Face-Off: The Dark Knight vs. The Empire Strikes Back

Welcome back, fetishizers of celluloid, to Joblo's ultimate rumble in the prop jungle, Face-Off. Last week compared Hollywood heartthrobs Ryan Reynolds and Ryan Gosling, with Gosling losing the bout to the bipedal husky. Word is that Reynolds is still partying in good ol' Canada, while Gosling (also Canadian) has been exiled on a block of ice. But such is the nature of Face-Off.

This week though we have a special showdown, one everyone has mulled over in their head but dared not imagine into being. Today we offer you a clash of nerdom the likes of which you’ve never witnessed before, and will be unable to take your eyes off. The time has come to pit what are considered two of the greatest sequels ever made, and remain titans in their franchises. I am of course talking about EMPIRE STRIKES BACKand THE DARK KNIGHT.

The former, the much-anticipated sequel to the phenomenon that was NEW HOPE, was able to not only meet the expectations of its predecessor but soar over them like the Millennium Falcon. The latter showed the heights to which the comic book genre could soar, proving that Christopher Nolan’s revitalization of Batman in BATMAN BEGINS was no fluke. The result is what many still consider the greatest comic book movie of all time.

Both are legends in regards to what can be done when a sequel is given the appropriate treatment. That being said, even though we like to compare movies purely as standalone films in this game of champions, there will be a category that critiques the movies as sequels (Improvement on Predecessor). The rest of the categories exist to judge the movie on its own merits as a standalone film. Still, in that regard, comparisons to their predecessors will be unavoidable.

Now that we have the rules (plus, as always, no touching of the hair or face) let us begin the duel to end all duels!

Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman
Heath Ledger as The Joker
Michael Caine as Alfred Pennyworth
Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent/Two-Face
Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes
Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox
Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon
Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker
Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia
Harrison Ford as Han Solo
David Prowse as Darth Vader
James Earl Jones as the voice of Darth Vader
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca
Anthony Daniels as C-3PO
Kenny Baker as R2-D2
Frank Oz as Yoda
Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian
Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi
Christopher Nolan had been making a name for himself with psychologically complex thrillers like MEMENTO and INSOMNIA by the time he got the gig to helm BATMAN BEGINS, but with the DARK KNIGHT he was strapped onto a rocket and has been propelling to heights unknown ever since. With KNIGHT he proved what a comic book movie can be: meditative, complex, intense, richly-acted and still a spectacle movie at the same time. It’s hard to imagine anyone but him pulling that off, a feat none have been able to replicate.
Irvin Kershner is…yeah. Look, EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is a tremendous feat of a film but it’s difficult to call this movie his own. His style as a small-scale director, working in character-driven pieces, shines through in EMPIRE as the character work is the best in the saga. However, George Lucas’ influence is felt all over the place in the film, and Kershner has done little of merit ever since. His most notable movie is the 1990 sequel to ROBOCOP, ROBOCOP 2. Yeah, his rocket has had some trouble taking off.
Hans Zimmer has given us what will most likely be his greatest work. Methodical and intricate all before thunderous orchestra crescendos the music into an adrenaline pumping anthem of Bat badassery. The score has gone on to define Zimmer’s sound in most of his projects after KNIGHT, and much like the movie itself the score delivered us something we had never heard before in the genre.
How can you not give John Williams the point? The man is the composer for the lives of millions of people, and his crowning achievement is easily the STAR WARS music. Though there’s plenty in this movie that can be heard in NEW HOPE, Williams proves he knows how to punctuate a moment with ethereal, emotional themes during pivotal moments, like when Yoda levitates the X-Wing from the bog, or when Han is sent into the carbon freezer, or at the very end as Luke, Leia and the droids stare out into space. This man deserves all our love.
TDK has some pretty stunning special effects, making as much use of practical tricks as possible. Some notable scenes include the amazing car chase through Gotham involving semi-trucks, armored cars, the Batmobile and the epic Batpod. However, you can tell Nolan was going for a more grounded and realistic film, so action sort of comes second to character moments.
Kicking the ground-breaking visual effects work of the original STAR WARS up a notch, EMPIRE is nothing short of a visual marvel. From the ice planet Hoth, the battle that ensues on it, the picturesque Cloud City and the lightsaber duel between Vader and Luke all make up for a rousing sci-fi adventure film featuring effects that look as marvelous today as they ever have.
After breaking into the scene as Gotham’s number one vigilante, Batman/Bruce Wayne (Bale) is trying to deal with the mob (and copycats in hockey masks) and is looking for other ways to end crime in the city for good, as he is unsure if he can keep up his act as the Batman. In comes hot-shot DEA Harvey Dent (Eckhart) who can clean Gotham’s streets without wearing a mask. But then out of nowhere a new threat emerges in The Joker, a madman with makeup who threatens to tear down the establishment and prove to everyone that good men can turn cruel. The Bat must stop the clown and save the soul of Gotham’s White Knight, and potentially his own, in what becomes a tremendous crime story and a taut action thriller.
After blowing up the Death Star, the Rebellion seems to be on a winning streak against the Empire. But the baddies do what the title suggests and strike back in full force, sending Han, Leia, the C-3PO and Chewey on the run, while Luke is off training with master Yoda on Dagobah. During these trying times Han and Leia grow closer as their feelings pour open for each other to see, while Luke has to confront the demons that exist within him all before a rousing climax against the evil Lord Vader.
Oh, The Joker. We will never see a villain or performance like this ever again for reasons more than the tragic death of actor Heath Ledger. The character is darkly comic, unpredictable and stunningly fleshed-out as the ultimate the antagonist. But above all he is maddeningly irresistible. You can’t take your eyes off his aggressive gaze or haunting makeup as he chews up the scenery and owns the room. Ledger completely embodied the character and stands as the only actor ever to win an Oscar for a comic book movie. Even if the character didn’t exist in the comics, The Joker of THE DARK KNIGHT would still stand as one of the greatest villains…ever!
We still have one movie to go before the Emperor really starts to shine, so in EMPIRE Vader is still the main villain. Here he is still as imposing and menacing as ever, but he doesn’t evolve as much as the protagonists. By the end he is given much more dimension, but aside from having some cool new character moments (no helmet!) he doesn't have as much to do outside of chocking people. But, let's face it, he does that better than anyone.

