The Batman vs. The Dark Knight Trilogy: What Are the Differences?

We compare Matt Reeves’ The Batman with Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy in hopes of determining which we prefer.

The Batman vs The Dark Knight with Robert Pattinson and Christian Bale
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

This article contains many The Batman spoilers.

When Matt ReevesThe Batman was first publicly announced—and really right up until the trailers dropped—a common refrain could be heard from longtime fans and casual moviegoers alike: “Do we really need another Batman movie? Is there anything left to say about this character after Christopher Nolan?”

The question is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it preemptively puts the onus on Reeves, Robert Pattinson, and all the rest to justify their film by being emphatically different from the generally liked The Dark Knight Trilogy. Yet at the same time, it also seems to suggest audiences want to put the character into a box shaped exactly like the one Nolan used, particularly in his second Batman movie, The Dark Knight (2008).

So it’s some kind of testament to The Batman that this far into its rollout, the movie’s largely won over scores of critics and new fans. To be sure, with its gritty and stripped down aesthetic, it very much echoes Nolan’s approach of trying to persuade the audience that “this is what would happen if Batman was real.” Neither movie is actually grounded in reality—both feature men jumping off skyscrapers and using implausible technology to not break every bone in their body! Nonetheless, each relies on increasing levels of grimness to underwrite this illusion.

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We even suspect that with its plot featuring a Riddler who terrorizes the city through a string of murders that include the city’s mayor, police commissioner, and district attorney—not wholly unlike the Joker’s targets in The Dark Knight—that The Batman is very much the movie Warner Bros. is rumored to have pressured Nolan to make in 2009 for his threequel. The same thing, but different.

Even so, there are striking differences between Pattinson and Christian Bale’s interpretation of the Batman archetype, and between one filmmaker’s vision for this franchise and the other’s. These contrasts vary between the subtle and overt, the superficial and significant. But cumulatively they present two ultimately different animals that stand enough apart for fans to surely study and debate their preferences for years to come. Here are a few of the key differences.

Robert Pattinson versus Christian BAle as Bruce Wayne

Bruce Wayne, aka The Batman

The most obvious diversions between the two Batman franchises is the Dark Knight himself: Bruce Wayne, the wayward Prince of Gotham.

Despite press comments to the contrary, the setting of The Batman is something we’ve seen before. Shortly after beginning his career as the Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne is in his second year as Gotham’s morally righteous vigilante and has established a relatively uneasy rapport with the GCPD. This is more or less the setup of The Dark Knight, which at most takes place 18 months into Batman’s career. However, why Bale’s Bruce Wayne became Batman, and how he goes about it, is wildly distanced from Pattinson.

In a few respects, Bale is closer to the classic comic book representation of Bruce Wayne in that his Bruce seems morally and mentally better centered. Both Batman Begins and The Batman’s title characters have a rage bubbling beneath the surface when they put on the mask, which lets them unleash a certain degree of their id, however Bale’s Bruce spends more time out of the mask than in it during all three of his Batman movies. That’s because he has a grander design for his mission, which he helpfully clarifies via his thesis statement in Begins.

“People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy,” the Bale-Bat says. “As a man, I’m flesh and blood, I can be ignored, I can be destroyed. But as a symbol, as a symbol I can be incorruptible.”

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On one level, Nolan is introducing the idea of Batman as being something of a political campaign or even a form of psychological warfare. By becoming a Jungian archetype, Bruce will terrify criminals by his mere shadowy existence and inspire the good people in Gotham to take back the city from corruption, including (or especially) among the police and halls of power. That’s not quite like the comics–where the literary Bruce is rarely in search of the day he’ll no longer need a cape–but it speaks to a nobler and grand vision for his war on crime. He’s doing it to help other people.

