Two’s Company but Three’s a Crowd: The Batman and Iron Man Trilogies
It is becoming more and more apparent that trilogies are destined to disappoint. My faith in their worth has been shattered with recent releases, specifically the final instalments of the Batman and Iron Man trilogies. I would like to make it clear that my point in this article is not that all, or necessarily any, individual films within trilogies are failures. Far from it actually. I believe they start so strongly that the quality and ‘wow’ factor cannot be maintained throughout 3 films and therefore end with disappointment. Trilogies are a difficult challenge to take on and there are many pitfalls film-makers can fall into, often of their own making. The following are the three most prominent danger zones.
The Art of a Brilliant Beginning and Exceptional End
The first challenge film-makers face is the need for a quality opening script. It is crucial for the first film to be exceptional in order to entice audiences to watch the sequels. If the original film tanks then the trilogy has died before it has even truly begun. With the quality of the first film being necessarily high the film-makers then have to find a way to out-do themselves, not once, but twice. The Nolan brothers (Christopher Nolan as Director and Jonathan Nolan as Writer) successfully managed this with The Dark Knight however they fell into another trap by peaking prematurely; they showed their best hand a game too early and missed the jackpot. This can be a difficult problem to avoid as the film-makers need to create some of their best work at the start, but still need to leave room to excel in the sequels. It is a challenging balance to achieve.
Engaging the Audience
If the first two films are successful then there should be no problem filling the cinema theatres for the finale. The problem is ensuring that the audience leaves the theatre satisfied. Their expectations will have been raised by the previous films and there will be a lot of pressure for a worthy and satisfactory conclusion. If the audience love the first film they will accept a reasonably similar second film, however, they will not be so forgiving if the third fails to produce something new. Audience boredom is a real threat at this stage of a trilogy and if it is not handled correctly, three will be a movie too far. While the individual films can be appreciated out-with the trilogy, their reputation can be severely tainted if any one of them is not up to scratch.
The Third Deadly Sin
Finally we come to Greed. Instead of preserving something magnificent, film-makers (especially in Hollywood) see a film’s success and decide to squeeze it for all it has got (the best example of this is Shrek). In the process they lower the value of the original film and instead of leaving people wanting more, they keep going until people are begging for it to stop. The famous Dark Knight quote comes to mind with this final pitfall, ‘You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.’
(Please be aware that there are spoilers in the rest of the article!)
The Dark Knight Rises
Perhaps a controversial trilogy to discuss in an article on film failures but, in my opinion, it has been one of the biggest disappointments of recent cinema. Primarily due to the fact the trilogy contains one of the greatest films I have ever seen.
The Genius of The Dark Knight
The Dark Knight is insanely close to perfection in my eyes (second only to the Nolan brother’s Memento) and was the ‘bang’ that the trilogy needed to end on. The film has a solid script that is dark, original, entertaining and multi-dimensional. It reflects true life in a subtle and enjoyable way, illustrating that in reality: good people can be corrupted, bad actions cause a domino effect, evil doesn’t play fair (the Joker swapping the addresses for Rachel and Dent), loss is inevitable, but also that there is good in humanity (seen especially in the boat sequence, when neither the criminals nor the civilians will blow each other up). The Joker is everything you could want: clever, ruthless and horribly fun to watch. His lack of back-story and differing accounts of how he got his scar is refreshing and makes him an even more threatening and mysterious character. His scar indicates that something horrible happened to him in his past, which makes me feel a pang of sympathy for the man he possibly used to be, displaying the multiple layers of the script as well as reiterating the theme that bad creates bad. The film is brilliantly executed, with top notch directing, editing and casting.
Living Up to The Legacy
In comparison to its big brother, I struggle to understand why the majority of people I spoke to were satisfied with The Dark Knight Rises. Independently it is not a bad film, however it is not a great film either, especially when compared to its siblings. It has been created with the same general components as The Dark Knight, which can initially be seen with its famous and talented additions to the cast: Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anne Hathaway. There are more new characters, played by big names, in this final instalment than we have seen in the first two films; this adds to the overly raised expectations of the audience. The cinematography is equally as stunning in The Dark Knight Rises as the previous films with great special effects, dark lighting, smooth editing and the atmospheric orchestral soundtrack from Hans Zimmer. These superficial elements are the only qualities that managed to reach the high standard that had already been set. The narrative and characterisation fell disappointingly short and led to the unfortunate demise of this trilogies conclusion.
