Stop, Nolan, Stop

November 06, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

It's widely expected - and accepted - that Christopher Nolan will make a third Batman film. And why not? The Dark Knight was critically successful, hugely popular, and made multiplex box office cash registers happy. The film accomplished what any good sequel should do: built upon the success of its predecessor and did things bigger and better. It is not a perfect movie, but it is as close as we have seen in a long while. For Warner Brothers, the next Batman movie can't come soon enough. One could make an argument (and, for fun, I'm going to try) that perhaps it shouldn't come at all. Let me make something clear: this is an academic argument. And I would like nothing better than for Nolan's third Batman movie to be as good, or better, than The Dark Knight. But there is a reason to be wary.

First, let's look at what we have. Combined, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight make a wonderful two-movie combination. They tell a powerful, epic story about a man finding himself and sacrificing everything for the greater good. Yes, the story of The Dark Knight is open-ended enough to allow for further installments, but it does not demand another film. In fact, if another Batman film was not made, there would be something tragically poetic about the conclusion of The Dark Knight. It's a great way to end a film - closing a chapter while simultaneously making us want more.

It seems unlikely that a third movie will be able to top The Dark Knight, which is widely regarded as the best superhero movie of all time. Maybe I'm underestimating Nolan, but it's hard to believe that he has enough bullets left in the chamber to top this. Add the weight of expectations to this, and it's not unreasonable to project the word "disappointment." Consider the past.

Superman and Superman II represented, in their time, new pinnacles in superhero movie achievement. Superman III was awaited with great anticipation - until it actually started playing. Despite being produced by many of the same people responsible for the previous two movies (although one could argue endlessly about how much impact credited director Richard Lester really had on Superman II after he relieved Richard Donner), Superman III looked like the evil stepchild of a franchise whose creators had run out of ideas. Many Superman fans pretend that Superman III doesn't exist. I won't say what they think of Superman IV.

Although it's not a superhero movie, Star Wars is another example of where things started going wrong with the third chapter. The 1980 sequel to George Lucas' space opera was one of the most highly anticipated second installments in the history of cinema, and it came as a surprise that The Empire Strikes Back not only lived up to the entertainment value of its predecessor but exceeded it. Viewed objectively, Return of the Jedi was not a bad movie, but it failed to match expectations, letting down everyone who wanted the original trilogy to go out on the highest note of all.

Spider-Man and Spider-Man II are two peas in a pod. Married, they tell the entire story of Peter Parker's evolution as a man and a super-hero and of how his initially unrequited love for Mary Jane reached an emotional climax. At best, Spider-Man III can be considered unnecessary. It adds nothing to the mythology and character development of its predecessors. From beginning to end, it feels belabored and obligatory - as if the only reason for its existence is because the first two movies made obscene amounts of money. Financially, Spider-Man III was successful. Creatively… that's another story.

X-Men and the '80s/90's Batman series both came off the tracks with their third installments, but these were a little different cases because the behind-the-scenes creative teams changed between films #2 and #3. Still, one can argue that the reason for the fall-off has less to do with the regime shift than with a sense that the first two movies had exhausted the best story material.

Maybe, while fashioning The Dark Knight, Nolan held something back. Perhaps he knew where he wanted to go with a third movie without re-tilling previously plowed ground. Yet even if he made the movie with the view that it would be a middle chapter of a trilogy, such an intent guarantees nothing. When Lucas made The Empire Strikes Back, he understood that there would be another part, but he still dropped the ball with his third outing in a galaxy far, far away.

Disappointing movies in a series can bring down their better counterparts. Poor reception to the prequels has forever tarnished all of the Star Wars movies, if only so slightly. Batman Forever and Batman and Robin have damaged the image of the Burton Batmans, much as Superman III and Superman IV have degraded the Reeve Supermans, and as Alien III and Alien: Resurrection have befouled the superior Alien and Aliens.

Do these arguments justify aborting a series whose third installment will be one of the most keenly awaited in recent history? A lot depends on the mentality brought to the project by the filmmakers. Does Nolan have an untold story he wants to tell, or is he making the movie because the pay is too good to pass up? Is Warner Brothers committed to providing the best product possible or are they more interested in milking the box office? I'd love to believe it was all about delivering a third Batman movie that's worthy of its two predecessors but, if history is any indication, the third time isn't always the charm, and what's best for the ledger is not always best in the theater.