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Trilogy Trouble

I am, as you may know, an English teacher. As such, I’ve got a particular sensitivity towards using words correctly. The wonderful thing about words, you see, is that by using them properly you can be much more specific in your meaning… more descriptive, more precise and, therefore, more effective in making the intent of your words clear. If I wanted to say, in one word, that something has been broken into ten pieces, I should be able to use the word “decimate,” because that was its original meaning. But too many people used it as a synonym for “destroy,” and now that secondary – and far less specific – meaning is also considered correct. And it irritates me. And it’s the same vein of irritation that strikes me when I hear people throw around the word “trilogy” willy-nilly.

Dark Knight TrilogyStrictly speaking, a “trilogy” can refer to any series of three, but I think using it that way cheapens its usage. The word “trilogy” should be reserved to refer to something a little different than just “three.” These days, it seems to be  popular to group movies into trilogies, perhaps because it’s so attractive package them together in a DVD box set. You can go out and buy the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Dark Knight trilogy, the Back to the Future trilogy, each with three films in a series, each of which fits the definition to varying degrees. But are they true trilogies? How about the X-Men trilogy? There have been two movies released since they started calling it that, although one could argue that they aren’t part of the original series, but rather spin-offs… but next year’s X-Men: First Class seems poised to tie everything together. Can you still make that arguement? There are three films with Evil Dead in the title, but when people talk about an Evil Dead trilogy they mean Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness.  And then there’s my personal favorite, the Star Trek Trilogy. In a series with either six, ten, or eleven movies (depending on how you count), the boxed set with “trilogy” on the cover collects numbers two through four, because technically, those are the only ones that take place (chronologically) one after another.

Let me break this down, guys.

The True Trilogy.

Lord of the Rings TrilogyIn my personal, extremely picky (I know) vernacular, a true trilogy is one story told in three parts. The Lord of the Rings, for example, is a true trilogy. (Yes, I know Professor Tolkien never actually wanted to split the book into three volumes, that it was done on the insistence of a publisher who didn’t think people would want to purchase a novel the length of a phone book. For the purposes of this semantic discussion, that’s not actually important.) For me to consider it a true trilogy, it needs to be planned as such… maybe not necessarily conceived in three parts, but once finished, part three should end with the ending the author was working towards all along. True trilogies, by my definition, are really quite rare.

It’s not uncommon for someone to claim a story was intended as a trilogy even when it wasn’t. These usually don’t hold up to close scrutiny – the original Star Wars trilogy, for example… as much as I love the first three movies, if you watch them together it seems terribly unlikely that George Lucas had decided that Leia and Luke were brother and sister when he wrote the first screenplay, and even the question of Luke’s parentage isn’t a slam-dunk in that first film. Try to handwave it as being a “certain point of view” all you want, Obi-Wan – either you lied to Luke in Episode IV or Lucas hadn’t decided yet that Vader was Anakin Skywalker. The third Scream film also tries to claim trilogy status as well – Jamie Kennedy’s character appears in a post-mortem video that lays out the “trilogy rules” – but it’s written by a different writer than the first two films and the story it tells makes the second film (which was considerably better than the third) largely irrelevant, from a narrative standpoint. True trilogies are hard to find, but easy to confirm.

Far more common is…

The Retroactive Trilogy.

Star Wars TrilogyA Retroactive Trilogy is what you get when a storyteller doesn’t have any solid or specific plans for a sequel, but once the first movie turns out to be a success, comes up with two more films that more or less go together. The original Star Wars, most likely, fits into this category much better than the “true trilogy” category. There are differing reports as to how much of Return of the Jedi was mapped out when Empire Strikes Back was written, it seems that at least some sort of framework was planned… as Luke is leaving Dagobah and Obi-Wan calls him “our last hope,” Yoda replies, “No… there is another.” Did they know the “other” was Leia when they wrote that line? I dunno. But they were at least thinking.

