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The Impending Disaster Of "The Dark Knight Rises"
Why you should be worried about Christopher Nolan's third Batman movie.
By James Brady Ryan
I'm worried about Christopher Nolan. Well, no, I'm sure he's doing fine, because he's most likely rich as hell and universally adored. Really, I'm worried for Nolan, and more specifically for his upcoming trilogy topper The Dark Knight Rises. Because as the internet waits with bated breath for even the smallest bits of casting news — I heard he got George Clooney to play “Man at Bar” and Courteney Cox for “Older Prostitute No. Two” — I keep having flashbacks to Spider-Man 3. And X-Men: The Last Stand. And... well, you probably get the idea. As more roles get revealed, I can't help but think that this film is going to be a total disaster.
Call it the Curse of Raised Stakes and its corollary, Villain Oversaturation Syndrome. It's a particular kind of sloppiness that disproportionately affects the sci-fi and fantasy genres, and it's taken down successful franchises before. The Curse works like this: you've made a good or great movie or two, and people want more. But you can't give them the same dish all over again. So you up the ante: your hero saved the girl last time? Now he saves the city. Did he save the city? Make him save the world! And if it's the final film in a trilogy, you know you have to go out with an epic bang, and nothing says “epic bang” like one man taking on five dudes at once. As anyone who's seen Boot Camp Boys 3 can tell you, that kind of action ends in a mess.
Right now, Catwoman, Bane, Ra's al Ghul, and the Holiday Killer are all confirmed roles in The Dark Knight Rises. Al Ghul is probably confined to flashbacks, but that appearance strongly suggests the rumors of Marion Cotillard playing his daughter, Talia al Ghul, are true. Of course, we can't know what the story will be yet — and potentially these are not all villains, as three of the four characters have switched sides in the comics several times. But Nolan has never been one to shy away from his characters' dark sides, and I can't help but worry that our boy in black is going to be juggling one too many psychopaths in his third go-round.
While the idea of a hero facing off against a veritable basketball team of baddies can be very exciting on the page, it's terribly hard to pull off, especially in a movie. Villains need backstory. They need nuance, they need motivation, and they need to be needed. If Batman spends the first thirty minutes dealing with Catwoman's crime spree and al Ghul shows up to avenge her father's death only to realize she's too late because Bane already broke the Bat's back, that will not be a good movie. The Joker and Two Face worked in The Dark Knight because their characters played so neatly off one another, but the more people you add to the equation, the less likely you'll come up with an elegant solution.
And this is, in the end, the irony of the Curse. No one piles on villains because they want a movie to be bad. They want the movie to be awesome! But there are many ways to get to awesome, and more often than not addition is not the solution. Suspense and investment are not automatically created simply because the potential body count is bigger. And far too often the plot twists and contrivances writers and directors subject us to in order to justify this increase are what sink the ship. Yes, the Joker is probably a hard act to top, but a third film with only one antagonist will still be awesome if it's a good movie.
Maybe I'm wrong; I seriously hope I am, because I like Nolan and I think his previous Batman films have been marvelous. Maybe he will pull this whole thing off with skill and I will sit dumbfounded in the theater as half-chewed popcorn tumbles out of my gaping mouth. And maybe some of these people won't be villains at all. But as a devotee of comics and the movies they turn into, I've been burned too many times by films that lose their center in a bid to go out as big as they can, abandoning all reason just so they can show me Magneto teaming up with the Phoenix to destroy San Francisco. So don't lose focus now, Nolan.