This is part 7 of an 8 part series discussing the production, influence and overall quality of the modern live-action Batman films. With The Batman (2022) approaching release, it’s the right time to take a look back at how we got here, examining the highs and lows of Batman’s cinematic career.
Even though the gap between The Dark Knight (2008) and its sequel The Dark Knight Rises (2012) was only four years, superhero films changed dramatically in that time. Part of that is due to The Dark Knight itself, as it was one of two films which helped place the genre at the centre of mainstream attention. Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (2008) was the other, heralding the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While this may seem like an unrelated factor, Marvel’s culminating film, The Avengers (2012) was (at the time) the superhero epic to end all superhero epics, making it a direct cultural competitor to Christopher Nolan’s third and final Batman film. Warner Brothers figured there was no reason to be worried, as The Dark Knight Rises was an equally staggering epic and the conclusion to their groundbreaking trilogy. Regardless, it’s interesting to see how the rapidly evolved superhero genre actually affected The Dark Knight Rises‘ reception.
There are many stories about how Nolan and writer David S. Goyer had their trilogy planned out from the beginning, yet Nolan himself has often refuted this. The director has clearly stated on many occasions that he never has sequels in mind, not to mention that he was reluctant to return for a third Batman. The reluctance makes sense, given how The Dark Knight ended with a complete and definitive narrative arc. Naturally, Warner Brothers insisted on a follow up, so they convinced Nolan to return. However, the negotiations got off to a peculiar start, as the studio was thinking of ways to make this third film, The Dark Knight Rises, lead into a Marvel style expanded universe featuring Superman, Wonder Woman and so on. This was not to be, as Nolan and actor Christian Bale would only return if The Dark Knight Rises concluded Batman’s story.
In order to bring this trilogy full circle, the film was constructed to incorporate many plot and story elements from Batman Begins. This was done to help make the trilogy feel like one continuous narrative. Additionally, The Dark Knight Rises had the spectre of The Dark Knight to contend with, meaning Nolan and Goyer needed to go out of their way to infuse the film with political commentary. While The Dark Knight was thoroughly analysed for it’s real-world subtext, it arguably wasn’t at the forefront of the filmmaker’s mind, as they were just trying to tell the most interesting Batman story they could. This time around, they were deliberately responding to audience and critic reactions, seeing as The Dark Knight had set an expectation for political complexity. With that in mind, Nolan and Goyer’s script was intentionally filled with allusions to the Occupy Wall Street movement.
As usual, the next question was who the villain (or villains) would be. While this is always a complex concern for a Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises had the unfortunate challenge of delivering an antagonist to match Heath Ledger’s Joker. This was further complicated by the fact that Nolan and Goyer’s ideal script would have had the character return. Out of respect for Ledger, The Joker wasn’t recast, nor was he even referred to throughout the film. Instead, the villain roles were filled out by Tom Hardy’s Bane and Marion Cotillard’s Talia al Ghul (with Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman providing additional support in an anti-hero role). While these characters were staples of Batman’s comic book lore, they were not conducive with Nolan’s grounded aesthetic. Consequently, the production and writing teams bent over backwards to justify these characters’ existences, using exposition, utilitarian costumes and convoluted backstories to make it all fit.
While it’s clear Nolan and his team went the extra mile to match the results of The Dark Knight, things became complicated once The Dark Knight Rises was released to theatres. While everyone could recognise the film’s good intentions and well thought out creative choices, something about this Batman adventure didn’t click like the last one. The most prominent critique was the villains, who weren’t compelling enough to distract from the Joker shaped hole in the film’s script. This wasn’t helped by the mixed reception to the film’s deliberately dense political and social messaging. Unlike the previous film, the debates were less about the film’s many layers of complexity, but rather about how those layers didn’t actually make sense in a narrative context. Specifically, the commentary of the Occupy Wall Street movement had no function in the actual story, thus it wasn’t wholly satisfying as subtext. That being said, the fact that a Batman film was making viewers think about these things was still seen as a success by some.
The most interesting development was how the film’s connection to its comic book roots was perceived. As discussed, audiences were more willing to accept colourful super-heroics by the time The Dark Knight Rises came around, given how successful The Avengers (2012) was. Nolan had to match the current expectations of viewers, while keeping true to his realism. Many found the film’s attempt to bring in more comic book inspired elements unconvincing, as it obviously ran contrary to the previous entries grounded nature. Interestingly, this was a double-edge sword, as the film was partially criticised as being ashamed of its own genre (especially when compared to Marvel’s self-assured confidence in the cartoony material). This analysis even highlighted the previous films’ similarly embarrassed tone. Granted, the trilogy as a whole is praised for it’s serious perspective, but The Dark Knight Rises’ half-cocked approach brought this kink to the surface. With this now visible, you could literally feel Nolan’s insistence to keep things straight-faced, rubbing up against the studio’s insistence to copy Marvel.
This is where things got dicey as far as fan reactions were concerned, as the culture war between Marvel and DC arguably reached a fever pitch. Countless Batman fans wouldn’t accept anything less than stellar reviews for The Dark Knight Rises, claiming that it’s physically impossible for Marvel’s comparatively lighter approach to ever result in a greater cinematic achievement. Myths started spreading that film critics had been paid off by Marvel’s parent company Disney to give The Dark Knight Rises negative reviews, and that myth persists to this day (to be clear, no one is paying off critics. That doesn’t happen). Things reached such a level of toxicity that various critics received death threats if they gave the film a less than glowing review, which was even stranger considering this was happening before the film was even seen by the public. Unfortunately, this has now occurred multiple times since with other films, and doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon.
Sadly, all of this ugliness took attention away from the genuinely positive thing The Dark Knight Rises did for Batman’s cinematic legacy. For all of its faults, it followed through on Batman Begins’ original mission to turn Batman into a human being. Specifically, he was finally a character with thoughts, feelings, and desires, effectively making him more man than bat. This was further exemplified by something that’s all too rare for superhero films and genre films in general: an ending. For the first time in the character’s history, we saw his dark crusade come to a close, finally allowing him peace and happiness. While this of course closed the book on Nolan’s world, the studio would never let Batman die, only this time there was even a bigger question mark as to what was left to do with him.