A Discussion about “The Dark Knight Trilogy” with Ian Buckwalter

After watching “The Dark Knight Rises,” I proclaimed that it was the best of the Dark Knight Trilogy, over-taking  “The Dark Knight” in both concept and scope.  After making that claim, I realized that, well, I could be wrong. Was I wrong? Some of you will say yes, some of you will say no.  I decided that, instead of me ranting and raving on one side of the street, I would investigate both sides.  Ian Buckwalter is a film writer for such great publications as NPR, the Washingtonian, DCist and The Atlantic.  Remember? We did a podcast together. He knows far more about movies than I do, or you do, so I emailed him for his thoughts.  Below is our back and forth, unedited.  Warning: Spoilers below.  If you haven’t watched the film, don’t read. 

Jarvis: Both “Knight” and “Rises” are great films.  But, after watching “Rises,” I see how safe “Knight” was.  In “The Dark Knight,” we had a classic villain handled amazingly by Heath Ledger.  He was the villain and Batman had to stop him.  Simple. We also had the idea of being a Legend, more than a Hero, which “Rises” fleshes out.  “The Dark Knight Rises” deals more with this broken man that puts on a costume and tries to save lives.  We see the consequences of his actions when he loses everything, has to come back from nothing and be what he always tried to be.  “Rises” takes so many risks, and does so many unconventional things, it’s hard for me not to love it more that “Knight.”

Ian: I think The Joker, as a character, is more mold-breaking than that, though. Alfred’s monologue comparing him to the bandit he’d run across in Burma years ago sets the distinction up nicely: how many villains do we really run across whose actions can’t be predicted, because their motivations can’t really be understood? The Joker’s commitment to chaos and lack of normal motivating factors makes him an extremely unconventional villain, and what makes TDK itself unconventional is the fact that the broken man we see in TDKR is The Joker’s great success. Batman is the thing The Joker set out to destroy, and at the end of TDK, it doesn’t matter that The Joker is caught; he’s still essentially won. The eight years between the films represents nearly a decade of The Joker continuing to have won; Bruce is broken, and Gordon has compromised his moral compass to clean up the streets and to keep his crushing secret. I agree with you that TDKR is incredibly daring, particularly in its structure and just how much Nolan trusts his audience to keep up with an incredibly dense story, and I love it for that. But a superhero movie in which the hero — despite having technically stopped the villain — still winds up losing the battle for his soul and his identity? That takes serious balls.

Jarvis: Your points on The Joker are strong, and they are hard for me to refute.  I also think there is a weakness in TDKR that is beginning to show it’s ugly head.  The main villain, Bane,  isn’t given the spot light like The Joker was.  Or, perhaps, the Bane character never truly takes the spot light.  It’s almost like Bane’s muted somewhat (no pun intended).  Or maybeThe Joker is just that compelling, which I’m beginning to agree with you on.

What I loved about TDKR was when Bruce Wayne/Batman is in the prison. I could have watched another hour of that.  It was fantastic.  That, plus watching the Batman come back after 8 years, having to struggle and learn how to do his work, it seemed very much like the spotlight was on him, on this character, what he’s been through and what he’s going through.  If a movie has some sort of focal energy, The Joker took the energy in TDK and Bruce Wayne/Batman took it in TDKR.  That might have been why I like it better.  The Joker made me feel uncomfortable.  Feeling uncomfortable is needed for a story to work, that sense of tension.  But in TDKR, the tension came from Bruce Wayne’s struggle to be Batman, which was more interesting than The Joker’s desire to see the world burn.

Ian: Nolan gave an interesting interview on BBC radio on Friday, on Kermode and Mayo’s film review which I’d definitely recommend listening to, and he speaks specifically to some of the different things he was trying to do with Bane than with The Joker. As I recall one of the things he said was that he wanted it to be a very different character, and knew there was no way the character could or should compete with the memory of The Joker. Later in the program, Mark Kermode, during his review of the movie, pointed out that Bane and Wayne are extremely similar when you come right down to it. He makes the case that Bane is essentially the dark mirror image of what Wayne could have become. (Do check out the show via podcast; it’s the best film podcast I know of. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/kermode)

And I definitely agree that the portion where Wayne is in prison is some of the best stuff of the movie. If only because it essentially keeps Batman out of the movie for so long, which is, as you said, a daring choice. In fact, when you come down to it, there’s remarkably little Batman in this movie overall. Which I really liked, and is a brave choice for Nolan to make.
I can’t really make any objective arguments against your preference for the greater concentration on Wayne’s personal struggle in this movie. It’s definitely there, and I think it’s both needed, and a strength here. I didn’t necessarily find the concentration on The Joker more interesting, but it was the necessary focus for that particular film. My preference is more for the slightly more streamlined story of TDK, versus the overstuffed narrative of TDKR. I think Nolan pulls off putting multiple movies’ worth of story into TDKR, but only just barely. As far as the movie I’d go back to watch again as a standalone, the direct (but still complex) approach of TDK holds a very slight edge for me
Thanks again to Ian for his wonderful thoughts. I’ll have a lengthy impression up at the end of the week.