The problem with these Retroactive Trilogies is that sometimes the writers simply try too hard. They build everything up in part two to some gargantuan cliffhanger, but along the way they’re throwing so many things at the audience that the story starts to get lost and garbled. Then, when part three comes along, they’ve gotten so jumbled up that they just can’t untie the knot before the end. I don’t have the hatred for the Matrix sequels that some people do, but I can’t deny they fell victim to this problem. Even worse, I’d argue, were the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean films. Not coincidentally, I liked the fourth Pirates film much better than two or three, mostly because the plot had almost nothing to do with the previous three films, simply throwing Jack Sparrow and Captain Barbossa into another standalone adventure.

Back to the Future TrilogyOne of the best Retroactive Trilogies I’ve ever seen is the Back to the Future series, with second and third installments that are entertaining in their own right, extend the world built in the first, tie back to the beginning in a logical way, and each have their own clear identity. But they’re still, to be clear, a retroactive trilogy. Yes, I know, we’ve all seen that “To Be Continued” logo at the end of Part I a million times… which is why most people forget that it wasn’t actually in the theatrical cut, but added to the VHS release after the first movie was a hit and the studio decided to go on and make some sequels.

The Trilogy in Name Only.

This is the one that really irritates me. When the trailers for Oz the Great and Powerful came out, they identified Sam Raimi as the “director of the Spider-Man trilogy.” Which made me bristle. The three Raimi-helmed Spider-Man movies are in no way a trilogy… not planned as such, not conceived as such, not executed as such. Aside from the lead characters, the only arc that even remotely welds them together is that of Harry Osborne, whose significance in Spider-Man 2 was negligible. Furthermore, Raimi never intended to stop at three. There were plans, at one point, to go to six films, but after Spider-Man 3 left audiences disappointed and Tobey Maguire hurt his back, everyone decided to walk away from the franchise and let someone else take a crack at it. (Incidentally, there are reports that the current Amazing Spider-Man film is intended to launch a trilogy. Whether there’s actually a three-part story planned or whether it’s just marketing using that word because they think it sounds sophisticated remains to be seen.)

Blade TrilogyA Trilogy in Name Only is what you get when a series happens to end after the third installment. Blade, for example. Ocean’s Eleven. The original Robocop franchise. None of these were planned as three-volume stories. These just happened to stop after three movies for various reasons – failure of the third installment, age or lack of interest in the principal actors, whatever. Despite that, these films frequently get packaged and marketed as “trilogies.” Even the Godfather franchise falls under this category.

Sometimes, though, fourth films get made after a series seems over, taking away even its faux “trilogy” status. Toy Story is currently in this category, but every time you turn around it seems someone is starting a rumor about Pixar working on a Toy Story 4. (Seeing as how the third Toy Story had perhaps the greatest ending of any animated film in history, I really think that would be a huge mistake, but that’s an argument for another time.) You can find DVD sets of the TransFormers films marketed as a “trilogy” even as the fourth film is under production, and I distinctly remember the Saw movies marketed as a “trilogy” even back when they were actively cranking out a new movie every darn year.

What’s more, we’ve entered the age of the drastically-delayed sequel, which is taking older films that used to fall into this category and turn them into longer franchises: Die Hard, Indiana Jones… these used to be called trilogies, then fourth films came out. The same thing will happen to Jurassic Park next year.

Remakes or spin-offs incidentally, do not take a film out of this category. They’re working on a Robocop remake, but they’ll still market the original as a trilogy. They marked The Mummy franchise as a trilogy because they can easily (and rightfully) ignore the Scorpion King films.

Evil Dead TrilogyEvil Dead is an interesting case, as the new film is being presented as a remake, while at the same time the creators are publicly talking about continuing the original series (with an Army of Darkness 2) and eventually making a film that would bring the two incarnations of the franchise into a collision course. After AoD2 and a new Evil Dead 2, they’re considering a film that would feature Bruce Campbell’s Ash meeting Jane Levy’s Mia in a film that – I feel comfortable saying – would finally force the American Film Institute to stop placing Citizen Kane at the top of its “100 Greatest Films of All Time” list. At any rate, doing this would make for seven films total… two Ash Evil Dead movies, two Army of Darkness movies (also starring Ash), two Mia Evil Dead movies, then whatever they would call the final film.

