The Dark Knight Trilogy Revisited

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With the release of Interstellar, Christopher Nolan came crashing back into the front of the public consciousness along with all the dialogue that follows.

Considered one of, if not the contemporary blockbuster auteur, Nolan’s chromatically washed-out, borderline deafening, thinkpiece extravaganzas always create discussion, chiefly between the enormity of their themes and action vs. their characters, pacing, and plotholes. No two of these movies exemplify this more than Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises.

The latter, considered the worst of Nolan’s movies, especially compared to the lauded Dark Knight (TDK), is by no means a bad movie, but the second to fall prey to the aforementioned “Nolanisms” (themes and action vs. character, pacing, and plotholes). While the exposition-heavy Inception, gets a pass from many by sheer virtue of its novelty and mind-bending metaphysical narrative, The Dark Knight Rises’ (Rises) heavy handed themes failed to save its padded, expositional script. However, Rises doesn’t exist in a vacuum. While much has been said about Nolan’s challenges entering production of Rises (http://badassdigest.com/2012/07/26/film-crit-hulk-smash-hulk-vs.-the-dark-knight-rises/), the movie’s shortcomings can be traced all the way back to Nolan’s first installment in what is now referred to as “The Dark Knight Trilogy.”

Appropriate.

1. The Evidence

Here, rather than get into a tedious recount of each movie, it’s much easier and much more effective to list what of the many things the three movies had in common and circle back around.

1. All three had Nolan’s signature monochrome palette: Batman Begins: brown; TDK: Blue; Rises: Black

2. All three are about dissolution of self. In Batman Begins, it’s becoming an ideal; in TDK, it’s compromising morality; in Rises, it’s atoning for and transcending one’s weaknesses

3. All three are about villains motivated by fear and chaos: In Batman Begins, the Scarecrow literally uses a fear gas on his victims while Ra’s Al Ghul hopes to use that gas to make Gotham’ inhabitants destroy themselves; in TDK, the Joker controls the city through fear and chaos, leading Two-Face to follow a life of chaos; in Rises, Bane & Talia bring Gotham City to chaos and ruin by inciting panic and fear in the upper class, Catwoman is terrified of her past catching up with her; and in all through movies, the mafia controls Gotham through fear alone.

4. The villains of all three believe humanity will tear itself out through fear and chaos: In Batman Begins, this is the whole of Ra’s Al Ghul’s plan; in TDK, this is Joker’s modus operandi; in Rises, Bane & Talia destabilize the city to enact this, purely to torment Batman, and Catwoman is controlled by Bane, in part, by fear.

5. All three feature a prison breakout and rule of prisoners: in Batman Begins, the prisoners escape from Arkham Asylum and roam the fear-toxin-clogged streets; in TDK, Arkham Asylum inmates are chief among Joker’s crew, along with a ship full of mutinous prisoners who factor into Joker’s endgame; in Rises, Bane’s army consists of freed criminals and the working class.

6. All three feature an assault of the lower and working class on the upper class: In Batman Begins, the impoverished literally killed Bruce Wayne’s family, are complicit in many mafia crimes, and are the principle adversaries in the Narrows; in TDK, Joker’s primary goal revolves around destabilizing the ruling government and authority figures to incite a state of anarchy; in Rises, Bane’s rhetoric and recruitment methods are 99% vs. the 1%, as are Catwoman’s sensibilities.

7. All three have ‘uncompromising’ villains: In Batman Begins, Scarecrow and Ra’s Al Ghul cannot be persuaded by coercion or the promise of money; In TDK, Joker burns money to prove how useless it is to him; in Rises, Bane cannot be persuaded by coercion, the promise of money, or the threat of death, and Talia is driven by sheer zealotry to complete her father’s work.

8. All three focus heavily on mobsters types: In Batman Begins, Batman’s crusade leads him to confront Carmine Falcone directly; In TDK, the majority of the movie revolves around the mass-indictment and conviction of Gotham City’s gangsters; much of Rises, deals with the aftermath of ‘the Dent Act,’ which incarcerated Gotham’s gangsters under questionable auspices and deals with their mass release and their subsequent execution by ‘the people.’

9. All three have villains who meet pathetic ends: In Batman Begins, a log falls on pseudo-Ra’s Al Ghul, Scarecrow gets tasered by a side character, and Ra’s Al Ghul doesn’t think to jump out of a train; in TDK, Scarecrow gets arrested, Joker gets tied up, Two-Face falls off a building hours after becoming Two-Face; in Rises, Catwoman turns face, Bane gets punched in the mouthpiece, and Talia Al Ghul is a crappy driver.

10. All three are based on one or more graphic novels: Batman Begins is a loose adaptation of Batman: Year One, by Frank Miller; TDK is a loose adaptation of Batman: The Long Halloween, by Jeph Loeb; and Rises’ first act is The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller, its second act is Batman: Knightfall, by various, and Batman: Cataclysm, by various, and its third & fourth acts are Batman: No Man’s Land, by various. Rumors suggest that had Heath Ledger not passed away, Rises, whatever it would’ve been called, would’ve been based on Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean.

