The Reckoning of Expectations

Is The Dark Knight Rises the movie we deserved instead of the movie we needed?

[Note: This article contains major spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises]

One of many iconic lines uttered throughout the nine hour, three part trilogy that is Christopher Nolan’s Batman legend comes when Commissioner Gordon tells his son that Batman is the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs. Rather, what Gotham needs in the closing moments of The Dark Knight is for Batman to take the blame for Harvey Dent’s death, to allow his memory as the protector of a plagued city to persevere, even at the cost of its true hero’s reputation.

In The Dark Knight Rises, the third and final installment in Nolan’s Batman saga, there is an inherent obligation to provide closure. We begin eight years into Gotham’s future, a place where crime has been curtailed under the Harvey Dent Act, and Batman has vanished, leaving only a housebound Bruce Wayne to suffer the indignity of Howard Hughes references. Bane enters the fray, a masked warrior hellbent on Gotham’s demise. His presence, along with some cajoling from Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s John Blake, forces Wayne to once again don his mask.

The expectations for this film were stifling. Coming off the heels of a movie so respected that its Best Picture snub forced the Academy Awards to reconsider its nomination process,  The Dark Knight Rises had fanboys and critics alike dabbing at the drool in the corner of their mouths. Myriad speculations began the second a new casting choice was even rumored: Robin Williams as Dr. Hugo Strange, JGL as a character from one page of a Batman coloring book and so forth.

Clearly separated at birth.

As I wrote here in December, “The culture of The Dark Knight Rises, really all of Nolan’s Batman series, is unparalleled…Have we crossed the threshold where we are so rabid for a movie franchise that we’re willing to spoil it for ourselves?” The answer seemed unmistakably to be yes.

And on many counts, we nailed it.

Everyone thought Marion Cotillard was Ra’s al Ghul’s daughter. The potential for JGL to be revealed as Robin was frequently noted. We knew there’d be a Catwoman, and a Batcopter, and that Michael Caine would probably cry at some point. We stockpiled our predications like supplies in a storm cellar, and then when the twisters finally came, we ran downstairs and couldn’t understand why there wasn’t a turkey dinner waiting for us. Many negative and lukewarm reviews of Rises have surfaced in the days since its release. For many, it was unsatisfying, a letdown from the mastery of Dark Knight and nuance of Inception. I find this rather comical, given Rises is exactly what anyone who spent the last year trying to debunk every facet of its being knew it would be.

Michael Caine cries after learning he may have to make Journey 3 now that Batman is over.

I went into a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises wanting a film that carried enough of its own plot to be enjoyable without its two predecessors. Furthermore, I wanted my theories to be proven correct. We all do this, from watching shows like Breaking Bad to reading mystery novels. We pit ourselves against the content’s creator and attempt to match wits.  Christopher Nolan went heads up against every Batman fan with a Fandango confirmation number last week. Some he beat, others called it all before Commissioner Gordon could finish his opening eulogy.

What we needed were twenty million different versions of The Dark Knight Rises: one in which Batman dies; another with the Joker cameo delusional diehards hoped Ledger may have filmed before he passed. Others wanted Memento type twists, while some craved the Wayne’s World Mega Happy Ending treatment. This was what we needed. Some hoped for the reveal of a surprise villain, while a few perhaps held out that Harvey Dent wasn’t all-the-way dead. There were contingents eager for a real romantic interest in the wake of fleeting passions for Rachel Dawes, yet others were in favor of simply killing The Batman. This was what we each needed.

Harvey Dent: he’s super dead.

What we deserved was Christopher Nolan’s vision for his third film. We deserved to see it as he wished it to be. After all, shouldn’t making Memento, The Dark Knight and Inception afford you some creative freedom? Now because we deserved whatever film Nolan chose to offer us does not mean we must enjoy it. The Harry Knowles of the world are welcome to their bitter disappointment, so long as they don’t steep it in the hot waters of how the movie ‘should’ve been’. We are all-too-willing to heap piles of hype onto everything with a budget and a halfway decent cast and then act appalled when things don’t congeal into something perfect. I am no Dark Knight Rises apologist, but I don’t think I speak only for myself when I say: didn’t we see this backlash coming?