None of this is to make any particular claims about the qualities of any film in any given category. There have been bad “true” trilogies and terrible “retroactive” trilogies. Sometimes a trilogy in name only can have three fantastic movies (and by “sometimes” I mean “mostly in the case of the Toy Story films”). This isn’t about judging any film as superior to any other. This is all about a plea from me to use words the way they are intended. If it ain’t a trilogy, don’t call it one.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

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Batman Week Day 5: Christian Bale in The Dark Knight (2008)

??Director: Christopher Nolan

Writers: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer

Cast: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Monique Gabriela Curnen, Chin Han, Cillian Murphy, Nestor Carbonell, Eric Roberts, Anthony Michael Hall, Colin McFarlane, Michael Jai White, Joshua Harto

Plot: A group of men wearing clown masks break into and rob a bank in Gotham City, each of them killing another according to their mysterious plan. The last of them, a scarred man in makeup called the Joker (Heath Ledger) boards a school bus full of cash and rides away.

Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), a Scarecrow-masked villain who escaped Batman before, plans an operation in a parking garage, only to be interrupted by several men wearing Batman masks and sporting guns. As a shootout begins, the real Batman (Christian Bale) arrives, taking out criminals and fake Batmen alike. He warns the pretenders to leave the crimefighting to him.

Wayne and his butler, Alfred (Michael Caine) meet in a secret bunker they’ve been using since the destruction of Wayne Manor. They discuss the new District Attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who is prosecuting gangster Salvadore Maroni (Eric Roberts). Dent celebrates his progress with his girlfriend — and Bruce Wayne’s ex — Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), before meeting up with Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman), asking him to arrange a meeting with the Batman. That evening, Bruce has dinner with Rachel and Dent. Impressed by the new DA, Bruce offers to hold a fundraiser for him with friends that will fill his coffers for life. Meanwhile, the Joker interrupts a teleconference between a Chinese businessman named Lau (Chin Han) and the rest of the Gotham underworld. The Joker says they need to eliminate Batman – a task he’s happy to perform for a mere half of their bounty.

Batman meets Dent and Gordon, and the three of them make a pact – if Batman can bring them Lau, they’ll use him to bring down the rest. Bruce makes a visit to Wayne executive Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), who is secretly supplying him with impressive technology. He sneaks off to Hong Kong, where Lucius plants a sonar-like device that allows Batman to track Lau and bring him to Gotham. Dent, Gordon and Rachel interrogate Lau, making a deal that will allows Gordon and the GCPD make over 500 arrests in the next few days. The mayor (Nestor Carbonell) is upset at Dent for overloading the system until Dent points out that, although many of the top criminals will soon be out of jail, most of the lower-level hoods will be tied up for months, giving them the time needed to clean the streets. Their meeting is interrupted by the body of one of the false Batmen, lynched and painted to look like the Joker, dropped from the roof. The news shows a video of the victim being tortured by the Joker, who demands Batman unmask and turn himself in or the killings will continue.

That night is Dent’s fundraiser, where Bruce gives him a ringing endorsement. Rachel is angry at him, thinking he was mocking Dent, but Bruce swears he meant every word. He sees Dent as the man who can create a Gotham that will no longer need a Batman, at which point he and Rachel can be free to be together. Minutes later, she and Dent are alone, and he proposes to her, but she has no answer.  As the party continues, the Joker kills the police commissioner and the judge who indicted Dent’s 500 crooks, then comes after Dent. Bruce knocks Dent out and hides him, then faces the Joker as Batman, just barely saving Rachel. A newspaper at a subsequent crime scene indicates who the Joker’s next target will be: the mayor.

Lucius is approached by a Wayne employee named Reese (Joshua Harto) who is investigating the tech Lucius has funneled towards Bruce. Lucius laughs at the notion of blackmailing a man who spends his evenings beating criminals within an inch of their life. At a memorial service for the slain commissioner, the Joker attacks again. Gordon saves the mayor, but is shot himself. Dent takes away one of the hoods working for the Joker, finding a hint that Rachel is next. Batman brutalizes Maroni, but Maroni refuses to talk, being more afraid of the Joker than the Bat. Dent, meanwhile, has the gunman tied up and starts flipping a coin to determine if he’ll shoot the man or not. Batman arrives, telling Dent he has to remain pure, the symbol of hope Gotham needs. He tells Dent to hold a press conference in the morning, where he’ll give himself up. Before he can do so, though, Dent claims to be the Batman himself and is taken away.

