Chris Clow is a recent Western Washington University graduate, and a comic book expert, retailer and contributor to Batman-On-Film.com and ModernMythMedia.com. You can find his comic book reviews for various monthly titles and his participated podcasts at BOF and MMM. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClow.
As much as it pains me to say it, we’ve reached the end of the journey. This will be the final edition of The Dark Knight Rises Countdown here at Movies.com, since we now have just over a week until Christopher Nolan’s Epic Conclusion to his Dark Knight Legend arrives in theaters next Friday. Since there’s a sizable amount of content related to the film all around the site and the web at large right now, I’m not going to bother with the news roundup this time.
Instead, I think it’ll be more fun to examine the impact of Christopher Nolan’s vision not just on the Batman film franchise, but on the character as a whole. It also might be a good way to send off this column, as well as a way for me to put my own period at the end of what has been an extraordinarily eventful journey for me leading up to the release of Rises next week. My hope is that some of you reading this are doing so as you're waiting to head into the theater on the evening of July 19th, and need a quick Batman fix before you sit down to watch the film. Either way, come with me as I look back and say goodbye to Christopher Nolan's vision of Batman and Gotham City, as the End of the Legend is about to be a reality.
Batman on Life Support as he Begins Again
I think it’s pretty safe to say that the Batman franchise was in a far worse place at the conclusion of the last film series than it will be at the conclusion of the current one. For eight years, the last cinematic Batman experience people had was seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger yelling at people to "chill," while the audience was forced to look at the backsides of George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell. The failure of Batman & Robin had a very important role to play in the genesis of The Dark Knight Trilogy, and that was informing Warner Bros. that the Batman character should never be exploited in that way on film again.
As I ran down in my previous Countdown entitled “Nolan Beats Superman,” the Batman franchise was first positioned to be teamed up with the Man of Steel for a quasi-joint reboot of sorts, until the studio decided to separate them again and develop each series on its own. January of 2003 saw the introduction of Christopher Nolan, a powerful independent filmmaker who’d just come off of his acclaimed psychological thriller Insomnia. Nolan’s name as director of the next Batman film made some fans nervous, and a lot of other fans excited. If anything, Nolan’s resume indicated a filmmaker that would allow for a stark departure from the tone of a movie like Batman & Robin, and perhaps even the two agreed-upon hits that Tim Burton helmed in 1989 and 1992.
On June 15th, 2005, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins bowed all over the world, and for many fans reintroduced Batman and his world in the most devout way to the source material, while also simultaneously grounding it in a world not too different from our own. Batman Begins gave us a story about fear: how it can control us, paralyze us, spur us into action or shy us into inaction, as well as giving audiences their most complete look cinematically at the character of Bruce Wayne. Gone were the garish performances and over-the-top deliveries of Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito, Jim Carrey, and Uma Thurman that took the focus off of Bruce Wayne (Not a particular knock to the stated performances, but I think it's safe to say Bruce Wayne as a character was a secondary concern compared to those films' villains). This was Batman’s movie, and seemingly for the first time, his time to shine.
For my own anecdote surrounding this, I always think of one of my best friends who knew me as a hardcore Batman fan when we were kids, but never really understood what I saw in the character. As soon as he got home from seeing Begins, he told me, “I think I see Batman the same way that you do now.” To me, that was the greatest gift that Christopher Nolan, Christian Bale, and the entirety of “Team Nolan” gave to the Batman character himself: an all-new respect, and a hook for many people who didn’t have one into him before. Nolan gave the Dark Knight brand new life, and the only question on a lot of fans’ minds leaving the theater in June 2005 was, “how can you top that?”
The answer to that question lay in a small evidence bag seen at the end of the first film: the little card that managed to say so much.
The Knight is Darkest Just Before the Dawn
For the couple of years that passed between the release of Batman Begins and the start of production on its sequel, speculation was the heaviest I’d ever seen after the release of a Batman film. The critical reception coming out of Batman Begins, coupled with the respectable box office performance, basically demanded a sequel. Fans were unsure about the return of the director and which direction the new film would go into. One of the things that struck me the most about Begins was the effective way it built the world of Gotham City and the surrounding lands that Bruce Wayne visited, having the largest scale of any released Batman film up to that point.
So, when Warner Bros. announced that Christopher Nolan and company would be returning for a film called The Dark Knight, my instant thought was "what an awesome title!" But, one of my questions revolved around how they would manage to increase the scale going into a second film. Begins had a huge canvas that spanned multiple nations across the globe, but that’s an appropriate tone for Batman’s globe-hopping origin story. How could they ratchet up with the audience’s general demands from a sequel?
Then, in a blinding bout of surprise on the early morning of July 18th, 2008, I realized that Nolan would get away with an increase in scope, but in a whole different direction. Instead of expanding the world outward, Nolan instead dove deeper into the internal machinations of Gotham City, further defining it as a character unto itself, with its own personality and consuming nature. Beyond that, Nolan used Batman comics of merit like Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween to find an “in” to the character of Harvey Dent and his tragic fall from grace resulting in the villain Two-Face.