In the closing moments of The Dark Knight Rises, Batman tells Commissioner Gordon that it doesn’t take a cape and gadgets to be a hero.

“A hero can be anyone,” he says, “even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a young boy’s shoulders to let him know the world hadn’t ended.”

In a lot of ways, this poignant exchange reflects the way in Nolan ends his Batman saga. The ending isn’t remarkable in a twisty way (Bruce Wayne is Keyser Söze!) or a violent way (RIP every character in The Departed), but it’s fitting. For all the enigmas, mind puzzles and “didn’t see it comings” in the Nolanverse, perhaps the most fitting shock he could think to offer us was simply to have Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle smooching in Paris, Alfred looking on with a thimble of booze, Blake taking up the mantle to protect Gotham and Commissioner Gordon finally being able to catch-up on some paperwork. You know, something simple and reassuring, to let us know the world hasn’t ended.

Whatever coat Christopher Nolan chose to place on our shoulders, it’s the one we deserve to wear. Eventually, we may also find it fits our needs quite nicely.

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  1. Fantastic piece, Zack. I couldn’t agree with you more. I’ll be the first to admit I found myself disappointed at the end of the screening, but it was the kind of disappointment a parent feels the first time they realize their kid is only human. Beautiful final point in your conclusion.

  2. My disappointment with the movie didn’t come from my plot expectations being let down. I avoided plot discussions and spoilers. I tried to keep Heath Ledger’s performance out of my head. I went into this movie expecting only one thing: I expected it to be enjoyable. I really enjoy the films that Nolan makes (the Prestige may be my favorite movie of all time) and I thought I would enjoy this one.

    I’m not saying that I hated the movie – I have definitely seen worse. What I’m saying is that it fell short for me in enough ways so that when I walked out of the theater, I walked out without the feeling that one gets when a movie completely blows them away. I found issues with the pacing…parts were easily predictable…some of the plot points were questionable…there was at least one time where I checked what time it is because I was starting to get a little bit bored.

    Because of this I still stand by my original opinion – the movie was OK. Some parts were really good…other parts were pretty bad.

    I will be sitting down at some point when a decent quality copy is available and watching all three together. I am curious to see how they stand as a trilogy, rather than as three separate movies. Return of the Jedi is most certainly not my favorite Star Wars movie….there’s a big chunk of the movie between Jabba and the Death Star (I believe it is referred to as Endor) where I get a little bored. That being said I love the whole story arc from the blockade runner to “Jub jub.” I wonder if I’ll feel the same way about Nolan’s trilogy on the whole…

  3. I think the movie was ok.

    It didn’t warrant the gushing that everyone was giving it after they saw it. It wasn’t as good as the first two films – period.

    It wasn’t a bad film either – it was just ok. Why can’t the movie just be ok? Why is everyone defending it left and right and making posts like this one?

    Sometimes it seems like the authors on this site are all biased in some way…

    For example, no one seemed to defend Prometheus when it came out. Everyone trampled on it but in all fairness this exact same post could be made for Ridley Scott’s vision of why that film was what the fans “deserved” …

  4. The only thing that could have improved the movie for me, would have been that it ends with Alfred smiling and nodding at someone… without actually showing you Bruce and Selina sitting… leaving a little to think about… Did Alfred just ‘think’ he saw them or did he actually see them… would have been a nice open end rather than the kind of happy warm fuzzy ending we got.

  5. Jamie, I absolutely agree!!! As i was watching it and i saw alfred look up in the direction of the camera i was ready for the screen to cut to black, leaving the audience with the “legend” of the dark knight alive and well. We did not need to see Bruce and Selina, in fact i argue that it makes it an even better film if Bruce was dead. Either way i was impressed with TDKR, while still recognizing it as an imperfect film.

