By Tom Kapr
Like any good movie nerd, I have been eagerly anticipating the release of The Dark Knight Rises since Batman escaped into hiding during the final scene of The Dark Knight in 2008. That’s four years ago. In this day and age, that’s almost an eternity to wait for the next chapter in whatever epic saga one is currently into. And Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (as it is now known) is the epitome of the modern epic saga. In fact, this is a first for the comic book superhero genre. Bryan Singer is the only other filmmaker to approach this success, in artistic terms, with the first two X-Men movies. Unfortunately, he decided to forgo directing the third one in favor of helming Superman Returns, leaving X-Men 3 in the hands of Brett Ratner. (Wow. I think I actually felt you shudder.)
This actually brings me to my first point in why I’m worried about The Dark Knight Rises. Traditionally, if the first two films in a series are great, the third will tend toward a huge drop-off in quality. This is especially true in the superhero genre. I’ve already mentioned X-Men: The Last Stand, which was frustratingly close to good, but only because it had a handful of great scenes surrounded by some truly dreadful ones. Spider-Man 3 was nowhere near the quality of Sam Raimi’s first two, which is a pity since everyone was really looking forward to Spider-Man fighting his great arch-nemesis Venom. Superman III doesn’t belong in the same category as Superman and Superman II. And when it comes back around to Batman, while I am no fan of the excessively unpleasant Batman Returns, it almost looks like a masterpiece compared to the cartoonish Batman Forever. I’m even going to throw Return of the Jedi into this, because while it will forever be a childhood favorite, if I look at it objectively, it’s not nearly as good as its predecessors.
Hey, Batman Forever is a stupid name for a movie, isn’t it? Superhero movies, and blockbuster sequels in general, tend to generate some stupid movie titles, usually because, rather than just slapping a sequential number on the title, they’re trying to go for something that stands out a little more. I could launch into a long tirade about stupid movie titles, but let’s stick with Batman. While it may not be as dumb as Batman Forever, The Dark Knight Rises is a stupid title. The Dark Knight Returns might have been a more fitting one, but then it would be the same title as Frank Miller’s 1986 graphic novel, which, while clearly having inspired Nolan’s vision of his trilogy, tells a much different story (involving Two-Face, Green Arrow, Selina Kyle as the madame of an escort service, a metaphorically castrated Superman, a female 13-year-old Robin, and the Joker going so far as to — SPOILER ALERT — chemically annihilate a Boy Scout troop). But hey, Batman Begins is an even worse title, and that was a great movie, so I’m just splitting hairs here.
I think the thing that worries me the most is that this follows The Dark Knight, which is possibly the greatest superhero movie ever made. (I personally think The Avengers beats it, but I have to at least put Dark Knight in a Top 3 of all time with that and X-Men 2.) And while it has some flaws, The Dark Knight isn’t just a phenomenally superior superhero movie — it’s one of the best thrillers ever made, period. It will rival any great crime thriller or psychological thriller you can put up against it. And this is largely due to the presence of the Joker. The Joker, as written by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer, and as performed by the late Heath Ledger, is the best depiction of this iconic villain ever put on the screen. Not only is this one of the greatest and most memorable characters in the history of film, I would argue that Heath Ledger gave one of the all-time greatest performances of any genre, ever. That’s a lot of superlatives, I know. But while The Dark Knight is a good movie, it’s really the Joker, more than any other ingredient, that makes it great.
How can Nolan follow that? This isn’t necessarily a matter of topping oneself, but he has to at least be up to the standard that he himself created. While I can envision Rises being of the same general quality as The Dark Knight, what I can not envision is anything coming anywhere near the performance and the overall presence of Heath Ledger’s Joker. No disrespect to Tom Hardy, an actor I admire, nor to Bane, the formidable villain he portrays in Rises, nor even to the writing and directing talents of Nolan, who’s probably the greatest director of complex epic thrillers of the past decade. But just, how could he possibly live up to his own quality?
I guess I just have to hope for the best. And as I said, that is what Nolan is — the best. He has a better track record over his career than any other director I can think of. Memento, The Prestige, and Inception, the underrated Insomnia, and including of course Batman Begins and The Dark Knight – the man has never made anything less than a good movie. And with the exception of his much quieter and more difficult-to-love first film Following, he has never made a film that has been anything less than awe-inspiring.
I have to put my faith in Nolan’s abilities. I know that if I go in expecting another Joker, I’m going to be disappointed, so I have to limit myself to expecting, at least, another engaging villain and another engaging plot. I do have enough faith to know that Nolan will not re-tread what he has already done in the first two films. Every film he makes is its own film, and engages me in unique ways, so that is what I will be expecting from Rises. Take into account the established pillars that are Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, and Michael Caine, as well as the considerable talents of Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and what you have is a cast at least as formidable as that of either of the first two films. (If you subtract Heath Ledger, of course.)
At the very least I expect nothing less, but nothing more, from Christian Bale, who I sometimes forget is even in these movies.