By contrast, Pattinson’s Batman doesn’t particularly have a larger plan. In fact, more than any version of the character we’ve seen on-screen before, he is entirely broken and devoid of hope. There are no smiles from Pattinson, or a wary sense of camaraderie between him and Andy Serkis’ Alfred. This is a very traumatized and emotionally stunted man who, when he takes off his mask, still has Batman’s thousand-yard stare… only it’s become sadder because it lost its caped purpose.

There’s no larger ambition until the closing minutes of The Batman for Pattinson’s version of the character. He simply becomes Batman to fill a void. Bale’s Bruce did too, but he tried to channel that into essentially a civic project. Pattinson’s Bruce only is satisfying his own hang-ups alone for the first two and a half hours, hence answering to the name “Vengeance.” That isn’t even just a come-on either with criminals since he lets that be his signifier with even his prospective lover, Selina Kyle.

There’s a moral simplicity to this Bruce, which in turn fuels his misery as a character so blinded by his rage and absolutism. He’s completely shut himself off.

It’s for that reason the eccentric playboy persona that Bruce Wayne normally wears in public in the comics is entirely abandoned (at least for now). While Bale’s Bruce makes it a top priority to reclaim ownership of his family’s company as soon as he returns from a self-imposed exile, Pattinson’s Bruce couldn’t care less about Wayne Enterprises.

Both are entirely credible interpretations of the character, although we personally prefer the one with a little more self-awareness that better resembles the heroic aspects of the character in most comics. With that said, there’s another area where they differ and Pattinson is closer to the source material…

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How the Batman Operates

If the Nolan version of Batman is a social project meant to inspire change, then it’s one built by an entire community of benefactors. In Batman Begins and onward, it really does take a village.

It was thus Nolan and David Goyer’s scripting innovation that introduced the now popular idea of Lucius Fox (played by Morgan Freeman in those movies) as being the proverbial Q to Bruce’s James Bond, providing him with gadgets and corporate cover for raiding Wayne Enterprises’ R&D Department for crime fighting gizmos.

Similarly, Nolan portrays the Batman as being much more reliant on allies in public. Both versions of Batman lean somewhat on their connection with James Gordon (Gary Oldman), but the Bale Batman relies on Gordon and the (highly) flawed Gotham police force to help save the day in the climax of all three films. He also coordinates heavily with the district attorney’s office via Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes/Maggie Gyllenhaal) and later Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). There is even the background of how he became Batman in Batman Begins where we glimpsed Bruce travel the world and build the idea of Batman through various adventures, including training with the League of Shadows, a ninja terrorist cult.

Pattinson’s Batman is far more isolated but, in its own way, closer to the comic book source material’s methodology for the character. There is no Lucius, no D.A.s he can trust, and no League of Shadows apprenticeship. It’s revealed that, basically, his Alfred (Andy Serkis) trained him to fight from a young age to fill the hole left by the death of his parents.

That isolation also makes him a character depicted as far more self-reliant, including on crime solving. While there are vignettes and montages in both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight of Batman sneaking around Gotham in disguises or solving small mysteries about bullet holes, typically he relies on Gordon or Alfred (Michael Caine) to fill him in on intelligence before doing something visually spectacular to save the day.

In terms of spectacle, this often includes Nolan filming some supremely satisfying chase sequences in IMAX photography (although the one in 35mm in Begins is still pretty awesome). Pattinson’s Batman is much more low-key. His costume is certainly a lot more mobile–and Reeves thereby films it a lot better for fight scenes in joyfully brutal tracking shots–but the fights and chases are few and far between. In fact, Pattinson’s Batman is often filmed like the creature in a monster movie, emerging from shadows in Gothic grandeur, as opposed to Nolan’s more mythically heroic iconography around Bale’s stiffer suits.

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And despite being better at fisticuffs, Pattinson’s Batman prefers the shadows, leaning on Gordon sporadically while investigating each lead into the crime. He’s a detective who gets his freak on in a throwdown. Frankly, that sounds very Batman to us, even if we have to wait until the very climax for anyone (including the camera) to look at him with awe.