  6. This is incredibly well written. You nailed a lot completely, and even got me to respect a director don’t really care for (Inception and Memento are both very dumb films with style, and I’ve gone through analysis with others who liked it and we all found them both to be very pointless and not actually “intelligent” as many claim). I did like The Dark Knight Rises (even though I called Talia at the very beginning of the movie without reading any of the suspicions – between her odd place in the movie, and the fact that Talia felt way to much of an attractive premise to Nolan sort of gave it away), and I do think that a lot of people dislike it more because either A) they weren’t fans of Batman Begins (which this is like) or B) They’re noticing things in this film that were in The Dark Knight, but The Joker isn’t here to blind them with his great performance, or C) everyone wanted the film one way, instead of trying to see what Nolan did.

    Of course, there are some who just didn’t like it. Whether it be they didn’t like the ticking clock cliche being a bomb (if you think about it too hard, it’s ridiculously cliche), or the non-stop anxiety, some people just wouldn’t like the film any other way. And that’s fine. I didn’t love it, and I don’t think it should be nominated this year (but knowing the Academy, they snubbed the last one so they’ll give this film all of that film’s awards), but I thought it tied together Begins well, and in the sense of the trilogy, actually made The Dark Knight have a much smaller affect on the whole thing.

  7. My friends who were disappointed are the ones that wanted to believe too much in another scenario. I just let myself go and watch the story unfold, and I liked it.

    As a whole, the Batman trilogy by Nolan is probably the best thing for comic books characters ever.

  8. Thanks everyone for all the feedback.

    @ Lucas You are totally right. This essay applies to Prometheus as well. I simply didn’t think of it at the time. To be fair though, movies with incredibly heightened expectations will inevitably draw lots of analysis. Thus, the writers of this site and beyond weighing in on TDKR in-depth. If you see us as Nolan defenders, that’s fine with me. I happen to feel he’s worth defending.

  9. @Lucas and Zack. It’s kind of funny how guys mentioned that. I felt the same about both Prometheus and Rises (the 2 summer movies I was looking the most forward to). I thought that they both were a little lackluster in fully flushing out details in each story. That being said both directors are ridiculously good at what they do. I was fully engaged in both movies at the time I was watching them. It wasn’t until after I had walked out of the theatre that I started analyzing each on their own merits. For me to say a movie is truly great. It has to be engaging and make sense while avoiding overused cliches. TDKR and Prometheus were both good. I will buy them both and can enjoy them for their camerawork, sound and atmosphere alone (directing). However both stories suffered from their stories trying to be too grand. Simple is usually better when it comes to writing. TDKR script was too fat. So much so that I felt we saw more of Blake and Bane than Batman. That’s a problem.

    I must say I also really liked Batman’s line to Gordon at the end. That was my favourite intimate moment in that movie.

  10. @Zack it’s all good man. Everyone is entitled to their opinions, I just wanted to point out how this site (and it’s authors) bashed the living crap out of Prometheus but then seemed to glorify TDKR.

    Either way it was a good post.

    I would probably give TDKR and Prometheus both a 7.5/10 if someone asked. (it would be hard to judge either of them side by side since they are so different – but on a number scale I guess that’s how it would play out for me)

  11. a sort of on/off topic comment,

    the dark knight wasn’t a good movie because it was written by nolan, because it was realistic, because there were great action scenes. the ONLY reason the dark knight was good, was because of Heath ledger’s portrayal of the Joker. he did it like no one had before. that will always be one of the greatest pieces of acting i’ve ever seen. he drew you in, he was breathtaking to watch, he left you wanting more; even if he was spreading chaos, you wanted to see more. again, it was breathtaking, purely awe inspiring.

    this movie feel short in some peoples’ eyes because there was no joker like performances. the actors make the movie, without them its just a story; they bring it alive.

  12. Was this ending the one Nolan deserved or ending the studio wanted?
    The movie was good but the ending destroyed anything that came before it. The ending was left open for a sequel. We were told this movie was to be the end. If we are only being told this is the last movie to excite people into going to the theater and than end the movie with a cliffhanger…well I feel as if I have been cheated.

  13. I went into the movie having avoided all spoilers, trailers and loved it. It’s up to standard with the others and all three make a fantastic trilogy.

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