Please be warned: there are spoilers below. If you haven’t seen The Dark Knight Rises yet, then please come back when you have…
Winding up a trilogy is hard. You only have to look at the tombstones in the vast Graveyard of Part Threes to see how the mighty have fallen: The Godfather, The Matrix, Pirates of the Caribbean, Alien, and The Care Bears have all fallen at the final hurdle.
Even the greatest trilogies have limp, if not actually bad, final acts: Return of the Jedi, Back to the future 3, and Spider-Man all have okay conclusions, but they’re not quite as good as previous episodes (though BTTF2 was a bit of a shambles in my humble opinion).
And the number of the truly outstanding conclusions is very small indeed: Toy Story and Lord of the rings are the most recent ones I can think of, and now I think we can add Dark Knight Rises to their number.
Why do so few of these work? There’s a strong argument that the second act of any story will always be the most interesting. It’s where your hero has everything thrown at them, you’re not bogged-down introducing the audience to your characters and their world, and you can have fun and ramp up the conflict all the way up to 11, knowing full well you can end on a whopping cliffhanger for part three.
But I don’t necessarily buy that for all movies. Very few film makers know that they’ll be seeing a trilogy through to the end. Peter Jackson is perhaps a notable exception, but most directors and writers need to prove themselves with part one before they can even begin to think about parts two and three*. Certainly the makers of the Matrix seem to have been caught on the back foot with this, and Alien3 killed off the survivors of Aliens in a mean-spirited way, suggesting that that the only way forward was to ignore the past. Return of the Jedi took characters that had been made complex and exciting in The Empire Strikes Back and did virtually nothing with them, essentially remaking the first Star Wars with a bigger effects budget.
So why did The Dark Knight Rises succeed where others have failed?
Christopher Nolan has stated in interviews that when he was making Batman Begins he had no idea that there would be any sequels, he concentrated on making the first movie as good as he could. So there was no LOTR-style master plan.
When I’m working on the third act of a screenplay I’ll almost always find that the solution to any story problem is not in what I’m writing now, but in something I wrote back in act one or two. Sometimes it’s something seemingly inconsequential that suddenly has a new resonance and it can mean that you end up looking at your story in a completely new way. It’s one of those golden rules of screenwriting, and the Nolan brothers and David S. Goyer have executed it beautifully; finding the themes that worked so well in the previous movies – part one’s fear and part two’s chaos – creating a new kind of anarchy for part three and stacking the odds against Bruce Wayne/Batman in a way that trumped the previous films without actually repeating the same beats. On top of this come new themes of loyalty and sacrifice that constantly remind you that you’re watching the finale, and that anyone can die.
As anyone who caught the end of The Amazing Spider-Man will know, a story is often about the protagonist asking ‘Who am I?’ To say that Bruce Wayne has suffered an identity crisis in this trilogy is something of an understatement, but here he faces a mirror image of himself: an orphan who clambered up from darkness with hatred in her heart, and a inversion of himself, a masked man who shows his henchmen no loyalty whatsoever and demands the ultimate sacrifice from so many of them. So Bruce must put aside his anger and hatred, recover from his grief, and offer himself in sacrifice to Gotham.
And when Batman tells John Blake that ‘You’ve got to wear a mask to protect those you care about’ we now have a hero who knows what he has become, where his place is in the world, and what he must give in order to save the day. Bruce Wayne’s story has come to a definite conclusion.
In the past, Batman has often been less interesting than his villains, but not this time.
TDKR is not a flawless film; it takes its time, but it never bores and the payoff is well worth the wait. To paraphrase George Lucas; ending a trilogy is fun because you get to tie up all the loose ends, but ending a trilogy is hard because you have to tie up all the loose ends.
*And if you think the graveyard of part threes is big, just have a look at the Cemetery of Trilogies That Never Got Past Part One… Flash Gordon’s “?” ending, anyone…?