I left the cinema severely disappointed with the characterisation of Batman. He was not portrayed well as the main character as he spent the majority of the film injured and in a cave, while the focus was on Blake, Bane, Catwoman and the Gotham police force. We initially see him as a defeated man who has given up on living and when he does make his first reappearance as Batman, his contribution seemed to be more damaging than helpful, as the attention of the police was drawn away from Bane and onto Batman. He tells Alfred that ‘The police weren’t getting it done’ to which Alfred rightfully responds ‘Perhaps they might have if you hadn’t made a sideshow of yourself…you lead a bloated police force on a merry chase with a load of fancy new toys from Fox.’ He does not improve in the following scenes as he hunts down Bane. He blindly puts his trust in Selina and is not physically ready to face such a strong opponent, indicating that he is letting his ego get in the way. His physical state at the beginning of the film was presented by a doctor, who diagnosed that he had no cartilage in his knee, not much use in his elbows or shoulders and residual concussive damage on his brain tissue. With this information in mind, his transformation from the weak man at the start of the film to Batman is unrealistically fast and he should not be able to move and fight the way he does. They do attempt to explain this with a momentary shot of him strapping a technological aid to his knee, but nothing more is said of his physical weaknesses and impairments that have been developing over the 8 years since The Dark Knight. The injuries he then sustains during his fight with Bane are severe, including a displaced vertebra and a seriously beaten head. He is quickly accumulating critical injuries with very little time to recover, yet he still manages to successfully climb out of the pit and defeat Bane. This indicates a holey script, that is not as solid as its predecessor. Further evidence of a weaker script can be seen in Batman’s relationships with the women in the film. I do not see the point of giving him a sexual relationship with Miranda. It was not necessary in order for her plan to succeed and the level of hatred she holds towards him makes the action illogical on her part. Secondly, the kiss with Selina was out of place, it came from nowhere and was similarly unnecessary. These small misplaced moments weaken the narrative.
Following these characterisation issues, the film appears to be just one big set-up for a spin-off Robin movie. Blake (a.k.a Robin) commits the first heroic act of the film, when he rescues the injured Commissioner Gordon just in the nick of time. Not only does he save a life while Bruce is still wallowing in self-pity but Blake has managed to figure out the identity of Batman and pays him a visit. He is not intimidated by Bruce and is honest by telling him that it ‘might be time to get some fresh air and start paying attention to the details [because] some of those details might need [his] help’. His visit appears to be what finally inspires Batman to get back in the game. Blake is the civilian hero of the film, he is compassionate, courageous, smart and has some pretty decent combat skills. He figures out Bane’s plan to blow up the tunnels and is a key player in the attempts to rescue the trapped police officers, as well as investigating and tracking the bomb situation. He risks his life frequently throughout the film in order to save others, most notably at the end of the film when he attempts to convince the officers guarding the bridge to let the citizens cross. Without Blake’s involvement throughout the whole film, Gotham would not have survived. He is clearly a great character, however he somewhat dominates the film. I wanted to see a Batman film, not a blatant set-up for a future Robin franchise.
My final characterisation issue is with regards to Miranda. Primarily the confusion surrounding her reasoning behind destroying Gotham. She describes her anger and hatred towards her father, Ra’s Al Ghul, due to him exiling her protector, Bane. She then states, however, that once Batman murdered her father she suddenly felt a strong need to avenge his death. In order to do this, she would complete her father’s goal to restore balance to Gotham. She planned to do this by setting off a nuclear bomb in the city, killing everyone in its blast radius (which would include herself and Bane, as she does not appear to have sorted out any kind of escape route). Firstly, I do not see how this restores balance as it just destroys everything: the good and the bad. Secondly, when she tells Batman her story, she appears more passionate about Bane than her father and so it does not seem realistic that she would go to such lengths to avenge the death of someone she despised. And thirdly, it contradicts the majority of what Bane has said throughout the film. He makes it seem like it is just a random, sadistic plot (that could really take place in any city in the world) to inflict on others the same pain he went through in the pit; being tortured by the hope of a freedom that was never actually within reach. The contradictory explanations we hear, makes it difficult to understand why these people want to utterly destroy Gotham; is it because they are actually trying to restore some sort of balance? Do they just want to inflict pain upon others? Or is it to get revenge on Batman? This uncertainty weakens the story, especially when you compare the somewhat confusing story of Miranda and Bane to the brilliant story and characterisation of The Joker.
So Close… Then They Blew It
I was so close to forgiving all the film’s flaws when they appeared to kill Bruce Wayne, as he selflessly flies the nuclear bomb into the middle of the sea, keeping Gotham out of the blast radius. It was a perfect ending. His death would be devastating but also necessary because it is the ultimate heroism to sacrifice your own life for others, it also highlights the fact that he is merely human, just like you or me. In Batman’s own words: ‘The idea was to be a symbol. Batman could be anybody, that was the point’ and so by killing the man beneath the costume it would exaggerate the point that Batman can still live on; anyone can step up and be a hero (admittedly it is much easier when you are a genius billionaire trained in martial arts).
