As we can’t help but be aware, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, the final chapter of the wildly popular Batman movies starring Christian Bale, opens this weekend. Batman Begins was an excellent film, and The Dark Knight was even better. With that kind of legacy, plus the anticipation of fans worldwide, is it even possible for Rises to satisfy? People everywhere have their own idea of what the end of saga should be, but is this fair? Are we all just setting ourselves up for disappointment? The curse of success and anticipation has claimed the third part of lesser film trilogies; will The Dark Knight Rises be able to overcome these inherent challenges, or will it be just another in a string of movies people wish were different?
The problem with a lot of movies these days is that the cinema-going public is easily disappointed, and very vocal about it. Far too often people will review a highly-anticipated film using the words “it wasn’t what I expected,” or, far more troubling, “it wasn’t what I wanted it to be.” Apparently, people want the films they watch to exactly follow the formula they’ve concocted in their head. In this way, can any film be satisfying? People have been hotly anticipating The Dark Knight Rises since the closing credits began in The Dark Knight, and that was four years ago. Barack Obama wasn’t even president when people started thinking about what the third part of Nolan’s Batman saga would be. People always bring their expectations into a movie, but it seems less and less likely that the fan’s brain will allow what the film is to dictate their enjoyment and not their own sense of what the film “should” be.
That’s quite a hurtle for any film to overcome. Batman Begins in 2005 was an astonishing, realistic portrayal of Gotham City’s obsessed savior. It was a fantastic superhero movie. The Dark Knight in 2008 became a genre-defying global sensation, playing with the Caped Crusader’s world and turning it into a gritty cop drama with massive action set pieces and an Oscar-winning supporting performance by the late Heath Ledger. Most people are expecting a film as good or better than The Dark Knight, something that would become the third (now fourth) highest grossing film of all time and setting DVD and Blu-ray players alight for years afterward. If The Dark Knight Rises is only as good as Batman Begins, something any movie should hope to be, then it will likely be deemed let down.
This is a problem that befalls many trilogies, specifically in the superhero/sci-fi department. It’s very difficult to keep up the quality and intensity of two good films for the often obligatory third. I can’t think of any time I’ve been more disappointed in a movie theater than when I went to the midnight screening of Spider-Man 3 in 2007. Spider-Man had been a big, colorful “comic-booky” adventure, and its sequel offered a deeper look into the mind of a hero who no longer wants great power or great responsibility. Spider-Man 3 had too many plot threads, unconvincing character development, weak bad guys, and (I shudder even to remember it) an emo-Peter Parker doing a song-and-dance number. Things were going on behind the scenes, not the least of which being director Sam Raimi’s dislike of the character of Venom and the studio’s insistence that he include him, that lead to the film’s downfall, but this is entirely the point: sustaining a tone and quality through an entire series of films is incredibly difficult and often cannot be done.
Also brought to mind is the initial X-Men trilogy. The first X-Men, which really began the modern superhero trend, was not a perfect film, but it gave us a sense of how heroes without capes could be depicted. X2: X-Men United was, for a number of years, the high-water mark for superhero films, making a more well-rounded story and turning the characters more toward their comic book roots. After director Bryan Singer left the franchise to make Superman Returns (another ill-conceived outing), the X series got director Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand, which lacked the heart and focus of the first two and threw everything but the kitchen sink at the audience. While it wasn’t nearly as disappointing as Spider-Man 3, it was still a huge drop-off after the success and quality of the first two.
With The Dark Knight Rises, we have the opportunity to have a single, contained story with all the key players (Nolan, Bale, co-writer David Goyer, cinematographer Wally Pfister, etc) still in place since the beginning, and the same level of creative control given. It was Nolan’s idea to have Bane be the film’s main villain (a controversial choice), not the studio or fans pressuring him to do so. In this way, this series has the best chance of any to truly be an auteur’s superhero trilogy, something, as of yet, no single filmmaker has had the opportunity to make. And while history will likely maintain that The Dark Knight is the best entry, does that mean we should think lesser of Rises simply for being better?
If The Dark Knight Rises ends up actually being bad, like Spider-Man 3, I will be the first to tear it apart, but I suspect this won’t be the case. As of this writing, review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes has 46 reviews of the film, which doesn’t officially open until Thursday at midnight. Of those, six are negative, and the terms they all have in common are “disappointed,” “let-down,” and “measure up.” While the reviewers also take issue with the film’s length and scale, the very fact that they have allowed their own expectations temper their view of the film proves the level to which my point goes. As ideological as it might be, a film should succeed or fail on its own merits first and how it measures up to other films second. We have the rest of our film-watching life to compare The Dark Knight Rises to The Dark Knight, but for now, how about we just see if it’s a good film?