Andy Serkis vs Michael Caine as Alfred in Batman

Alfred and the Waynes

One final key difference in just the individual depiction of Batman is the world he comes from. The legacy of Thomas and Martha Wayne, and Bruce’s fractured childhood, weighs heavily on both the Nolan and Reeves interpretations of these characters. And, perhaps ironically, the filmmaker often cited as being cold or clinical presents a warmer and more wistful vision for the brooding hero.

In The Dark Knight Trilogy, Michael Caine’s Alfred became arguably the definitive interpretation of the character. Gone is the proper and posh English butler of the original comics (and so perfectly played by Michael Gough in the original Batman cycle of movies), and in comes the implied retired adventurer and soldier of fortune. Nolan has suggested Caine’s Alfred might’ve been a graying variation on Caine’s character in movies like The Man Who Would Be King, an idea The Dark Knight hints at when Alfred discloses that he was working as a mercenary in Burma when he was chasing a “bandit” and tangerine-sized rubies. Seriously, what was that, again?!

This was part of the transition the Alfred character has also undergone on the comic book page to be more of an aged badass. Nevertheless, Caine’s Alfred still performed the original comic book function of being both Batman’s confidant and also his surrogate father figure after the Waynes’ murders. In fact, Caine’s Alfred speaks to Bruce far more like a father than a valet, including when he admonishes Bruce for disgracing the Wayne name in Begins and gives him even tougher love during a failed intervention in The Dark Knight Rises.

Serkis’ Alfred is actually one of the more underdeveloped elements of The Batman, perhaps by design. We learned that like Caine (and many other recent Alfreds), he was some kind of a military personnel back in the day and trained Bruce in combat. In The Batman, he’s both Bruce’s butler and sensei. But he isn’t his father, which Pattinson’s Bruce even says in one of their first scenes together, rebuking Alfred for feigning even a hint of paternal instinct around him.

That carries over to after Alfred is nearly killed by a bomb in The Batman. Even after a life and death experience, Alfred cannot help but admit he didn’t know how to raise Bruce except through violence, which is why he kept a larger secret about the Waynes from him.

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Indeed, it is the story of Thomas Wayne that perhaps most exposes this rupture in viewpoints on this mythology. In Batman Begins, Thomas Wayne (Linus Roache) is the city’s benevolent father; a man who’s both a top doctor and philanthropist, using his fortune to build a private and (incredulously) free public transit system via Gotham’s elevated rails. He was a literal martyr for the city when his and Martha’s death “shocked the wealthy” into investing enough in the local economy and combat a depression.

Conversely, the Thomas Wayne briefly seen in archival footage in The Batman is every bit as flawed and corruptible as many of the shady public figures the Batman winds up investigating the murders of. As it’s eventually revealed, Thomas Wayne went to a mobster named Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) to ask him to “scare” a journalist because of a story about Martha having mental health issues (uh oh, Bruce). Instead Falcone murdered him.

Thomas was a two-faced politician who was implicated in a murder before his own death. Even if he had regrets, and didn’t think Falcone would kill the guy, that’s murky enough. Worse, and perhaps more realistically, his attempt to “save Gotham” like Begins’ Thomas, ended up being a slush fund for the mafia. Before his death Thomas donated $1 billion into a “renewal fund” that never actually went to improving the city’s infrastructure or public works.

In this way, The Batman is an indictment on Bruce Wayne’s privilege and wealth. Zoë Kravitz’s Selina even spells it out at one point in the movie that when Bruce says a friend of hers made “bad choices” that he talks like someone who came from money.

Bale’s Bruce claims he “learned much” about naive aspects of right and wrong  by living on the streets in Begins. But Nolan largely skirts the character’s supreme privilege by portraying his family as saintly. The Batman shows how even the best intentions can be corrupted and, again, suggests its hero’s absolutist worldview is flawed, out of touch, and perhaps doomed. Selina is the wise one between the two.