But then they ruined it. They added the ambiguous scene of Alfred spotting Bruce in a cafe. It is unknown whether this is reality or the wishful thinking of Alfred but the ambiguity alone is enough to ruin the end of the trilogy. It seems they wanted to leave it open in case they ever decide to make another Batman film and I am disappointed that they appear to have succumbed to the third deadly sin rather than end the trilogy epically.
Iron Man 3
A second example to support my theory (whilst not as epic as the Batman trilogy) is Iron Man, which is a highly entertaining film that hits the mark on both action and comedy. The original characterisation is a great balance between a hero and a genius billionaire child with a dry wit. It creates a humorous take on the typical action hero as we see a man who is in love with his toys and treats life as a bit of a game. Iron Man is a perfect film to watch if you are craving awesome gadget-filled action with a light-hearted spin and a hint of romance. However, this trilogy also found itself on a downward spiral and was concluded with a mediocre third instalment.
I was not particularly impressed by the third film, but I would like to say kudos to the film-makers for having the guts to commit to ‘killing off’ Iron Man (by Tony destroying the suits, getting surgery etc.), leaving Tony Stark to just be the ‘genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist’ that he started out as. Creating an absolute end to the hero was not something that the Batman crew had the courage to do.
Same Old, Same Old
Iron Man 3 falls into the first pitfall by failing to come up with something satisfactorily new in its last film. The final instalment did not live up to my expectations in the slightest (which admittedly had been seriously inflated by my friends). Firstly, the humour was exactly the same, which by the third film was monotonous and Tony’s harsh quips just seemed mean rather than witty and entertaining. Similarly, all the action and gadgets have been seen in at least one of the previous films. For example, the feature that allowed Tony to suit up without J.A.R.V.I.S (his robot butler) having to manually attach it to him. This has been seen in both Iron Man 2 (briefcase transforms into suit) and The Avengers (the suit flies towards and attaches itself to Tony mid-fall, after he has been thrown out the building by Loki). Even though Iron Man 3 was the first film to use this feature over quite extreme distances, it was not exactly new or exciting. The only scene that had that ‘wow’ factor I was looking for, was the final action scene with all the suits coming to their rescue. Tony smoothly jumping into a suit mid-action was seriously cool. That was exactly what I was hoping and expecting to see from an Iron Man film: bad-ass action with futuristic technology. It was just a shame there was not enough of it.
This brings me onto my second issue; action being replaced with anxiety attacks and emotional breakdowns. I love seeing a film where a heroes human weaknesses are shown as it adds a certain realism and vulnerability to the character. However, Iron Man is not that kind of movie, it has not earned the right to include a deeper emotion on this level purely because the film-makers chose that path with the scripts of the first two films. They allowed Iron Man to be labeled as the light-hearted action film and that is what I expected from its conclusion. The last film is not the time to be introducing a new fundamental element. For the majority of the film Tony was somewhat useless as he was overcome by anxiety, breaking down frequently. For a superhero movie he was not represented as a very good hero, he treated Pepper badly, endangering both their lives by carelessly taunting the terrorists, literally inviting them round to his house. A hero is someone you would idolise and in this final film I viewed Tony as a cruel idiot. As mentioned earlier I do see the worth in adding these human weaknesses to heroes but in this case it did not work. The addition made the film slow and took the place of what could have been great action sequences.
Crossing the Line: The Villain
I thoroughly enjoyed Aldrich Killian as a character as he had a great back story and was entertaining to watch. It also helps that he was played by Guy Pearce, a great actor who executed the role brilliantly. The one aspect I did not like was the fire-breathing. It was humorously completely out of place. By making him breath fire, the film-makers crossed the line between believable technological/scientific advances and the supernatural, which turned him into an unrealistic character. This is purely because Iron Man is not a supernatural film in the slightest, it deals with technology and illustrates where it could take us in the real world. Just with that one moment, I suddenly started to see Killian as less threatening and unintentionally funny. This momentary feature is symbolic of a bigger issue; the film-makers were trying too hard. Throughout the whole film I got the impression that they felt the pressure from the success of the first two films and were attempting to make the biggest production they could. And in the process they over-thought it, condemning the film to fall short of its full potential.
For the reasons I have mentioned I was disappointed by the conclusions of both the Batman and Iron Man trilogies. I think that The Dark Knight Rises and Iron Man 3 are perfect examples to back-up my theory that trilogies are destined to disappoint. I do not believe they are independently bad films, however when looking at them as one out of a set my opinion changes drastically. The same problems can be seen in many trilogies, the most recent being Hangover 3 (for an in-depth analysis on this franchise’s downward spiral look at Hung Over: The Tragic Path of a Comedy “Trilogy”). Further series that confirm my lack of faith in the ‘trilogy’ are Men in Black, Ace Ventura, The Matrix, Daniel Craig Bond Films (Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace and Skyfall) and Pirates of the Caribbean, among many others.
Do you know of a trilogy that does not disappoint?
What do you think? Leave a comment.