11. All three use post 9/11 signs and symbols, preying on the fears of the age: Batman Begins featured villains inciting fear through a fear-toxin and attempted to employ it by ramming a train into the largest building in the city; TDK was the War on Terror, featuring concepts of extradition, torture, suspension of rights, mass incarceration, and the Patriot Act; Rises was the public backlash to the War on Terror, with every proponent of that time (Dent, Gordon, Dawes, Batman, etc.) considered useless relics, Gotham being, despite its peace, a more precarious place, and existing in a poverty where only the extreme rich have flourished under conservative leadership, signified through law enforcement.

12. It’s also not TOO much of a stretch to make the argument that Batman stands in for George Bush and his presidency. Batman Begins being the Fahrenheit 9/11 of the movies, with Batman having full knowledge of a terrorist cult out to destroy Gotham and doing the base minimum, which leads to the partial destruction of Gotham; TDK being Bush’s War on terror and all of the numerous tactics used by his administration and the CIA to apprehend suspected war criminals; and Rises sees Batman as a disused and much-disliked criminal for “failing” the citizens of Gotham, even 8 years (two presidential terms) after his last public/high profile-appearance.

13. Yeah, I know I’m stretching a bit, but The Dark Knight Rises is a wacky, complicated, thematically unsound movie, so screw you.

14. Finally, all three movies have Batman.

2. So What’s the Point?

Some big themes pop out of this: a legacy of exorbitant ideals warped into zealotry followed by semantic “scrubbing” (let’s not forget, we knew about “advanced interrogation techniques” in the 00s); villains who aren’t as threatening as they appear; fear as a means of controlling the populace and criminals alike; ordinary criminals standing in for terrorists; and class-based worlds that seem rife for social upheavals that happen, but no matter how extreme, are ultimately impermanent.

Sound familiar? This was the War on Terror in what could laughingly be called its “entirety.”

3. So What’s Wrong with The Dark Knight Rises?

Beyond the fact that its script was a structural mess, was unwanted fan service, failed to deliver knockout story beats, and clearly had no comprehension of Batman?

It was thematically flawed.

Let’s be real, here. The Dark Knight isn’t what most think of when thinking of Batman. He doesn’t consider himself above the law, he’s not exclusively a one-man-anti-mob policeman, and he’s not willing to compromise basic human and American values –looking at you, cell phone surveillance. He’s the world’s greatest detective, who is some mix of detective, policeman, EMT, firefighter, and globetrotting adventurer.

He looks like this guy.

But audiences accepted the TDK’s vision of Batman almost exclusively for how he dealt with an unstoppable force and unforgettable presence like Heath Ledger’s Joker, a nightmare of morality who seemingly forced Batman to compromise his own beliefs to apprehend. More than loving TDK’s crazy twists and turns, audiences connected to the nuance that Batman might be little better than the criminals he pursues –a central theme in Batman lore. All this, naturally, blossomed from seeds planted in Batman Begins, with characters questioning at every turn if Bruce might not be going too far, and if there’s not a better –saner- way.

As eluded earlier, the early rumors surrounding Rises were that it would revolve around the Joker, perhaps being a court case with a copycat criminal (the Riddler) making his merry way across Gotham. It might even have gone so far as to have similar workings as Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, where Batman’s sanity and moral fiber were called into question. Returning to Film Crit Hulk’s article, the passing of Heath Ledger weighed heavily on Nolan. In respect for Ledger, his loss must’ve narratively closed many doors for the sequel, which might explain rather than crafting a focused narrative around Batman & Joker’s relationship, Rises became Nolan’s “Idea” movie: legend, iconography, legacy, capitalism, class warfare, anarchy, fear, love, determination, individualism, collectivism, the 99% and more.

Even as an idea movie, which arguably could’ve been more coherent in a focused narrative, the script structure of Rises was inappropriate for what’d come before. The first two parts of The Dark Knight Trilogy aren’t building up to a guy who needs to come out of retirement then man up; they’re building up to a guy who’s got some serious issues to work through, especially if he’s our Strawman for the War on Terror and its fallout. Nolan probably still could’ve had half of the above themes, but they would’ve had focus, and they would’ve been channeled through a story.

To that end, a structure like Batman: the Animated Series“The Trial,” Batman: Arkham Asylum, or Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, wherein Batman is forced to face a gamut of his foes, all thematically tied to a fragment of his shattered psyche would’ve suited his chapter much better. We’d learn why Batman is Batman and why, for the love of him, he can’t stop being Batman, no matter how hard he tries.

Featured: tons of dudes waiting for their gritty reboot.

The problem with that idea, though, it’s been speculated, is that doesn’t feel like a Nolan movie, at least on the surface. To potentially campy, too small-scale (Unless he took cues from Arkham City), and too divorced (again, on the surface) from the 9/11 anti-terrorism critique he established in the first two movies. What’s more, with The Dark Knight being, for all intensive purposes, a perfect critique, why would you need any more?

Should Nolan have stepped back to a producer’s role, letting someone else bring fresh ideas and meaning to the franchise? Perhaps, but broken as Rises is, it’s certainly not without weight or merit; it just had, in large part, the rotten luck of being the wrong script for the material. Thematically ambitious to the point of exorbitance, but sort of a beautiful mess like Interstellar.

Besides, we needed a new Bane.

We really, REALLY needed a new Bane.

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