Rachel gives Alfred a letter to pass on to Bruce “when the time is right,” then goes to see Dent in jail, where he’s being transferred to another facility. He gives her his coin, revealing it’s two-headed, and that he always “makes his own luck.” In transit, the Joker attacks. After a spectacular chase and battle sequence, the Joker has Batman on his back and is about to remove his mask, but is taken down from behind by a cop: Jim Gordon, very much alive. When they return to the police station with the Joker, triumphant, the Mayor announces Gordon’s promotion to police commissioner.

The joy is short-lived, however, when Dent goes missing. Batman interrogates the Joker, who tells him Dent is in a warehouse full of explosives, and Rachel is in a second one. Batman rushes to save Rachel, while Gordon goes after Dent. In the chaos, the Joker escapes. Rachel, who has an open phone line to Dent, tells him she will marry him. Batman discovers the Joker lied – he’s gone after Dent, not Rachel. The bombs go off and half of Dent’s face is terribly scarred. In the other warehouse, Rachel is killed. Batman finds Dent’s two-headed coin in the wreckage, one side blackened and charred. He returns it to Dent and goes home, where Alfred hides Rachel’s letter (revealing her intention to marry Dent), allowing him to believe Rachel was going to wait for him.

Reese goes on television with the intention of announcing the secret he’s found: the true identity of the Batman. The Joker calls the TV studio and says he’s changed his mind about Batman’s identity being revealed, so he issues an ultimatum: if Reese is still alive in 60 minutes, he’ll blow up a hospital. The Joker sneaks into Dent’s hospital room, preaching to him a gospel of chaos, and Dent decides to leave things to chance. He’ll flip his coin – clean side, the Joker lives, burned side, he dies. Moments later the Joker walks away, blowing up the hospital behind him. Dent is missing again.

The Joker announces that anyone left in Gotham will be playing by “his rules” by nightfall, and that people using the bridges and tunnels are in for a surprise. As people cram onto ferries to escape, Dent begins going after the criminals and corrupt cops tied in to Rachel’s death, flipping his coin to decide who’ll live and die each time. Lucius discovers Bruce has adapted his sonar device to allow him to use every cell phone in Gotham as a tracker. He’s disturbed at the invasion of privacy and agrees to help Batman find the Joker, but this will end their partnership. Batman tells him to type his name into the device when he’s finished.

The Joker incapacitates two ferries: one full of citizens, one full of criminals being transported by the police, each loaded with bombs. He’s also given each ferry a device he claims will detonate the bomb on the other ferry. If one of the boats hasn’t exploded by midnight, he’ll blow them both up. On the civilian ferry, the passengers vote to blow up the criminals, but nobody can bring themselves to do it. One of the convicts, meanwhile, takes the detonator from the guard and throws it overboard. Lucius tracks the Joker down and Batman chases after him, but another trick forces Batman to fight the police to get to him. Although defeated, the Joker is in high spirits, anticipating a long future of playing his game with the Batman.

Dent has kidnapped Gordon’s wife and children and brought them to the site where Rachel died. As Batman and Gordon confront him, Dent asks why – of the three of them – he was the only one who had to pay the price for their quest to save Gotham. He nearly kills James Jr., but Batman saves him, Dent dying in the process. He and Gordon agree to allow Gotham City to think Batman is responsible for Dent’s rampage, believing the myth of Harvey Dent to be more important to the city than the truth. When Lucius types his name into the sonar device, it self-destructs, proving to him that he had Bruce’s faith all along. Batman goes into hiding, allowing the city to make him the villain so it could have the hero it deserves, with only the Gordons knowing the truth about the Dark Knight.

Thoughts: The nature of this project being what it is, I could only allow myself to pick one of the three films from Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy.” Rather than the first or last, I decided to go with the best film of the three, perhaps one of the best superhero movies ever made. But again, as I discuss it, expect spoilers for the whole series, because this is really here as an excuse for me to discuss the franchise as a whole.

