Evaluating the Summer Blockbuster: The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises

the dark knight

The Dark Knight (2008)

Summary

1) Bank Heist
2) Hong Kong & Tunnel Chase
3) Ferries and Hostages
4) Are people only as good as their environment allows them to be?

1) A Killer Opening

The film begins with a complicated bank heist arranged by a mysterious criminal known as the Joker. Turning on each other the robbers pick each other off one by one until only one man is left standing. He drives off in a school bus. Although as a set piece this isn’t mind blowing, it’s really the Joker’s unique brand of chaotic evil that makes an indelible imprint. It’s a message: this is not your ordinary bad guy.

2) Two Major Set Pieces

The first major set piece is obviously the excellent Hong Kong kidnapping sequence. Brilliantly staged and instantly memorable, the set up and escape are everything you could want from an action movie. The second set piece is the Joker’s pursuit of Harvey Dent beginning in an underground street chase and leading up to the clown’s eventual capture. It’s a solid sequence made more tense by placing it in a subterranean urban environment. 

3) A Killer Climax

Utilizing Nolan’s famous cross-cutting skills, there are really two simultaneous climaxes here. One involves Batman directly as he storms a building full of hostages disguised as combatants. Narrowly subverting the S.W.A.T. teams and fending off attack dogs, Batman finally apprehends the Joker, barely saving his life. On the other hand there are two ferries rigged with explosives ready to blow each other out of the water according to the Joker’s design. In the final moments they each decide not to sacrifice each other at the likely cost of their own lives. And that’s not even the end of the movie.

4) A Concise Statement of Theme

Are people only as good as their environment allows them to be?

Conclusion

The Dark Knight follows the model pretty perfectly, however it’s not the model that makes it such a strong film. It’s the ideas. Most people’s favorite parts of the film are not the action sequences. They are the scenes containing the Joker’s ideology, especially the interrogation scene. Playing the Joker as Batman’s perfect ideological opponent heightens the stakes and invests great import to their struggle. Masterfully the film employs the big action pieces only in service of this larger message.

Notably The Dark Knight abandons most of the lightheartedness that usually accompanies superhero/adventure films and ventures into much darker territory. Such a tonally bleak outlook was quite risky for such a major financial property and clearly the cultural and financial results speak for themselves.

The Story Punch

Most films don’t manage to pull it off but The Dark Knight manages to places its story punch at the very last moments of the film. After capturing the Joker, Batman still must deal with the monster he created through his murders, Two Face. Bruce created Batman to be a symbol of justice, but at the beginning of the film Harvey has taken his place as that symbol. Now that hope has been shattered, leaving Bruce and Gordon to pick up the pieces. It’s expected that heroes deserve credit for their deeds, even if at times they are at odds with the authorities. However Batman exists only to bring justice, even if that means becoming a symbol of injustice himself. Even if that means carrying the blame for terrible murders. Even if that means sacrificing his very reputation as a force of good.

The film ends with Gordon’s explanation of Batman’s role to his son. This is the only way to defeat the Joker. This the only way to undo the terrible damage that has been done to this city. When Batman flees from his police pursuers, Nolan is delivering to us the full weight of the story’s message: the only way to overcome the extreme forces of chaos and anarchy is through the extreme sacrifice from benevolent powers.

 

the dark knight rises

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Summary

1) Plane Crash
2) Police Pursuit, Bane’s Lair, & Gotham Takeover  
3) Street Battle and Aerial Chase
4) Will you rise above your limitations to challenge evil?

1) A Killer Opening

Bane and his men are willingly captured and put on a CIA plane. More of his men arrive to free them and stage a plane crash, capturing Dr. Pavel and faking his death. There is lots of crazy mid-air destruction. Despite not explaining Bane’s reasons for the hijacking, the IMAX- filmed sequence paints Bane as a dangerous foe with a visual intensity that invests the viewer in what is going to happen next.

2) Two Major Set Pieces

After an 8 year absence Batman reappears but ends up attracting the attention of the entire Gotham police force. The chase becomes a massive spectacle comprising the first major action sequence. Next, Selina Kyle leads Batman to Bane’s underground lair where they take out his thugs until Batman finds himself in a brutal fistfight with Bane himself. Finally, Bane blows up a football stadium, the bridges, and the entrances to the underground tunnels trapping thousands of police officers below. These three sequences have much in common: they are big, they have stakes, and they each drive forward the narrative.

3) A Killer Climax

Batman leads an army of police officers in an assault against Bane’s forces. This turns into an aerial and ground pursuit as Batman in the Bat and Selina on the Batpod try to get the bomb and disarm it. There is a major plot twist. Important people die. It is very climatic.

4) A Concise Statement of Theme

Will you rise above your current limitations to challenge evil?

Conclusion

Although The Dark Knight Rises pretty much follows the formula, it is anything but a conventional action movie. Rather than emulating the urban crime thriller roots of The Dark Knight, instead the film launches into a full-scale epic. Bane takes over the entire city by aggravating class division and inequality into all out class warfare. Batman is sidelined for much for the running length as we see an entire city descend into chaos and anarchy.

There are so many plot turns and supporting characters that the story requires multiple viewings just to put all the pieces together. Working within the rules of what a blockbuster should be, Rises goes on to exceed the genre and reach for bigger ideas about class differences, political power, and corruption. It may not fire on all cylinders perfectly, but it works hard to be more than just another big screen spectacle.

The Story Punch

Several character actually share the story punch in a tightly edited closing sequence. In fact, the story punch is the same event – the revelation of Bruce’s fate – as experienced across several supporting characters in their moment of discovery.

First is Gordon who in quick succession discovers Batman’s true identity, gives a eulogy for the publicly redeemed Batman, and ultimately realizes that his friend survived and reinstalled the Batsignal. Second is Lucius Fox who finds out the autopilot had been fixed after all. Third is Alfred who mourns his fallen master only to realize that Bruce found the very happiness that he had wanted for him all along. Fourth and final is John Blake who disgusted at the shackles of governmental policy abandons his police career only to find that the supposedly dead Bruce Wayne has entrusted Batman’s legacy and future into his care.

Distributing the story punch across these side characters multiplies its impact and redirects the focus from the main character Bruce to the people whose lives he has influenced, inspired, and saved. It’s a bold ending that again enforces the point established in The Dark Knight: Batman is a malleable symbol to be used to serve the greater good of the people he serves.

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2 thoughts on “Evaluating the Summer Blockbuster: The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises

  1. I wouldn’t even technically class these movies as blockbusters. They manage too rise above the norms and create something so much better. They aren’t mindless, the set-pieces at the end are fantastic in both and its character driven rather than event driven. Dark Knight is still my favourite movie. Great post (again).

    • I probably should have decided on a definition for the word blockbuster before I started this series, but I suppose I just mean big expensive popular action movie. I agree, character-driven action seems to work much better than event-driven action.

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