Jeffrey Wright and Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon in Batman movies

Gotham City and Its Relationship with Batman

Speaking of Gotham corruption, there’s the depiction of the city itself. The Gotham in The Dark Knight Trilogy intentionally tried to get away from the city existing as an almost feudal city-state out of a fairytale, a la the original Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher Batman movies. Nolan said multiple times in the press he wanted Gotham to be an “international city” in the same way that New York City or London is perceived.

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For that reason, in The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises particularly, Gotham eschews the decaying art deco grandeur popularized by Burton-directed Batman movies and looks, essentially, like a modern American city. It’s place is also contextualized in the world with the city being a source of fascination in distant lands via the League of Shadows terrorist cell, and by Gotham’s problems extending to other corners of the earth, such as when Batman must fly to Hong Kong to extradite a mob accountant through illegal methods after he flees the U.S.

Also for these reasons, Gotham increasingly moves away with each film from the hopelessly corrupt hellhole in the comics to a city with… hope! It has the capacity for change and urban renewal. Presumably after the events of Rises, the Narrows would even get its own little artisanal mayonnaise shops for gentrifying hipsters.

The Gotham in The Batman, however, is a much more operatic, and doomed, land. Once again Gotham is an island where the affairs of the world beyond matter not at all.

Like Begins, Reeves’ movie opens at a moment when the city is in a beleaguered state due to crime, but there’s also a more visceral sense of despair on display in this regard, pulling from a cinematic vernacular of doom and gloom. This can be viewed aesthetically from how Orwellian Gotham’s version of Times Square looks in the rain during opening moments to how that Se7en-esque precipitation is relentless throughout a movie more keen to film location shoots in Glasgow than Chicago.

Even the imposing Gothic menace of Bruce’s wealth is depicted as menacing in its Gothic splendor. When he and Alfred sit down for breakfast the arches above their heads appear like the Gilded Age’s vision of decadent hell.

Paul Dano as the Riddler versus Heath Ledger as the Joker in Batman

The Villains

One of the things that is most popular to talk about after watching a superhero movie (at least a good one) is the depiction of the villains. And it’s fair to speculate that no superhero franchise has ever taken that ethos more to heart than Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy.

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Like Reeves’ The Batman, Nolan wanted his bad guys to feel “realistic” to audiences (which is to say compelling enough to be scary). But he and his team strove for most of them to be compelling entertainers. This is never more true than in Heath Ledger’s Joker, whose crimes mirrored real atrocities in the American public consciousness in the 2000s—random acts of shooting violence, executing someone on tape and sending it to the press, political assassination—but Ledger’s Joker carried himself with the airs of a rock star. Seriously, his voice is modeled after Tom Waits.

The character was also one in a long line of Nolan’s villains who were largely modeled after 21st century existential anxieties in the West. Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) is a bearded zealot who hangs out in a proverbial cave scheming to attack an American city; Joker is the lone gunman who “just wants to watch the world burn” when he blows up a hospital; and Bane (Tom Hardy) leads a paramilitary group of fanatics and malcontents to overthrow civic institutions by force (after Jan. 6, 2021, the latter looks a lot more prescient in retrospect).

All three are labeled as “terrorists” in their movies, and all three dabble in post-9/11 and Iraq War imagery. Yet those ideas are being channeled into movies meant to be epic spectacles and action movie crowdpleasers.

Reeves would seem to stand apart by taking the “reality” of the villain to a greater extreme, even if he eschewed Nolan’s preference for topicality. Paul Dano’s Riddler is patterned pretty heavily on the Zodiac Killer, a serial killer who was never caught after terrorizing northern California from at least 1968 to 1974. While the Riddler’s costume is also inspired by the Hush character in Batman comics, and several other influences, the mask most clearly mimics the attire the Zodiac wore during at least one attack, as do Riddler’s glasses.