And then, of course, there’s the definitive penultimate performance of Heath Ledger as the Joker. One of the things that pleased me the most about Ledger in an interview he gave before his death, was that he gave a list of things that the Joker would find funny. In the interview (which you can find at The New York Times), Ledger says that he created a journal of sorts that, “is filled with images and thoughts helpful to the Joker back story, like a list of things the Joker would find funny. (AIDS is one of them.)”
This immediately brought me back to an awesome 2007 Batman story I read entitled “The Clown at Midnight,” appearing in Batman #663. Written by Grant Morrison, it was an unusual tale because it was written entirely in prose, with a few accompanying images on each page. One of the moments in the story is spent inside the Joker’s head, where he randomly names things that are funny to him. AIDS was on the list in that book, too.
I now knew that Ledger was doing his homework. After his death when the world became even more interested in what his turn as the Joker would look like, it just seemed to make his oncoming performance even more ominous than it had been already. When the film was released, Ledger stole the show, giving us one of the most intrinsically frightening and specifically idiosyncratic performances in all of cinematic history.
This just speaks more and more to the specific type of eye that Ledger, Christopher Nolan, and his team have applied to the world of Batman. The Joker was so resonant in that film because he felt very, very real. The threat he placed on Gotham and the attacks he oversaw weren’t too dissimilar from some serious violence perpetrated against a real major American city seven years prior to that. Even though there are some extra-real personalities that are at play in Gotham, the layer of realism and the interest in the character Ledger created catapulted the film, and the character as a whole, into the top level of the mainstream, and symbolized Batman’s greater "arrival" of sorts in the minds of the world.
The story of escalation was appropriate given the themes presented in the first film, and while the concept of Batman acting as a lightning rod for the “freaks” to take over Gotham isn’t exactly new to comics fans, it was brand new to the mainstream public who hadn’t really had a great idea of what Batman stories are like in the source material. Dark Knight instantly became my favorite super hero film, because it presented my absolute favorite conflict in fiction between Batman and the Joker in one of, if not the best possible way(s).
The end of that film left a lot of interesting questions for people leaving the theater. Batman and Jim Gordon reasoned that to preserve the progress that Harvey Dent made against the mob in Gotham, they would cover up the murders he committed as Two-Face. In the process, the Batman legend needed to take a dip into disgrace in order to save the city from the grip of organized crime. The legend Bruce created in the first film would be taking a serious hit, and if it were to ever recover, it would take a serious turn of events that would reach even beyond the massive scale of The Dark Knight. The only question on fans’ minds everywhere was once again, would Mr. Nolan return to the director’s chair?
After a mind blowing cinematic journey into the world of dreams in Nolan’s 2010 film Inception, it didn’t take long for us to realize that the director would indeed be returning to Gotham City one last time, and with him would come a whole lot of talk about ending the legend of the Dark Knight.
The Fire Rises
And now, we come full circle to the journey that spawned this feature: the journey toward July 20th, 2012 and the release of The Dark Knight Rises. Late last year as we started to gather the details of when the new film would be taking place relative to The Dark Knight, the thing that immediately entered my mind about the 8-year gap was that this would be an older Bruce Wayne. An older Bruce Wayne would mean that in the realistic Gotham City Nolan presents to us, Bruce can’t have much left in him when it comes to being Batman. I also immediately began to think about comics stories of an older Bruce Wayne, first and foremost Frank Miller’s landmark 1986 book The Dark Knight Returns, but I’ll get into that another day.
The introduction of Bane as a villain also immediately brings up perceptions of the character’s first major appearance in the Knightfall story, where the behemoth succeeds in breaking Batman’s back after letting loose all of the villains in Arkham Asylum and working Batman over to his weakest point. Some interesting hybrid of stories, but as with other comics Nolan has drawn from, it’s not about the specifics of each portion of the source material. It’s all about the themes and general situations.
Then, not long after the prologue premiered in IMAX theaters worldwide, we saw the first poster grimly informing us that in Rises, “The Legend Ends.” Now, keep in mind that over the entirety of Batman’s existence, a lot of prominent comics creators and even television series have produced a particular conception of what it would look like for Batman’s story to end. No more Batman after that point. But, while you would think the territory would be ripe for that kind of storytelling, this has never been explored in a major cinematic release before Rises.
Previously, every Batman film or television outing had a sequel of some kind. Similarly, every month we see several new Batman comics published by DC. Batman stories, and most other super hero tales in general, are stories that are designed to go on ad infinitum. Every once in a while it might get a reinvention, but never a solid end. Although in Mr. Nolan’s conception of Batman’s journey, one that we now know spans from beginning to end, the director and his team realize that even though this character is larger-than-life, you have to make certain concessions to that “legend” if you will, if presenting it with any semblance of true reality.
