So, it turns out that The Dark Knight Rises has a top secret ending. That’s very interesting, and I wonder what it could be. A few obvious possibilities have popped into my head, but there’s one facet of this news which really fascinates me: this piece of information gives weight to the suggestion that Nolan is going to give his superhero franchise a definitive ending, something that perhaps explains why we don’t really have a “classic” superhero trilogy yet, despite the fact that quite a few comic book characters have pushed well past the third film. So will Batman be able to do what Superman, Spider-Man, the X-Men and even another Batman have failed to do before him? Will he craft a complete and wonderful trilogy?
Don’t get me wrong. Each of those trilogies contains at least one (sometimes more) fantastic films. However, the general perception of audiences and film nerds is that the third film in each sequence is a bit of a letdown. Spider-Man III was a disappointment, X-Men III: The Last Stand is pretty consistently disliked and, even if one ignores Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace as travesties, Superman Returns (intended to close a trilogy with Superman and Superman II) was hardly a creative success.
On the other hand, look at the list of iconic movie trilogies. There’s The Godfather, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings and quite a few others that come to mind almost instantly. One would imagine that blockbuster superhero cinema should have produced something almost that good by this stage, right? The sheer laws of probability favour it, after all – just based on the sheer volume of superhero movie being churned out.
There are a few potential reasons. The most obvious might be that many directors don’t stick around for three movies. Tim Burton directed Batman and Batman Returns before Joel Schumacher took over for Batman Forever. Singer left after X-Men and X-Men II to take over from Richard Donner on Superman Returns, leaving Brett Ratner to direct the third X-Men film. You could make a case that these franchises suffered from changing hands, and I think you’d be right – but I don’t think it’s as simple as that.
Sam Raimi directed all three Spider-Man films, and that wasn’t necessarily brilliant. On the other hand, George Lucas passed each of his original three Star Wars movies to different directors – and that’s regarded as one of the finest film trilogies ever made. On the contrary, Lucas was the only director on the prequel trilogy which was… not as well received as the first set of films. Similarly, the Wachowski Brothers handled all three Matrix movies, and the last two were notably weaker than the first. So I’m not entirely convinced that the success of a trilogy rests on consistency of creative vision.
You could also suggest that a weak third film harms the entire trilogy. I accept this logic, but I don’t think a weak third film necessarily prevents a trilogy from attaining cult status. After all, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi was the weakest instalment of the original three films, but the Star Wars films are pretty much beloved by all. Godfather III has become something of a joke to film fans (to the point where, in The Simpsons, a comparison to Godfather III receives the warning, “let’s not say things we can’t take back”), but Coppola’s trilogy is still highly regarded.
So I think it’s possible to create a well-received trilogy, even where the final film falters (as seems to be the norm in superhero cycles). So, what do I think might be the reason that Hollywood has yet to produce an iconic superhero trilogy that can stand on its own two feet? Personally, I’d suggest “closure.” I think that’s what defines a really good trilogy, is the sense that a lot of stuff has been tied up or resolved by the end of the third film.
The three Godfather films tell a pretty conclusive story about Michael Carleone, war-hero-turned-mobster. The original Star Wars cycle carries all of the plots to their logical conclusion, to the point that (despite the success of the expanded universe), you don’t need to know any more about the characters – they’ve all done what they wanted or needed to. The Lord of the Rings sees not only the survival of Middle Earth against an impossible threat, but it also closes the book on this world of myths and legends. In short, these third instalments all represent some sort of definitive ending to the stories told.
You might argue that superhero stories don’t get that sort of closure because the studios are always waiting to pop out another film afterwards – Spider-Man IV was planned, for example, as are X-Men IV and X-Men V. I think there’s a strong argument to be made that this is at least strongly related to the fact that we have yet to see an iconic superhero trilogy – there’s no sense of closure because the studio don’t want fans to worry about not getting a fourth film. Even in cases where classic trilogies have got follow-ups (The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings, for example, or Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), there’s generally enough of a gap (in either time or in the material covered) that the original trilogy continues to stand alone.
However, I’d argue that this is just a symptom of the real cause for problems with superhero trilogies. I think that, as part of their nature, superhero stories don’t lend themselves well to endings. Due to the serial nature of comic books, Batman will always fight crime, Superman will always fly through the sky. With the odd exception of a story like The Dark Knight Returns, we really won’t get too much closure on a comic book superhero. The adventure always continues, so there’s never any ending – just more adventures on “the same Bat time, same Bat channel.”
I think that superhero movies have definitely borrowed this approach from the source material, with the idea being that they can continue to do whatever they are doing perpetually. As such, the hero can never need to do anything more fundamental than vanquish the villain (and their personal problems) suggested in this instalment, so they can come back and do the same next film or issue. That’s why origin stories are so popular, because those are the one type of superhero story where you can actually have that sort of character growth and development as standard. The second instalment in the franchise typically allows you to develop your character a bit more, but superheroes typically aren’t built for endings.
That’s why I’m excited at the fact that Warner Brothers isn’t going to try to continue on from Nolan’s trilogy (rebooting instead) or the fact that the ending is top secret – because that implies the ending is something more than “Batman stands on the rooftop, looking down over Gotham.” Maybe Nolan can do it – not that I ever really doubted it. Maybe it’s something to genuinely get excited about.
Filed under: Movies Tagged: | batman forever, Batman in film, Christopher Nolan, closure, conclusion, endings, film trilogies, films, george lucas, Movies, spider man, spider-man 3, star wars, Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, The Godfather Part III, trilogies, Wachowski Brothers