The three Batman films from Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer are incredibly ambitious super-hero movies. These writers aspire to high art, and in the case of The Dark Knight, they succeed. The Dark Knight is a truly great film. But the pressure to build on that success for The Dark Knight Rises was immense. And while the ambition for this final film of the trilogy is nothing less than a critique of modern worldwide capitalism, the writers fail to create a bridge that can carry that massive weight. It’s a bridge too far. So it all comes tumbling down.
To see why this happens structurally, we need to begin by identifying the story challenges these writers faced in writing The Dark Knight Rises, and then look at the solutions they came up with. No doubt they began by asking themselves: how do we take The Dark Knight, the best super-hero movie ever made, to a new level? How do we explore the mythology of Batman in greater depth and scope so that it can stand not just for a city in decay, but a worldwide system where injustice is embedded in its very fabric? In executing their vision, the writers of The Dark Knight Rises have always had a tremendous advantage, which is that Bob Kane’s original Batman story has the most advanced and complex of all super-hero mythologies. Embedded in the concept is the dark side of the super-hero itself, the self-destructiveness that comes from relying on a savior to fight the criminal among us.Other super-heroes like Spiderman and the Hulk have their ghosts and weaknesses. But Bruce Wayne/Batman is Hades himself, a man of the darkest demons who will use almost any method, both illegal and immoral, to fight crime.
But this advantage is not absolute. We saw what Tim Burton and the original writers did with the concept in the first Batman films. Other than Michelle Pfeiffer’s fabulous performance as Catwoman in Batman Returns, these films were pretty forgettable. What the Nolans and Goyer were able to do was to see the dramatic and epic potential of the concept so that Batman became a modern savior, and was loathed because of it.
Besides expanding the basic concept, the key technique the writers used to kick the Batman stories above all other super-hero franchises and into the realm of dramatic art was to build the stories with various moral philosophies. For Batman Begins, the origin story of the trilogy, it was elements of eastern philosophy and Old Testament justice that provided the opponent’s justification for using total force to fight crime and moral decay.
In The Dark Knight, the writers went with Nietzsche and the Existentialists for Batman’s bout with the terrifying Joker. The Joker, in a common misunderstanding of the Nietzschian Overman (aka Superman), thinks he can break any law because he is superior to the herd. The Existentialists provided the classic “dirty hands” argument that says you can never stay morally clean when you fight dirty people.
Here we see the fundamental technique that made The Dark Knight a great film but which is missing from The Dark Knight Rises. The plot of The Dark Knight is a series of increasingly difficult moral challenges the Joker gives Batman to prove his worldview that man is nothing more than a brutal animal.
Notice this brilliant plotting technique has three great advantages. First, it grounds the philosophical questions in specific moral choices the hero must make. Second, it builds the scope of the philosophy through a sequence of increasingly difficult and deadly options. Third, it hangs the larger philosophical issues on a strong narrative line, the hero’s desire.
None of this is present in The Dark Knight Rises. The writers try to kick the film up to a higher philosophical level by returning to the fundamental theme of Batman Begins, where Ra’s Al Ghul first introduced the idea of wiping out a society when it has become corrupt beyond repair. Batman’s main opponent in this film, Bane, is Ra’s Al Ghul’s new executor of this moral philosophy, which is a form of fascism.
But what is Bane attacking? Crime is actually way down in the eight years since the days of The Dark Knight. The writers introduce Catwoman as a Robin Hood figure, but she seems solely out for herself, and not a model for egalitarianism. A couple of traders on the stock exchange are a little haughty, but that does not constitute an attack of the 1%.
To put this in story terms, there’s no set up. If the writers want this third film in the trilogy to expand to a critique of worldwide systemic injustice, they have to show specific examples of how the little guy is being destroyed. And they have to show that these individuals are all connected within a system of slavery.
For a while we don’t notice the lack of a larger thematic set up, because we are too busy keeping track of all the plot lines. The Nolan brothers are the only screenwriters in mainstream Hollywood that suffer from too much plot. We would all like to have their ability to string reveals and surprises, but here it gets way out of hand. Besides straining and at times breaking all believability, these plot lines start to slow the narrative drive, which is determined primarily by the hero’s goal.
That’s when the writers spring the fatal plot beat. Batman foolishly walks into Bane’s lair and is promptly tossed into some obscure prison. For the next hour of the film, with no set up and Batman out of commission, the writers try to pay off their critique of world capitalism. After turning Gotham into an armed camp, Bane “gives” the city back to “the people.” How exactly does that work when the people are the ones being enslaved? Then we go through the major beats of the French Revolution, complete with storming the Bastille, or Batgate as it’s called here. And we get the citizen tribunals, whereby the rich 1% are sentenced to the guillotine. In wintry Gotham that means walking out onto the ice until you break through.
If this modern revolution had been set up in the beginning, maybe, just maybe, it would have worked. But with Batman stuck in a hole, the desire line of the hero has effectively stopped. So there is no spine, no suspension bridge, to support all this philosophical baggage. Narrative drive grinds to a halt. And we get one hour of stall.
Knowing how to weave a powerful theme into a storyline is one of the marks of the finest practitioners of the dramatic art. It is even more difficult to do in the lean story form of the screenplay. Most writers are so afraid of preaching to the audience that they avoid theme altogether. That’s a big mistake.
The writers of The Dark Knight wove theme into the plot so well that it may have been the single biggest reason for that film’s greatness. The failure of those same writers to weave theme through story structure in The Dark Knight Rises is just as instructive. Because this aspect of the craft is so important I spend a great deal of time in my Anatomy of Story Masterclass explaining in detail how it’s done. But I will tell you this: it all starts with constructing a strong story spine, the hero’s desire, that can carry the weight.