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It’s a difficult line to balance. Filmmakers (and studio marketing departments) want to build precious buzz for their upcoming movie. But when expectations rapidly elevate to unrealistic levels, the odds of crushing disappointment only tilt out of the film’s favor … even though the film, itself, really hasn’t done anything to raise or lower your acceptance of what it has to offer.
It’s hardly an exaggeration to call Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises the year’s most-anticipated film. What else comes close? Part of the buzz stems from Nolan’s prior accomplishments: Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises. Nolan courted this passionate fanbase, fed their desires with two superior Batman films, and now lures them back with the promise of a memorable conclusion to his genre-defining trilogy.
Part of the buzz, though, can be attributed to Warner Bros., which has done a modest job protecting the film’s various secrets. Early in the filming process, when set photos and cam videos from outdoor Pittsburgh shoots flooded the Internet, a few of us (myself included) feared that overwhelming fan interest in Rises would saturate the market before Nolan had a chance to present his film. But despite rumors of Lazarus pits and broken backs, we still know very little about The Dark Knight Rises as we patiently await the film’s July 20 release date.
No matter who’s to credit (or blame), the buzz surrounding Rises is deafening. Even though the film had little to no presence at San Diego Comic Con this year, it was the only movie people wanted to talk about when we gathered in bars late at night. It has been the proverbial elephant in the room since the summer movie season began. We’ll all get to see the film soon enough. And maybe it will be a masterpiece. But here’s what I’ve concluded: There’s no way The Dark Knight Rises can live up to the pre-release hype.
And really, I say that only because I’m not sure any movie can live up to the expectations surrounding Rises. Listening to Batman fans speculate over Nolan’s film at Comic Con, I began to realize how many have a version of the film in their head, already. They’ve combed over the footage Nolan allowed them to see, and they’ve pre-programmed the story’s beats into a format that only exists in their own minds. In some – OK, many – theories, Batman dies. In others, Bruce Wayne dies, but the symbol of the Bat lives on. In virtually all, Joseph Gordon-Levitt wears some version of the Batman suit.
All of those may happen. None of them may happen. But the longer fans have the chance to ruminate on what they want to see, the greater chance they have of being disappointed by what actually screens, because – for various reasons – it’s not as cool as you imagined it. It didn’t play out the way you’d hoped. The refrain we all hear after a screening when fans get together to talk is, “Yeah, but they should have done this, instead.”
Nolan might stick the landing. Rises may be the sequel we deserve, while also not being the sequel we need right now. (to paraphrase Lieutenant Gordon.) But it did get me wondering as we inch closer to the release date: What does Rises need to accomplish to be deemed an overwhelming success? And I don’t mean content wise, because fair or not, Nolan’s film is going to be judged on far more than simple content when it comes to the bigger picture.
Does Rises need to beat The Avengers at the box office? The moment Joss Whedon’s blockbuster drop-kicked the summer movie season into the stratosphere, columnists began pitting Marvel’s superhero ensemble against Nolan’s Caped Crusader. Maybe Rises shatters opening weekend records the way The Dark Knight did in 2008. At the same time, Rises is a longer film than any of its Bat predecessors. That means few screenings per day. And while Nolan is presenting the film in IMAX, Warner won’t get the 3D ticket-price bump that aided Avengers’ overall haul. If Rises can’t catch (or pass) The Avengers, did it fail?
Here’s another aspect to consider. A reaction quote from a journo who managed to see Rises early circulated around Twitter. I’m paraphrasing, but the person basically called Rises a masterpiece, and said if it doesn’t win a Best Picture Oscar, then no superhero movie ever will take that top prize.
Now, that’s setting the bar extremely high. But again, Nolan helped raise these stakes, so he has to deal with the consequences. Many believe the uproar heard when The Dark Knight was omitted from the Best Picture race led to the addition of BP nominees. What if those changes to the Oscar race still don’t benefit a Nolan Batman film? Will fans storm the Academy with pitchforks and torches? If Rises doesn’t get an Oscar nomination – specifically a Best Picture nomination – did it fail?
Honestly, I think the answer to both of those scenarios is a resounding, “No.” Rises does not have to reinvent the wheel to be considered a massive success. If Nolan figures out a way to tie this final chapter into his previous two installments, then Batman fans can rejoice in owning a near-flawless trilogy centered around their beloved D.C. superhero. Nolan already has established a new blueprint for the superhero origin story. He helped Heath Ledger redefine an iconic figure in The Joker. And he’s likely going to deliver a rock-solid capper to an impressively stoic, noble and respectful Batman trilogy. That alone should be enough. But we’ll see if Nolan and Rises can match the hype and meet that fans’ elevated expectations.
In the meantime, the fire, as well as the anticipation, rises.
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