In this way, the villains in The Batman attempt to step away from the “coolness” and theatrical factor that was omnipresent in the Nolan movies. There’s a similar intentionally unappealing quality to Colin Farrell’s Penguin. While he’s allowed to go a lot bigger than Dano, chewing the scenery in every scene, Farrell’s Penguin is depicted as more of a pathetic character—a low level guy in a mob movie who might be a recurring sad sack going forward. Aye, unlike the Nolan films which seemed intent on offering “definitive” interpretations of each character for every film—hence no cliffhanger for Harvey Dent—The Batman is intent on building a sprawling shared universe where familiar faces will recur again and again, including Riddler and Penguin.

With that said, personally, we think Reeves is forced to undercut the grimness of his intimate portrayal of the Riddler several times throughout the movie—often in what feels like studio notes asking for The Batman to replicate the Nolan films. This begins with the Riddler suddenly sending into the media videos of him torturing police commissioners, which look as much like a scene out of Saw as The Dark Knight. Either way, it’s tonally discordant with most of the character’s other scenes.

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The end of the movie multiplies this in a variation on a scene where Bale’s Batman interrogates Ledger’s Joker, and learns the villain planned to get caught and the tables have turned. By this point, Dano’s Riddler is revealed to be a truly pathetic, if hardly pitiful, character when the mask comes off. In some ways, he even more resembles the archetypal lone shooter than the Joker, as he admits to hanging out with incel types on the dark web where they plan a scene of carnage that’ll kill hundreds in a mass shooting.

It’s a disquieting idea, but its dread is ill-served since the setup requires Riddler engineering a plan to “flood Gotham City” by blowing up the city’s levees. While based on an event that occurred in Batman: Zero Year, the sequence essentially plays like the climax to one of Nolan’s movies, and given the more small scale and even greater degree of “realism” applied to the Riddler, for him to suddenly create an existential threat to the city plays like a scene from another movie—Nolan’s.

Zoe Kravitz vs Anne Hathaway as Catwoman


There are villains, and there are villains. And then there’s Catwoman. Despite being introduced as one of Batman’s earliest rogues on the comic page in 1940, both The Dark Knight Rises and The Batman take a page out of modern comics by depicting this character as more of an antiheroine and even ally, as opposed to a genuine foe.

In fact, there are many similarities between Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle and the one played by Kravitz, right down to each being heavily influenced by the graphic novel Batman: Year One. They each live on the sketchier side of town with a roommate they’re personally close with, they both have a wary cynicism toward the wealth and privilege of Bruce Wayne, they’re equally ready to blow this berg, and each winds up riding on a motorcycle to help Batman save the day.

Perhaps the key difference between the characters is where they are in their criminal careers, and, frankly, how much more room Kravitz is allowed to build the character up over her three-hour movie.

The Hathaway Catwoman is already a master thief when she’s introduced, the modern comic book Catwoman in all but name (her alias within the film is simply “The Cat.”). She wears high-tech equipment after years on the job—including a questionable use of razor-edged stiletto heels—and it’s heavily implied she even was inspired to take on the theatricality of her appearance by growing up as a fan of the Batman vigilante (she can be seen visibly geeking out to herself while riding in his “The Bat” plane). However, she has a jaded worldliness to her from the word go, infiltrating high society like the original Catwoman character did in Batman #1 (1940). Hathaway even modeled the character’s measured, breathy line delivery after early femme fatale movie star Hedy Lamarr (a noted inspiration for the comic book character’s creation).

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Yet in a movie with as many balls in the air as Rises, her scenes to really develop a rapport with Bale’s protagonist are relatively few and cut short, although they have an amusing antagonistic flirtation. Whether that explains retiring together to Italy is another matter…

The Catwoman played by Kravitz, like Riddler, feels even more grounded in something approaching our perception of reality than Nolan/Hathaway’s take. She has no fancy goggles or perfectly combed hair while breaking into fancy security systems. She wears a motorcycle suit and a ski mask with little ears added for fun. She also hasn’t become the master thief. She apparently has some experience with breaking and entering, but she’s primarily a young woman with vengeance on her mind (sounds familiar) working against a father who forgot she existed.

