Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace grossed over $431 million at the box office, good enough for 7th on the all-time list of top box office movies, and people camped out in line for months to see it, but many fans think it was the worst Star Wars movie ever made. In fact, the movie that many consider the best in the franchise The Empire Strikes Back is the least grossing movie in the franchise.
It just goes to show that money isn't everything when it comes to evaluating a movie's worth. And yes, I know those numbers aren't adjusted for inflation, but you get my point.
Now, before I really get into this, I have to state one huge caveat. I am a massive Christopher Nolan fan and I thought that The Dark Knight was a great film. More than anything, I hope that I can look back at this column at the end of this year and shake my head at how wrong I was.
Sadly though, I just don't see how The Dark Knight Rises can be anything more than an absolute failure on an epic scale.
The Trilogy Curse
You may think that I'm just being silly, but I challenge you to do one of two things. Name me a third movie in a planned trilogy that was the best film of the bunch? Better yet, simply give me a third movie that was better than the second movie, especially if the second movie was considered the best in the trilogy.
Seriously, tell me if you can think of one, because I'm at a loss.
Dan Meth came up with a neat little graphic that we've featured on the site before, but you can check it out below in case you don't recall it. Basically, he created a nifty meter expressing his enjoyment of each movie in planned trilogies.
Now sure, it is his own personal, subjective ratings, but I've studied the graphic and I think it's pretty dead on and a good representation of the geek culture at large.
Taking the biggies (Star Wars, Godfather, Terminator and Alien) where the second movie surpassed the first one which was itself well-liked, the trend is undeniable. The third movie is the worst of the bunch and in many cases it is loathed so much that it is the butt of endless jokes.
So, the question becomes why are third movies so bad? Has the audience grown tired of the storyline/characters? Or is it something else?
I'm sure that each movie is different and the true reason for the failure of any given movie, no matter where it comes in the order of things, is a culmination of many factors, but I think expectation is something that plays into more failures than anything else.
In this scenario (where the second movie surpassed the high enjoyment level of the first movie), the audiences expectations are so high that a letdown is inevitable. Take The Empire Strikes Back for example, that movie took the Star Wars franchise to a whole new, darker level and then "all Jedi had was a bunch of Muppets" to quote Dante Hicks.
Whether you agree completely with that sentiment or not, you have to admit that expectation levels were so through the roof that even if the movie was pretty decent (which I think Jedi was), your level of missed expectations negatively clouds your enjoyment of the third movie. So, often times the third movies are just terrible *cough*The Godfather Part III*cough*, but even when they are decent we will hold them to the unreasonable expectations of their predecessor.
And this is precisely the challenge that Nolan faces. Batman Begins was solid, but The Dark Knight was one of those rare films that only come once, maybe twice in a lifetime.
Heath Ledger's Death
I understand that one man does not make a movie (unless of course that movie is Cast Away), but Heath Ledger's performance transcended The Dark Knight.
I would argue that Heath Ledger's performance as The Joker is one of the biggest reasons for the success of The Dark Knight (if not the biggest). While sure everything was bigger in scale than the first movie, his performance is the singular force behind the movie.
So, his untimely death between movies, while incredibly tragic on its own accord, cripples Nolan in terms of where he can take the storyline. We may never know just how much his loss changed the course of Nolan's story arc, but I think it's safe to say that even if The Joker wasn't ever intended to be the main villain of The Dark Knight Rises, he would have at least turned up in a smaller role or cameo, much like Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow turned up in The Dark Knight.
Nolan couldn't just recast The Joker either. Heath Ledger's performance was so iconic that he literally owns that character (even in death) in Nolan's trilogy. To be honest, I don't know if anyone will ever be able play The Joker again.
I'm not just saying that to blow smoke up your shorts. When they do cast the next Joker, no matter how much time has passed, his performance will put up right next Heath Ledger's, whether fair or unfair. How do you compete with a ghost?
I think the choice of Bane as the villain has great potential as I'm told there are some great arcs in the comics involving him. However, the reaction so far has been mixed at best.
Last month, Warner Bros. released a prologue that played in front of IMAX showings of Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. I haven't seen it yet, mainly because I have a six week old that is taking up most of my free time, but there has been one main takeaway from the prologue: Bane is very difficult to understand.
Forgive me if I get the particulars slightly wrong as I'm not a comic book guy, but Bane wears a mask that is necessary to keep pumping his brain with Venom that is responsible for his superhuman strength. So, it appears that we will have both of the main characters in The Dark Knight Rises speaking through a mask.
