When Christopher Nolan took on the Batman franchise it was to a series of confused but excited cries from film geeks. We had suffered through two franchise killing turns chock full of fetishistic butt close ups, nipples on batsuits, and an inexplicably large amount of neon and glow in the dark paint. We were ready for something different.
His Batman Begins hit the world by storm. It was still a superhero film, but geared more towards the mature and the dark, which worked for batman. It was nonlinear and jumped back and forth between him as a youth and the budding new batman in action. It also managed to take what we were all dreading, another damn Batman origin, and spread it out over the entire film in a way that made us interested. All in all it was a success.
With the Dark Knight, though, he set about his true goal. He was not interested in telling a simple superhero tale. These had been done before and usually were nothing but an excuse to have cool action scenes and explosions. Nolan had aspirations of telling a story that had meaning. To do this he framed his anticipated followup as an epic crime story. One more interested in the effects the Batman would have on the world he lived in than a typical save the world/city structure.
With that in mind we come to the opening of the film. This was released as a 6 minute preview a few weeks before the movie came out and acts as a sort of thematic short sister film to the movie. The movie begins with a wide (shot on 70mm) shot of the city. Right away this is a different animal from the first. Gone is the gothic architecture and slums of Gotham from the previous. Instead we look on at office buildings. Cold and square and dominating the entire skyline. It is also broad daylight, morning even. Right away we know, subtly, this is different from the world of Batman seen prior. We push in to a single window on a sky rise and watch as its blown out and we are introduced to the bank robbers. 5 men(really 6 when the bus driver is taken into account) all wearing clown masks in a nod to The Killing by Kubrick.
Almost immediately we can see Nolan’s primary influence for this movie take hold. With the precision of of the robbers to the artificial sounds used in the excellent score it immediately feels like a scene out of Michael Mann’s Heat. These are competent professionals who are good at their job as opposed to the bumbling crooks that we so often see in superhero cinema and a clear step up from the drug running mafia we see in the opening. In a sense, this is the perfect illustration of the Batman’s effect on this world. Crime no longer happens at night. It happens in broad daylight and is done by people who are infinitely more dangerous and confidant than your common street thug.
From here we see the rhythm of the film told in short. The camera is always moving. Sometimes handheld, mostly on dollies and steadycam. The cuts are short and staccato but it isnt shaky. Our view of this world is careful and controlled. Nolan wants us to be overwhelmed by the speed and ferocity of these movements but he wants us to know that they are also precise and controlled. We see this echoed in the score. Like I mentioned earlier it is full of artificial and nontraditional sounds. It uses electronic distortion, made using razor blades and wire on the instruments strings, to convey a dark twisted sound. There is a rhythmic bed driving us forward with occasional pops and explosions of aural violence. In a sense, anything can happen. Nobody is safe.
This brings us to the most interesting part of the entire opening. The Joker himself. Nolan made an interesting decision in his Batman trilogy that separated it from other superhero films of its day and did much to create an interesting world. The villains don’t have origin stories. Rhas Al Gul, The Joker, and Bane all enter Batman’s world as fully fledged villains with a plan they are in the final steps of. This is why Nolan can end the opening of his film, not with Batman swooping in to save the day, but with the joker, in full makeup, staring at the camera and giving his opening line and ultimate thesis of believe.
“I believe that whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you….stranger”
That line is what does it for me. The idea that he pushes throughout the movie as his ultimate truth. That one bad day is enough to make any man a monster. Its a terrifying thought and what makes the Joker such a phenomenal villain. He isn’t after money or power or drugs. He wants to prove a point. That Batman, Jim Gordon, and Harvey Dent are ultimately fallible.
Now I wasn’t able to find the complete opening sequence. This is missing the first few seconds of logos and the wide shot of the city but it has the bulk of the sequence.