation of his mission, Batman visibly struggles with his own frustration upon meeting an opponent he cannot intimidate. When words and a gravelly voice are not enough, Batman lets his rage boil over, slamming The Joker around the dingy interrogation room to the sound of laughter. Batman lands punch after punch square on The Joker’s face and the laughing just gets louder.
Each violent act employed by Batman is another small victory for the maniacal clown whose ultimate goal is to compel Batman to lose all control and take The Joker’s life. Taking lives isn’t nearly as sweet as corrupting souls to The Joker. Batman cannot betray his own principles; he cannot concede defeat to The Joker. It is a decision Batman will always struggle with as the cost of his philosophical war with The Joker continues to escalate. Tragically, The Joker could never return in this world, but this well-written, brilliantly-acted scene shows us why each new iteration of The Dark Knight will return to this eternal debate.