The difference is that Bane's mask covers his mouth and no matter how great of an actor that Tom Hardy is, his ability to deliver his dialog will be compromised. The potentially saving grace is that the prologue may help to fix this issue in time for this Summer's release of the full movie.
There have been reports (and conflicting reports) about whether Warner Bros. replaced the original Bane dialog with a cleaned up version after complaints came in and whether it intends to clean up his dialog for the film. Of course, Warner Bros. is going to deny that it did anything to alter Nolan's vision, but there's no chance in Hell that they are going to sit tight and release their biggest movie of the year (of all-time?) with one character who is incomprehensible.
Unless of course, they have resigned themselves to the "Trilogy Curse." Warner Bros. is too smart to let that happen and Christopher Nolan is too smart to burn bridges at the studio that let him make his vanity project and will most likely green light any project he puts his name on, sight unseen.
So, is it really set in stone that The Dark Knight Rises is destined to fail?
The Nolan Effect
While I'm convinced that The Dark Knight Rises won't live up to its predecessor, there are ways in which it can still be a great movie. Heck, it could still be an epic movie and it might not rise to the level of The Dark Knight.
But, there is one way in which it could tread new ground and actually surpass the last movie and his name is Christopher Nolan.
In my estimation there is not a single film maker out there today that is able to weave such epic stories with a singular style while perfectly combining plot, story and special effects like Christopher Nolan. Again, I'm biased because I'm a huge fan, but if there's any hope whatsoever for The Dark Knight Rises, it lies in his hands.
First, I think the marketing plan is heading in the right direction. The posters and trailers thus far have pretty much hammered the idea into us that this is the end. Sure, it's Nolan last flick in the series, but could they actually be *gasp* talking about the death of Batman?
There's a reason that not a single superhero has died (and stayed dead) in a comic book movie*. That reason is that studios love money and they love sequels. It's kind of hard to have a Captain America 2 if ole Cap bites the bullet in the first one and then is drawn and quartered.
POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT
In the comic book, Bane doesn't kill Batman per se (so I am told) but he does "break the Bat" by breaking his back and paralyzing Bruce Wayne. Bruce then hands the reins of "Batman" off to someone else and they take up Batman's mantle.
No word if the new guy inherits the bat cave or Alfred.
Anyhow, I have chosen to remain as unspoiled about the plot of The Dark Knight Rises as one who writes for a film site can, but I have heard that Lazarus Pits come into play in the movie. Like their name suggests, Lazarus Pits have the ability to bring the dead back to life.
Some people think this to mean that Ra's Al Ghul will make a comeback after his death in Batman Begins. Others claim that Bruce Wayne will use the Lazarus Pits to come back after Bane "kills" him.
While I think both ideas have potential, I truly believe that the only way The Dark Knight Rises can succeed is if Christopher Nolan actually kills Batman and ends the movie with a dead Bruce Wayne. Now granted, this crazy notion would surely piss off a huge contingent of comic book purists, but I, for one, would applaud Nolan for his cajones.
If you're Warner Bros., this ending isn't as risky as it seems. They know that Christopher Nolan is done making Batman movies. They can let a few years pass and then return to the drawing board and either start over and reboot the franchise or explore the world of Gotham without Bruce Wayne.
In this world, someone else would have taken over for Bruce as Batman and it opens up so much potential. Not only that, but it's one way to guarantee that The Dark Knight Rises will stand on its own two feet with its own accomplishment.
Like I said, there will be people who will absolutely hate this outcome and there will be those that adore this development. One thing is certain though, they won't be able to say that they have ever seen it before.
Sure, it's entirely possible that Nolan can create an amazing movie within the conventions of traditional comic book movies, but his whole run on Batman has been about abolishing the conventional. With the expectation levels so high on this movie, I think that the only way for this movie to be successful is to continue to think outside of the box.
Killing Batman would surely be way out of the box. What do you think?
*I'm relying on my own recollection on this one. I'm sure if there has been such an occurrence I will hear about it from your feedback.
A press release for this "fancy" film
Wow, I don't know what to say. The outpouring of comments and replies to this article has been amazing to say the least. It really makes me wish that we had the comments section from the new site active, but I digress.
In lieu of them, I will take a few moments and print a few choice comments here and reply to them. I do think this is a fun conversation to have and right now, the support is pretty much cut right down the middle with half of the responses supporting my argument and the other half asking for my address so they can silence me forever.
For now, you will have to settle for this form of discourse. To all of my haters out there, I will point out that I'm a huge Christopher Nolan and I actually don't want The Dark Knight Rises to fail. I've just been in this industry for a long time now and the odds are not in its favor.
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule and I sincerely hope that this movie is one of them.
I think your graph about trilogies is almost spot on.