Now, to make it clear, I hate seeing Batman lose. Hell, when I play Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe online and some 10-year old kid’s Scorpion pulls a fatality on my Batman, I have a minor freak-out inside because I just hate seeing Batman lose, and I especially hate seeing him die. Confronted with the realistic possibility that Bruce Wayne may reach the end in some fashion, I understand the methodology of this series completely. With the story we’ve been presented so far, where Batman exists as a real human being that’s managed to craft a true legend for himself, the only real conclusion to his story is probably not pretty.
Whether that involves death or not I can’t say for certain, but given this series of films, I would probably be more okay with it than I would be in a video game or comic book because I know what happens when real human beings reach the end. Sometimes they die, but in other cases, even if they do expire, we have true examples of certain peoples' legends living forever. Mr. Nolan understands this I think, and whatever the end holds for this incarnation of Batman, the only hope that I have for it is that it stays true to the character’s principles and mission, as well as calling into, what I think, is the most inspirational aspect of Batman: his indomitable will.
There was a comic book story that came out a few years ago written by Neil Gaiman of Coraline and Sandman fame, called “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” In the story, Batman’s mind is in the process of dying, but in so doing, he makes peace with who he is and what he’s become in the face of death. Speaking to a construct of his mother, Batman tells her, and us, what he makes of death. He says, “I don’t actually believe in an afterlife. You know that? I don’t believe there’s a place you go if you’re good when you’re done. I’ve tried, but I can’t.”
His “mother” tells him in response, “You don’t get heaven or hell. Do you know the only reward you get for being Batman? You get to be Batman. And, when you’re a child, you get a handful of years of real happiness, with your father, with me. It’s more than some people get. You’re done, now, Bruce, this time. You can stop fighting now…its over.”
Batman’s story in this series, one way or another, is over after July 20th. And you know what? That’s okay. We’ll always have reinventions and a reboot coming down the line, but maybe a high-profile end is what the character needs right now. I’ve been a Batman fan my entire life, devoting a significant amount of energy to both learning all about his history and putting a great deal of personal faith into what he represents. I am a Batman “fanboy,” even though I hate that term. Having said that, I’m not threatened by seeing what this end will be, largely because of the man in the director’s chair.
Christopher Nolan has proven that he now understands this character, and even when he didn’t, he surrounded himself with people that could fill him in. From David Goyer, an experienced comics and film writer and a devout fan, to his own brother Jonah, who’s gone on record telling people how much love he has for Batman and his world. Using the best resources available from some of the keenest creative minds on the planet with a world-class production crew and a serious take on the character, Nolan has set new standards for what comic book films, and indeed films themselves, can be. Seeing what the end of Bruce Wayne’s legend looks like is far from a chore or a dread: it’s a privilege, one I fully look forward to diving in to in 8 days’ time. I hope you will, too.
The End of the Legend, and of the Countdown
And with that, I will retire The Dark Knight Rises Countdown for Movies.com. It has been an honor bringing you this piece over the last year, and I’ve been eternally grateful for the opportunities this position has given me both professionally, as well as personally, as I’ve had wonderful opportunities to make new friends and talk about similar interests with people all over the United States and beyond.
A very special thank you goes out to Mr. Bill Ramey, editor-in-chief of Batman-On-Film.com, for recommending me for this piece and granting me some of the best opportunities I’ve ever had in my life. Another large thank you goes out to Movies.com’s own Erik Davis, who gave me a chance, but also who’s had to put up with my BS and constant string of emails for the better part of a year. He's been very welcoming and inclusive for allowing me to be the site’s “Batman guy,” at least for awhile. I can think of no position I’d rather have more than to be any outlet’s go-to for all things Dark Knight.
Other quick thank yous I want to put out go to guys like John Gholson, Jeffrey Taylor, John Halecky, Jim Vejvoda, Don Kaye, and so many more awesome people that gave me priceless advice, words of encouragement, and compliments. They made my day coming from proven people that have been great at what they do themselves, and that is very gratifying.
And my last bit of heartfelt thanks goes out to you, the reader, for stopping into this little roundup/opinion corner of the site. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading the piece as much as I’ve enjoyed putting it out for you, and I also hope that you learned a few things, laughed at the terrible jokes, and maybe got at least a little bit more excited for Rises because of something said here. I really appreciate how a lot of you came forward to offer your words of support, as that really made me enjoy this endeavor a whole lot more than I already had been.
I‘ll be back soon with a review for Rises not long after its release, but in the meantime, thank you for reading, and remember: even though a Legend can End, that’s far, far from meaning that you can kill it. Especially when that legend belongs to the Dark Knight. And now to put a period on the end of this sentence, take a look at this new trailer that looks back at the first two films while looking forward to the grand finale. Thanks again, folks, and Good Knight. (Sorry, had to.)
The Legend Ends in 8 Days When The Dark Knight Rises.