"Here's how any great franchise should start: with care, precision and delicately wrought atmosphere." - Desson Thomson, Washington Post
Perhaps the true start of some controversy on this list, as we find Christopher Nolan's thrilling debut in Gotham at number three rather than two. But, at this point, we are no longer dealing with Joel Schumacher or poor sequels or pop art; these top three versions of the Dark Knight are all good in their own right. Some are, in my opinion, just a little better than others. Nolan leaps off the ledge into his own legend of Batman, creating a universe and a cast of characters the way Ridley Scott used to do. Only Nolan does it better. This would be the first time we saw the Bat on the screen since Joel Schumacher butchered the character in Batman & Robin, so the bar was decidedly low. That didn't curb expectations, however, as buzz built and the film was met with solid reviews and became a fan favorite before all was said and done.
Christian Bale serves as the palette cleanser in Batman Begins, a new and infinitely more interesting version of Bruce Wayne. That might be the biggest difference in the Nolan versions, the fact that he takes the necessary time to develop the alter ego of our hero rather than obsessing over the suit the entire time. Bale starts as Bruce Wayne from the ground floor, before he travels to Asia to learn Martial Arts and the impact fear can have on enemies. He learns from Ducaerd, played by Liam Neeson, and embraces a childhood fear to become Batman. There is much more psychology at work, which helps to lay a solid foundation for this new version of the character. By the time he appears in screen - a good hour into the film - we feel more connected with the hero and the man than we ever have before.
Another unspoken character in this Nolan vision is Gotham itself. With Chicago doubling as Gotham, there was more room to operate and show the decay of greed in Urbania. It was also a fresh take on the sprawl of the city, as most consider Manhattan to be the stand-in city for Gotham. Chicago works to greater effect here, however, as spatial elements tend to alienate our players rather than hold them atop each other during the action.
Of course a few small details may not work to the fullest. Katie Holmes, the lack of focus on the side of the villain (Cillian Murphy is serviceable as Scarecrow, intent on polluting Gotham's air with poisonous gas. But still, nothing sticks on the villain side.), and the infamous "bat voice." But in defense of the latter, I understood from the beginning what Bale and Nolan were doing with the Bat-voice. I think most people understand the point now, but in 2005 it was a little jarring. Nevertheless, Batman Begins is a great start to what will undoubtedly be a great trilogy.