As I’ve commented before, nothing gnaws at me like my inner conflict over the current iteration of Batman, the storied trilogy quarterbacked by director Chris Nolan. On the one hand, a Batman franchise that is both critically praised and commercially successful is all sorts of amazing. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted. And, for the most part, I love the films.
Still, the recent adoration lavished on The Dark Knight Rises – by seemingly everyone – has led me to reconsider my lifelong obsession. Audiences and critics are quick to praise, and many are just as sure about the story’s overall significance. It makes me wonder: what exactly will be The Dark Knight’s legacy?
First, here are some of the things critics have been saying:
TDKR is “A beacon of integrity in an increasingly comic book-driven Hollywood universe” - Variety
“The Dark Knight Rises is emotionally inspiring, aesthetically significant and critically important for America itself – as a mirror of both sober reflection and resilient hope.” - Playlist
“Smartly-written, riveting and profoundly human with Oscar-caliber performances. It's the most emotionally and intellectually rewarding blockbuster in years, and thus far the best American film of 2012.” – Avi Offer
"For once a melodrama with pulp origins convinces viewers that it can be the modern equivalent to Greek myths or a Jonathan Swift satire. TDKR is that big, that bitter – a film of grand ambitions and epic achievement." - Time
They sure hold nothing back when it comes to the hyperbolic embrace of Nolan’s series. Yes, Ledger deserved his Oscar, I get it, but to liken this trilogy to Shakespeare? Hold your fire, boys. Praise has been so immense, the few dissenters have been threatened with violence against their lives. It’s as if critics have been so starved for quality mainstream entertainment that their entire scale has become skewed.
And you know what … who can blame them?
The numbers don’t lie that mainstream filmmaking is a beyond-the-pale commercial endeavor, one that increasingly caters to fanboys and an undiscerning teenage demographic. It’s only gotten worse in our lifetime.
Infographic by The IN's Nate Smith
Clearly, green-lighting “sure bets” has always been a part of the Hollywood way of life. Katharine Hepburn was famously labeled “Box Office poison” after Bringing Up Baby and had to claw her way back to respectability with The Philadelphia Story. In modern times, it feels like franchising and rebooting have reached a fever pitch. One cannot simply dismiss the current level of crass entertainment as part of a century-long trend – that is akin to overlooking the absurd level of dysfunction in Washington by saying politics has always been rife with in-fighting.
I think the great Spike Lee sums up the difference in how movies get green-lit versus twenty years ago nicely in a recent interview: “I think that it is a different climate today. I do not think Oliver Stone gets JFK made today. Unless they can make JFK fly. If they can’t make Malcolm X fly, with tights and a cape, it’s not happening.”
Nolan’s Batman trilogy has come at a time when branding is at an all time high, where franchises like Twilight, Harry Potter, and Pirates of the Caribbean have dominated the yearly domestic and international box offices.
What the latest (and, really, only meaningful) trend in Hollywood says to me is something that the critics, and even word-of-mouth buzz around The Dark Knight Rises seems to forget: Nolan is not the exception to the rule. He IS the rule.
Nolan is an undoubtedly talented filmmaker, though I spare him the cliché title of “visionary” that lately has been attached to complete stylists like Zach Snyder. However, a review of Nolan’s biography reveals a man making it in Hollywood the best way anyone can – latch onto a franchise and make it work.
Even today’s “original” blockbusters like Nolan's own Inception and Jim Cameron's 3D Smurf/Ferngully hybrid Avatar reek of high concept pitches, clearly targeted audience demographics, and colossal marketing budgets selling the film. No one is safe from the commercial tug of Hollywood – not Nolan, who only was granted creative freedom after his film made a billion dollars, or even Pixar, who are now developing their FIFTH sequel with as Andrew Stanton returns to the nest, tail between his legs.
So we praise Nolan’s bold take on the Caped Crusader, and even convince ourselves we are watching something bigger and “more important” than the casual popcorn flick. Is it, or could it be that our standards have fallen so low?
What’s interesting is how quaint the box office actually feels looking back, 25, 30 years. Can you imagine a film like Tootsie, about a middle-aged Method actor in a cross-dressing comedy with almost no interest in seeking cheap laughs, being the second-highest grossing film of 2012? Or The Big Chill as a top twenty domestic grosser? Or something like Amadeus substantially out-grossing Revenge of the Nerds? Mainstream movies may always have a propensity to rely on unoriginal content … but the dial has shifted away from the source material being even remotely adult.
Ironically, comic books themselves, for a long time, were (and still are?) complete geek fodder. I don’t mean to over-generalize, but I think it’s fair to say that even when individuals my age were growing up, it was only but a few steps away from being utter fringe culture.
But they’ve always been a branding gold mine – toys, Saturday morning cartoons, bed sheets, PlayStation Lego games – with the power to hook thrill-seeking kids when they’re young and keep them enthralled well past a socially acceptable age. Its escapism, universal fantasy that, when done right, taps into our patriotism and fears about coping/survival in an increasingly confusing time.
And that’s the true legacy of Nolan’s Dark Knight. The trilogy is a snapshot in time – not, as some critics say, reflecting our politics or culture, but an accurate encapsulation of where movies are today as an industry. We need a broader look of our tastes and standards as both a critical entity, and an audience.
The Dark Knight Rises is the perfect starting point for that conversation. It’s the series that we deserve, but not the one we need right now. We should reexamine its ACTUAL meaning, as the latest industry cash cow, because it can take it. It is the blockbuster series I’ve waited a lifetime to experience, and now’s the time to question – and fear – what comes next.