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The tragedy in Aurora, Colorado, has engulfed an event millions of moviegoers have looked forward to for years — the release of “The Dark Knight Rises” — in an air of death and loss. What should have been a triumphant weekend for fans and audiences everywhere has become instead a somber reminder of the things that really matter.
People will still undoubtedly venture to theaters to see how the story of Bruce Wayne ends — and perhaps they should, because “The Dark Knight Rises” and the “Dark Knight” trilogy as a whole are things worth celebrating, especially in times of such great sadness. With the final installment of Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy, many critics and bloggers have used its place among the series as a starting point for their opinion. (Beware: Spoilers ahead.)
“Not as good as ‘Dark Knight’ ” and “best/worst of the three” are the kinds of capsule reviews that are already filling Twitter feeds since preview screenings started. While many readers will find these views informative, such straightforward ranking doesn’t do “The Dark Knight Rises” justice.
If forced to choose the strongest movie among the three, “The Dark Knight” remains the most daring and the one with the most complete statement about who Batman is as a hero. The “not the hero we need, but the one we deserve” speech from the film’s finale comments not only on the nature of Batman but the complexity of modern heroism. (It also worked its way into the pop-culture vernacular.) Extracting a similar theme from “The Dark Knight Rises” proves a more challenging task, but that hasn’t stopped some critics from drawing shallow parallels to the Occupy Wall Street movement, an idea that’s newer than the script for the film. Instead of being a message movie, Nolan’s final film in the trilogy takes a deep dive into his version of Bruce Wayne and works more like a character study than the post-9/11 allegorical aspects of “The Dark Knight.”
Then there’s Heath Ledger. The tragedy and the brilliance pulsing through his portrayal of the Joker created irreparable wounds in whatever came after it. You certainly can’t fault “The Dark Knight Rises” for not replacing the spark of Ledger’s Joker, but its absence is impossible to ignore. The complexity of that film’s story, message and the added horsepower delivered by Ledger leave “The Dark Knight” without an equal in the series and the genre.
That being said, the structure of this trilogy actively rejects comparison between chapters. Each installment plays differently in tone, structure and openness to critical reading in a way that makes such A-versus-B comparisons less relevant than an examination of all three as one cohesive narrative. Analysis of the series as a whole works best when comparing the strengths and weaknesses of each individual film in terms of its effect on the trilogy, instead of one against the other. Each chapter speaks with a different cinematic dialect nearly incomprehensible by the terms of another film in the franchise. In some cases, the contrasts are so significant that it would almost be like comparing films from different genres.
Much of the disappointment stemming from “The Dark Knight Rises” comes from incorrectly placed expectations. The third film is not a tonal extrapolation of the series thus far, which had grown darker from “Batman Begins” to “The Dark Knight.” Nolan, instead of taking the series further into the macabre, sets his closing act in the bright light of day. Harvey Dent even told us that the night is darkest just before the dawn. “The Dark Knight Rises” is the daybreak he promised. This is because “The Dark Knight Rises” is not a sequel to “The Dark Knight”; it is the closing act of a single story. And because of this, its most glaring flaws mirror the drawbacks of a mainstream three-act structure. “The Dark Knight” could be as grim as it was because of the nature of traditional storytelling. Things always have to get worse before they get better. For Bruce Wayne, the death of Rachel Dawes was the worst-case scenario.
Even though “The Dark Knight Rises” has the responsibility of fulfilling the obligations of a traditional final act, those requirements don’t make every flaw excusable. Yes, it needs to be story-heavy in order to set up an all-around satisfying ending, and because of that, Bane and Talia aren’t as fully formed as they may have been in an earlier installment and some of the resolutions are far too convenient. “The Dark Knight Rises” does have to stand on its own, however, and that’s where “The Dark Knight” pulls ahead.
With all that out of the way, it’s hard to see any of this as anything but nitpicking, something many writers feel obligated to do, just as many fans feel the need to shelter themselves from such observations. Over the course of three films, Nolan has worked on a scale unparalleled in cinema today, using the techniques he grew up admiring and ones that are quickly fading in our digital world. He brought spectacle and depth to one of our greatest heroes, when most films in the genre and budget bracket have settled for mediocrity. Every film will have “flaws,” a concept that has had its subjectivity blurred with the rise of aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes, so to not at least admire what Nolan did or tried to do — depending on your view — with his Batman films is a vote for some of modern moviemaking’s worst tendencies.
Try to enjoy it. There may never be anything like it again.
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