This past weekend was easily one of, if not the biggest opening movie weekend of the year all because of a masked hero who made his debut in the twenty-seventh issue of DC‘s Detective Comics back in 1939. Batman was an instant hit then, and his popularity as a character has continued in the seventy-three years since his debut. Batman was one of the first comic book heroes to find his way to the silver screen as a serial in the early 1940s, he was the star of a terribly campy yet extremely popular TV show in the 1960s, and garnered mainstream critical acclaim in the 1980s and 1990s. But perhaps the peak of Batman’s popularity has come with Christopher Nolan‘s Batman trilogy that began in 2005 with Batman Begins. Its sequel, The Dark Knight, was a massive success both financially and critically, and earned a posthumous Academy Award for Heath Ledger‘s portrayal of Batman’s archnemesis, the Joker. Fans knew that a third movie was inevitable—even if Christopher Nolan voiced some misgivings regarding third films—after the success of The Dark Knight. After four years of anticipation, wild speculation, and worry that a third movie could never compare to The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises finally debuted. I can’t speak for others, though it seems that plenty agree with me when I say that The Dark Knight Rises has blown away all of our expectations with its tight story, great characterizations, and surprising but emotionally satisfying ending.
What can I say about The Dark Knight Rises that someone hasn’t already said? It is truly overwhelming the amount of acclaim Nolan’s Batman trilogy has garnered from critics and fans alike, and I’m unsure of my ability to contribute to a discussion of the movies themselves. While it may be an impossible task, I’m going to tackle it the best I can by talking a bit about the movie, and then approaching the series from a different angle through its relation to classic Batman comics.
The Dark Knight Rises takes place eight years after the conclusion of The Dark Knight. Harvey Dent has become Gotham City‘s martyr, and his death inspired the creation of the “Dent Act” that has given Gotham’s police and judicial branch unprecedented power in convicting criminals and cleaning up Gotham’s dirty streets. But the hard-earned peace has come with a heavy price. The fact that Batman took the fall for Harvey Dent’s descent into madness and murder weighs heavily on Commissioner Gordon. His conflicted conscience mulls over the possibility of disclosing the truth about the fateful night that Harvey Dent died. Batman, after escaping police pursuit following his capture of the Joker and, supposedly, killing Dent, has disappeared and Bruce Wayne has become a cane-carrying recluse. But the bad guys of the world haven’t forgotten about Gotham, or its caped crusader. Elsewhere, a brutal mercenary known as Bane hatches a plan to bring Gotham, and perhaps all of Western Civilization, to its knees. After Bane and his thugs capture and wound Commissioner Gordon, Bruce Wayne discerns that Batman must return to fend off the approaching evil. But, like the Joker before him, Bane is no average villain, and making him all the more deadly are his ties to Batman’s past that run deeper than Batman realizes.
Like The Dark Knight before it, The Dark Knight Rises hooks viewers right from the get-go with an amazing opening sequence. While there are a few lulls in the onscreen action, the emotional tension never lets up for a second of the movie’s nearly three hour run time. The actors’ performances and characterizations are strong, and the dangers faced by the good guys—both physical and emotional—are impressively real despite their fictionality. Without a doubt, Christopher Nolan has overcome the third movie obstacle and provided his vision of Batman with a tremendously satisfying conclusion. I don’t doubt that there will always be naysayers who dislike the direction of The Dark Knight Rises, but such is the case when any tremendously successful franchise comes to an end. My own thoughts on the end to the “Dark Knight Legend” can be summed up in three words: totally worth it!
But my response to The Dark Knight Rises and Nolan’s previous Batman movies doesn’t end there. For me, one of the reasons that I find Nolan’s work with Batman’s character so appealing is his ability to take some of the best Batman stories, adapt them, and give them enough originality to appeal to massive, mainstream audiences.
Yes, I said “adapt.”
Comic book lovers have known this since Batman Begins, but to the uninitiated it may not be so clear that each of the movies in Nolan’s trilogy draws extremely heavily from some of the best Batman comics and graphic novels. Batman Begins found its own beginnings in the single issue, “The Man Who Falls,” and the graphic novel collection Batman: Year One by comics guru Frank Miller. At its core, The Dark Knight is an adaptation of Jeph Loeb’s 13 issue arc known collectively as The Long Halloween. Finally, The Dark Knight Rises finds its spiritual predecessor in Frank Miller’s insanely popular The Dark Knight Returns, and its story from the arc that created the character of Bane, Knightfall.
Similarly to what I said regarding Joss Whedon’s work on The Avengers in a previous post, one of Christopher Nolan’s greatest strengths is taking these established stories and owning them. And by owning them, I don’t just mean that he does a good job adapting the stories for the big screen. He realistically grounds the stories making believable both the world the films depict and the emotions they convey. Perhaps with the exception of Katie Holmes and Maggie Gyllenhaal, he found actors capable of portraying his complex emotional vision of the various characters from Michael Caine as Alfred to Heath Ledger’s Joker. Finally, he turned Batman into more than a man and more than a superhero, and into a symbol of hope, courage, endurance, and indomitability. Each of the three movies is compelling in its own, unique way, and it is my opinion that this success stems from Nolan’s respect for the characters and the comics. It is that respect that allows him to elevate the characters and stories to their highest emotional levels, and show the world the importance of the hero residing in all of us.
With The Dark Knight Rises comes a tinge of sadness. This is the end of Nolan’s Batman. Nolan, who saved Batman’s reputation from the mostly bad Batman Forever and completely terrible Batman & Robin, likely won’t be working with the character again. Warner Bros. has already announced its intentions to once again reboot the Batman film franchise, and apparently this reboot is already underway. Nolan is off to do other things, and I can’t deny it is kind of scary thinking of where the Batman movie franchise as well as the rest of DC’s movies will go from here. Zach Snyder‘s upcoming reboot of Superman, Man of Steel, does look especially promising (and thankfully Nolan is a producer), but if last year’s Green Lantern is any indication, we could be entering another phase of comic book movie blandness with DC’s characters. Apparently DC is poising to follow Marvel’s lead with its own cinematic universe that will culminate in its superhero team-up movie, Justice League. I’ll be honest, I really couldn’t care less about a Justice League movie. I’m unsure if that is because of my own aversion to most long-lasting superhero team-ups, or if the superhero movie market is becoming too saturated for its own good.
Only time will tell, but in the meantime I’ll at least be able to start the tradition of a new trilogy day by watching Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies. Thanks Mr. Nolan! And good luck in your future endeavors!