Debate Club: Which was more important: The Dark Knight or Jason Bourne?

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Dec 27, 2017

Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle both sides of the greatest arguments in pop culture.

In this installment, we're pitting two of this century's greatest franchises against one another. So what's your jam: the Dark Knight trilogy or the Jason Bourne trilogy? (Yeah, we know there were five Bourne movies, but let's just go with the first three for this exercise.)

THE CASE FOR THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY

"So, there's this guy, Christopher Nolan. Great director, made that movie Memento from a few years ago. Pretty cool film, right? Well, we're thinking he'd be perfect to reboot Batman. And to play Bruce Wayne, you know Christian Bale, right? The psychopath in American Psycho, yeah, exactly — we're gonna go with him…"

In hindsight, it really is crazy that Warner Bros. put the future of one of its most valuable properties in the hands of two men who didn't necessarily seem like comic-book super-fans. And maybe that made all the difference: Beyond everything else, Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) are simply great movies. Yes, they're filled with everything you'd want from a Batman film — action, thrills, romance, amazing villains — but they're always operating on a level beyond simple fan service.

Of all the lessons that the Dark Knight trilogy taught Hollywood, perhaps the most important was to be brave enough to push the envelope on beloved material. Without this trilogy, we wouldn't have the daring you see on display in the recent Planet of the Apes prequels — or the dazzling ambition of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. We live in a blockbuster, IP-driven movie world, but Nolan and Bale insisted that you could still make exciting, intelligent, deeply compelling and thoughtful films in such an environment. Hollywood has yet to recover from the tidal wave this trilogy unleashed.

 

THE CASE FOR THE BOURNE TRILOGY

In the same way The Dark Knight shook up the comic book film, the Bourne movies rattled the spy thriller … and even action movies in general. Director Paul Greengrass had made his name doing on-the-ground, hyper-realistic historical thrillers, which would make him seemingly an odd choice for a pulpy property like this one, but that's why he was perfect: What Jason Bourne needed was to feel real, and Greengrass specializes in real.

Sure, there might not be a lot of logical A-to-B-to-C in the Bourne fight scenes, but you know what? Real fights don't feel logical and structured either: They feel wild and confusing and chaotic. That's why Bourne felt like such a change: It was the thriller as documentary. They stripped away all the artificiality and made something raw and visceral, as famously exemplified by Matt Damon's ripped, wounded Jason Bourne. After the Bourne films, you wondered how we could ever take a James Bond movie seriously again. Turns out: They just turned the Bond movies into Bourne films.

THE CASE AGAINST THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY

A trilogy is exactly that: Three movies. But let's stop pretending: If the last Nolan Batman movie had been The Dark Knight, you'd have been OK with that, right? Sure, The Dark Knight Rises has its moments: Bane blowing up the city (those poor football fans!) is staggering still today, and Anne Hathaway is a lot better than you thought she'd be. But the final installment is undeniably a comedown from the heights of the epic second film, with some silly plotlines, strange character turns (what's Marion Cotillard doing in this?) and an ending that seems to sell out all that was great about the second film.

Also, Tom Hardy's Bane is muscular and formidable, but he's no Joker, and the film keeps hinting at Occupy Wall Street themes without ever quite committing to them. A perfect trilogy keeps building on itself, like the Bourne films did. The Dark Knight trilogy doesn't peter out. But it loses a ton of its steam.

THE CASE AGAINST THE BOURNE TRILOGY

The Bourne films came out at a time when America was grappling with a post-9/11 landscape of "enhanced interrogation" and increased surveillance, and the sequels — The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) — really reflect the culture's distrust of this new security state. But as politically conscious as these films were, it ultimately feels like lip-service to justify some pretty great action sequences. And by Ultimatum, the series' hallmarks were starting to feel like gimmicks. (Oh man, another handheld fight scene! Oh wow, here goes Bourne plowing through another crowded public place with no concern for innocent bystanders!)

The Dark Knight trilogy continued to explore what it meant to be Batman, offering new twists and dramatic nuance, while the Bourne films simply presented more and more information to back up what we already knew: Jason really got screwed by Uncle Sam.

 

DECISION

Here we have two game-changing franchises, each of them spectacular in their own right. But we're going to go with the Dark Knight trilogy. Maybe the series peaks with The Dark Knight, but we contend that Hollywood blockbusters themselves peaked with that movie. Almost ten years after its release, it's still the gold standard of intelligent, exciting, emotional summer epics.

As good as the Bourne films are, they can't match what Nolan and Bale conceived for Bruce Wayne. This trilogy has grandeur and scope — and yet, oddly enough, somehow it also feels more realistic and grounded than the Bourne films, even though there's nobody in those running around in a cape. And let's face it: Although Jason Bourne is a badass, he never had to face the Joker or Bane.

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.