She is more a woman trying to survive living on the shadier side of Gotham City than being either a supervillain or super antihero. And her dynamic with Pattinson’s Bruce is much better developed given Kravitz and Pattinson have a lot more scenes to play off each other and to even collaborate in meaningful ways, such as when she goes undercover with Batman’s voice in her ears and contact lenses that act as a camera. Audiences, and Batman, are literally forced to see the world through her eyes.

Their attraction has a lot more space to develop, including the realization that this Catwoman is the sane one of the pair. Whereas Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman (from a whole other Bat-franchise) was depicted as righteously nuts, and Hathaway’s was depicted as amorous and actually in need of seeing things from the rich man’s point-of-view, Kravitz’s Selina sees the world for what it really is, and Pattinson’s Batman is a bit of a prig who needs to come down off his high horse.

She sees Thomas Wayne for the rich asshole he was before Bruce ever could, and gets Bruce to come out of his shell and actually care about helping other people—like her friend who Falcone wants dead—as opposed to only soothing his pain by beating up criminals.

Also, their chemistry is bananas.

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Noir vs. Epics

Ultimately, the question remains: What is a better interpretation of the character, and which is perhaps just more enjoyable? Truthfully, it is a difference of aesthetic choice, as well as genre approach. For most of its running time, The Batman is a neo-noir obsessed with a sprawling murder mystery; The Dark Knight Trilogy is a collection of several genres, all of them on an epic stage: a traditional superhero origin story (Begins), a crime thriller (The Dark Knight), and finally a pseudo-war melodrama in superhero drag (Rises). All of them are made to emphasize scale and spectacle in epic proportions.

That means the action sequences (that do not involve a physically limited Batsuit) are grandiose in presentation in Nolan’s movies, with the latter two basking in IMAX photography. Most of the action scenes in the three-hour The Batman feel almost incidental by comparison, added to justify the film’s budget. It’s the difference between Bale’s Batman driving a fully functional military vehicle/sports car hybrid, and Pattinson just driving a muscle car with some fins added on.

The Batman is a film in which an incredibly flawed protagonist realizes his parents’ legacy is a lie, many of the stories he’s been told about his city are lies, and that this murderous daughter of a crime lord has a better understanding of the world than him. To convey that story, the tone is uniformly grim and relentless, mimicking the dourness of neo-noirs where the hero outright loses, a la Seven or Chinatown.

Nolan’s Batman movies wanted to act as allegories about the state of the world they were made in, tackling questions about the use of torture in wartime, unconstitutional spying on citizens, and the class differences that can destabilize society in comic book wrappings. But he still wanted to tell accessible and commercial adventure movies. His movies also have a wider range of emotion. There is genuine humor and affection between Bale’s Bruce and Caine’s Alfred, as well as with Fox and Gordon.

The overriding tonal consistency of The Batman for almost two and a half hours is despair and disillusionment–at least until the climax when Pattinson’s Batman suddenly (and perhaps a little jarringly) becomes a literal ray of light who will lead his city over troubled waters.

Then again, we’ve seen Nolan’s overarching vision for Batman with a character’s journey that included birth, struggle, triumph, and retirement. Despite claims about it not being an origin story, Pattinson’s Batman only really begins in the movie’s closing moments when he realizes he is the ray of light everyone talked about in the Nolan movies. And it took Bale’s Batman three movies to come out into the light of day at the end of Rises. Pattinson’s Batman is already there at the end of The Batman.

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In other words, there’s a lot more room for Reeves and Pattinson to take this character even further afield from what we’ve already seen. And while we obviously have our preferences in these comparisons, this Batman’s book has yet to be really written

So those are our thoughts and preferences, but what are yours?

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