Tuck, Parts Unknown
While I still think Toy Story 2 is the best of the bunch, Toy Story 3 could have an outside chance to crack your code.
Ben, Hilliard, OH
While I'm flattered that some of you actually think that I possess enough talent to create this graph, it is completely the work of Dan Meth. Also, it was created in 2009 so it predates Toy Story 3 which is why I am guessing that Dan didn't include it in his chart.
He hasn't updated the chart, but he has created other really cool pop culture charts and you should give them peek when you have the time. They are really neat.
You mention one franchise in this installment that can show that the third can be the best. Return of the King was the best of the LOTR franchise, with the Two Towers being much better than The Fellowship of the Ring. True, it is rare, but it can happen.
Adam, Lewisville, TX
In the Indiana Jones franchise everyone I know feels the Last Crusade was better than Temple of Doom. And I agree with them.
Brian, Brooklyn, NY
Die Hard With A Vengence was a better movie than Die Hard 2. No, seriously. Stop laughing and really think about it. I know it probably wasn't a "planned" trilogy, but, it does fit the criteria.
Peter, Bloomsburg, PA
The Bourne Ultimatum was the best of the trilogy.
Gian, New York, NY
The man with no name trilogy had probably the best third installment of any trilogy or franchise in the world. Starting with Fist Full of Dollars which was a pretty solid remake of a great Kurosawa picture, and ending out the trilogy with The Good The Bad and The Ugly (aka the single best western of all time). I rest my case.
John, Parts Unknown
You asked somene to provide you an answer to a trilogy in which the 3rd movie was better than the first two... The answer is simple... Transformers Dark of the Moon was by far the best movie in the trilogy! Critics may not have liked it but the fans and general watchers LOVED IT!
Scott, Parts Unknown
As you can see, I got a lot of input in terms of great third films. I do think Toy Story 3 is a great third film and may even be the best of the bunch, but so much time had passed between the second and last film that I think expectations lowered a bit.
As for Lord of the Rings, I sort of see that as one large movie like the single novel that Tolkien intended it to be more so than three separate and distinct movies. Movie tastes vary, but I'm with Dan on this one, I didn't particularly think that any of the three were markedly better than the others. To me, they were all equally good, or boring, or insert your adjective of choice here.
I agree with the folks that say that The Last Crusade was better than Temple of Doom, but there's no way the either film surpass the original for me. So, technically it doesn't fit the curse pattern, but it does prove that third films can surpass the one right before it.
The same argument can be made for Die Hard with a Vengeance, but that's mostly to blame on Die Hard 2's level of trashiness. I wasn't a big fan of the Bourne films but I concur that the third one was the best in the lot.
I'm not sure if the Man with No Name trilogy would qualify or not, but if it does I would buy that argument that the films got better as they went on. Of course, they don't make movies like they used to, now do they?
I'm quite literally speechless for those of you who argued in favor of Transformers 3. And yes, there were a lot of you. I'm sorry but there's nothing that can get the bad taste of the second film out of my mouth.
Also, Phantom Menace wasn't the third movie in the franchise and it failed because George Lucas is a terrible director. Empire Strikes Back was the best of the three and was directed by Kirshner
In the infographic, the only trilogies that seemed to fail was when a different director took over the reigns. So saying that it's destined to fail (although it's an eye catching headline) is false.
Scott, Itasca, IL
Thanks Scott, I'm glad you noticed the eye-catching headline and yes it is meant to be divisive for a reason. But, I think you bring up a great point.
The films that tended to have the least amount of dropoff were the ones that were directed by the same director such as Lord of the Rings films. Of course, on the flip side of that argument is Francis Ford Coppola.
He directed all three Godfathers and we all know how that last one turned out.
in response to the page "why the dark knight rises is destined to fail" ---i dnt think an untimely death would make the third film worthwhile...i think a better movie would be batman reaching out to the other vigilanties(batman wannabees or sidekicks w/e) and establishing a Gotham knights of the round table sorta thingy.... Batman's singular strength personna is already difficult to believe<--and it is exactly that which seperates him from other "superheros" who get bit by spiders, radiated, druged, or wall out of the sky...you can only go so far with the hero protagonist--and nerfing his flaws--before you've rendered your character 'hyperbole'.....the "BAT" [animal] may hunt on its own, but a colony of bats is powerful when they attack all at once...
Tyler, Brentwood, TN
Tyler, you live way too close to me, so I'm going to simply nod my head in agreement and pray that you don't seek me out while I sleep.
To be fair, the "Gotham Knights of the Round Table" idea has merit, but I don't know if Nolan has time to introduce such a heady concept and fully flesh it out in one last movie.