“What doesn’t kill you makes you…stranger.”

“I’m not wearing a hockey mask.”

“You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

“If you’re good at something never do it for free.”

“Some men just wanna watch the world burn.”

“Someone knows where he is!”

“You wanna know how I got these scars?”

“Joker: A little fight in ya. I like that!” Batman: Then you’re gonna love me.”

“Very poor choice of words.”


“Tonight you’re gonna break your one rule.”

“No…no you’re not…not yet.”

"Gotham deserves a better class of criminal. And I'm gonna give it to em'”

“Everything burns.”

“I’m like a dog chasing cars.”

“Maddness is like gravity: all it needs is a little push.”

“He’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now.”

Best line: “Why so serious?”

Bonus: “Should do fine against cats”

“You will go to the Dagobah system”

“I thought they smelled bad on the outside.”

“Laugh it up, Fuzzball.”

“Why, you stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herder!"

“You have failed me for the last time, Admiral.”

“Never tell me the odds.”

“Help you I can, yes.”

“Search your feelings, Lord Vader. You know it to be true.”

“You will be…you will be.”

“Unlearn what you have learned.”

“Try not! Do or do not…there is no try!”

“Size matters not.”

“Leia: I love you. Han: I know”

“Don’t give in to hate. It is a path to the dark side.”
“All too easy”

“That’s not ture! That’s impossible!”

Best line: “No…I am your father!”

Bonus: “Mine! Mine! Mine!”

Meet The Joker.

Batman does a superhero landing on a van.

The Joker addresses the mob/magic trick.

You Know How I got These Scars? Part I.

Batman breaks in the new suit in China.

Party Crasher Joker.

You Know How I got These Scars? Part II.

Jim Gordon “dies”.



“HIT ME!!!”

Joker claps for Gordon.

Interrogation scene.

“How many of your friends have I killed?” bit.

Meet Two-Face.

Joker blows up a hospital.

A Tale of Two Boats.

The Demise of Harvey Dent.

The Dark Knight rides into the night.

The Wampa (space Yeti) attacks Luke.

Luke kills Wampa (space Yeti).

Han cuts open a Ton-Ton.

Leia kisses her brother. Oh that part wasn’t supposed to come yet.

Battle on Hoth.

