Midnight premiere screenings of The Dark Knight Rises were supposed to be a fun event for people all across the country. Everyone has been talking about them for weeks. In Aurora, Colorado, one man did the unthinkable and used people’s enthusiasm for films, fun and community against them, killing 12 and injuring 50. Details are sparse at the moment, but one thing is for sure: our hearts go out to the victims and their families.
Before we get to what’s wrong with The Dark Knight Rises, let’s just get one thing straight: This is a very, very good movie. The villain is scary, the action is exciting, the dialogue is heady, the sexiness is sexy. And it’s no small feat that it’s a 2 hour 45 minute blockbuster that doesn’t feel long.
The only problem, if you can call it that, is that Rises isn’t a great movie, only a really good movie disguised as one.
I was 16-days-old when Return of the Jedi first premiered in 1983, and I’ve always been more than a little jealous of everyone who got to experience the original Star Wars trilogy as a slow reveal instead of an already-completed totality. What would it have been like to learn the truth about Luke and Vader on the big screen instead of some pop culture reference before I saw the movie?
But more to the point, how would it feel seeing Jedi which, while very entertaining in its own right, is universally considered inferior to The Empire Strikes Back? Would I have been mad at the decline in quality or thankful for the entire experience? Would I call bullshit on all these damn Muppets, or would I be one of those assholes who causes Rotten Tomatoes to temporarily ban comments?
There are far more differences than similarities between the two, but Christopher Nolan’s Batman films may be the only movie trilogy of this generation that captured the public’s imagination in the same way that Star Wars did.
People who don’t like science fiction loved Star Wars in the same way that people who don’t read comics loved Batman. Batman Begins was a huge surprise that proved that the Caped Crusader could rise above the camp quagmire he’d been stuck in since the ’60s, and The Dark Knight was an unprecedented masterpiece. On a deeper level, the fact that Nolan could make Ra’s al Ghul semi-realistic and the Joker more than just a murderous psychopath (though we was that too) while comprehending the real weight of Harvey Dent’s rise and fall made these the greatest superhero movies ever made.
Viewed another way, The Dark Knight is The Godfather Part II of superhero films. Unfortunately, that makes The Dark Knight Rises The Godfather Part III (though not nearly that much of a train wreck). The redemption of Michael Corleone didn’t need to happen, and resolving the Batman saga forces answers to questions that are more compelling without them.
The biggest problem here is that Nolan seems to misunderstand what audiences loved about the previous ones. For example, one of the best things about the series has been the realistic interpretation of the villains, so Nolan made sure that we spend a lot more time with Bane than we ever did with the Joker or the League of Shadows. While Tom Hardy does a great job and Bane is a pretty cool character with interesting motivation (and WAY better than Mr. Freeze in Batman & Robin), there is absolutely zero mystery to him. Surprises, maybe, but no intrigue. Batman stories are their best when the bad guy is the embodiment of some existential force, like false justice or madness. Right from the beginning of Rises, we meet Bane, we learn his plan, learn a little bit more about his plan, then watch Batman try to fight his plan. He’s strong, ruthless and surprisingly smart, but that’s about it. Entertaining, but a bit of a letdown from the breathlessness of the last two.
All throughout, there are surprises, but no twists. There’s excitement, but no tension. On paper, all of the ideas, events, set pieces, schemes and plot points are fine, and their execution is very good. Better than even most above-average movies. But when viewed as part of the series, The Dark Knight Rises suffers from a very bad case of self-referential Sequelitis and caters to audience expectations instead of shattering them.
The fact that Return of the Jedi is the worst of the original Star Wars trilogy isn’t criticism of Jedi; it’s praise for Empire. The same goes for The Dark Knight Rises. The brilliance of The Dark Knight is the only reason these things are noticeable or that any of them could be called flaws. We can understand its limitations, but we should all be glad we were here to experience them.