Trip the bastards!

Vader’s head exposed

Taking shelter in an asteroid cave a.k.a. a space worm’s mouth.

Meet Yoda.

Luke confronts Vader on Dagobah, turns out it's him. Mind= blown!

Luke fails to levitate the X-Wing.

Yoda shows him how it’s done.

Vader’s brunch on Cloud City.

Han is put into carbo freeze. I know!!

uke and Vader duel.

Bye, bye, Luke’s hand.

Final shot in front of a spinning galaxy.
Rotten Tomatoes: 94% (Audience Score: 94%)
IMDB: 9.0 (#4 of all time)
Metacritic: 81 (User Score: 8.9)

2 Oscars (Sound Editing, Best Supporting Actor – Heath Ledger), 8 nominations

1 Golden Globe (Supporting Actor)

1 BAFTA (you know which), 9 nominations

2 SAG awards (again, and Best Stunt Ensemble)

AFI Top Ten Movie of the Year
Rotten Tomatoes: 94% (Audience Score: 97%)
IMDB: 8.8 (#12 of all time)
Metacritic: 81 (User Score: 9)

1 Oscar (Sound), a special award for visual effects, and 3 nominations

1 Globe nomination (Original Score – John Williams)

1 BAFTA (Score), 3 nominations
DARK KNIGHT delivers the goods as a Batman movie with plenty of characters from the comics fully realized here, offering us the best cinematic takes on them yet. But Nolan never seemed interested in making a “comic book movie” for die-hard fans, trying to portray the characters as realistic, plausible figures. Dorks and dweebs love it as a Batman movie all the same, but it could easily live on as a tremendous crime thriller that just so happens to have Batman in it.
This is not just a STAR WARS movie, but considered the best STAR WARS movie by many. STAR WARS took nerd culture to a new level, so by the laws of hierarchy EMPIRE STRIKES BACK stands as king of the highest nerd level. Quotes have been plastered on everything from hats to condoms (probably), and dweebs and geeks everywhere have found a sage in Master Yoda. What more is there to say?
BATMAN BEGINS brought the Bat back from the dead after Joel Schumacher took the series out into a windowless shed and did unspeakable things to it. Nolan and his team treated the character not like a pop culture figure but as a human being who could really exist in this world. The result was the most mature superhero movie to date and a welcome return for the beloved Batman. But then THE DARK KNIGHT came out and made that movie look like SPIDER-MAN 3. KNIGHT not only explored Gotham more, but what tolls being a hero takes and how hard it is to resist the trap falls of becoming a villain. Perfectly symbolized in the arcs of Batman, Dent and Joker, KNIGHT took “bigger and better” to mean characterization and story, not just scope and effects. If BATMAN BEGINS set the stage, then THE DARK KNIGHT is like Ian McKellen as performing Richard III just for you.
Living up to the enormous standards set by the first STAR WARS movie could not have been easy, but EMPIRE did it in legendary fashion. The effects were better, the acting was improved, the stakes were higher, the relationships deepened and the characters grew. Granted, the movie is much more contained to the characters than the pure awe-inspiring, world-building of NEW HOPE and in a way feels smaller in scope, but it uses that to its advantage by letting the characters grow naturally. Even though tons of fans see it as the best of the bunch, it will always be a STAR WARS movie, and to many there's no topping the original.
The winner of this bout was not decided easily. Both are masterpieces in their own right and deserve their place in the cinematic limelight. They're absolute marvels of filmmaking and it’s no wonder people are still falling with in love with them after years in existence. If EMPIRE loses this matchup it’s not because of being a lesser film, per se, but because THE DARK KNIGHT just works better as its own movie. The story is more layered, the whole cast is on point, and the villain is as absorbing as he is terrifying. And even though EMPIRE got the win when it comes to classic moments and quotes, TDK is no slouch when it comes to offering a bevy of immortal cinematic moments. But most of all, it proved a sequel can be both a continuation of something we’ve seen and something completely unique unto itself. With it we have a blockbuster that can be both enjoyed on a pure, unabashed level and something that can be analyzed in film classes for decades. EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is terrific on so many levels, I grant you, but THE DARK KNIGHT did a better job of transcending its source material to become not just a fantastic Batman movie, but a gobsmacking cinematic landmark.

Which is your favorite?




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