Batman BeginsThis being the Batman Icons project, let’s start with Christian Bale himself. When Bale and Nolan came onto the franchise in 2005’s Batman Begins, they had the unenviable task of making up for the mess the Burton franchise became after the dreaded Joel Schumaker took it over. (I spent the better part of a decade firmly believing that Batman and Robin was not merely the worst of the franchise, but perhaps the worst superhero movie ever made. To this day, I struggle internally to decide whether or not Halle Berry’s Catwoman actually took that top spot away.)

The world Nolan created and Bale inhabited is as close to perfect as a live-action Batman has ever been. They tried to make it as realistic as possible, dropping any element of fantasy the previous versions used and making the technology as plausible as they could. All three of the films in the trilogy have at least one piece of tech that seems to fit firmly in the realm of science fiction, but none of them are as out of the blue as so many of the toys the Burton films conjured up.  More importantly, the story and performances have a ring of truth, of authenticity to them that no previous version managed to capture. Although this is a superhero movie, structurally speaking it’s much more like a classic crime drama, a tale of steadfast police trying to take down the scum that have torn their city down. Nolan’s Batman universe has far more in common with The Untouchables than it does with the world of Adam West.

Bale is a pitch-perfect Bruce Wayne, able to put on the flaky playboy image in front of everybody but Alfred and Rachel, and becoming a determined warrior as soon as he’s in a safe place. He’s gotten some flak from people about the gruff voice he puts on as Batman, and yes, it’s somewhat exaggerated, but it’s never bothered me. The comics have often pointed out that Bruce alters his voice when he puts on the mask, and an abrasive tone is just fine. And honestly, if that’s the biggest complaint you can conjure up for Christian Bale’s performance, that still places him light-years ahead of, say, Val Kilmer. (I didn’t discuss Kilmer’s Batman Forever in this project, but in short, he gave us a Batman that’s short and flippant and a Bruce Wayne that was dark and brooding, exactly the opposite of every sane or logical comportment the character has ever had.)

Another reason I had to pick this film instead of the other two is because of the villains – the best two of the franchise and proof that it is, in fact, possible to make a superhero movie with multiple villains that doesn’t fall apart under its own weight. Heath Ledger’s Joker has become truly iconic, and probably would have done so even if he had not died before the film was released. This version of the character is nearly impossible to qualify, especially compared to earlier versions. He uses the veneer of madness that we expect from the Joker, but in his behavior he comes across more like a complete nihilist, a man dedicated to anarchy because of his philosophy rather than because he’s simply crazy. The Nolans and Goyer, crafting the story, picked up on the best parts of the character from the comics, particularly Alan Moore’s notion from Batman: The Killing Joke.  Here, they dismiss efforts to give the character a true “origin,” for the Joker says if he has to have a past, he wants it to be multiple choice. As a nod to that, each time the Joker talks about how he got his scars in this movie, he tells a different tale. That lingering question mark, leaving his past open instead of filling in every blank like Burton did, makes him all the more menacing. He’s the most terrifying vision of the character ever brought to screen, perhaps the most terrifying vision ever. Romero was goofy. Nicholson was dangerous, but still amusing. There’s nothing funny about this Joker, he’s a creature of terror.

As perfect as Heath Ledger’s Joker is, though, I think Aaron Eckhart is often overlooked as Harvey Dent. Everybody who went to this movie went in to see Batman and the Joker, but it’s Dent that’s the Shakespearian figure, the tragic hero that falls to the darkness. When we first meet Dent we see someone proud, idealistic, and determined to do good at any cost. Throughout the film his armor is chipped away – first by Rachel’s refusal of his proposal, next by the threat on her life, then a piece at a time until her death and his disfigurement. At that point his plunge over the abyss, his embracing of the Joker’s doctrine of chaos, seems utterly plausible. We weep in this movie for Harvey Dent, we bleed for the hero that Gotham needed, but that lived long enough to become the villain. Eckhart sells every minute of this transformation. Ledger got a posthumous Oscar for playing the Joker (a concession I still maintain was only given to him because he died – I simply can’t believe the turgid Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would have awarded a “comic book movie” if the actor was still alive), but I think Aaron Eckhart was every bit as deserving of a nomination.

Next, let’s look at Gary Oldman as Commissioner James Gordon, and I apologize if the comic nerd in me becomes even more pronounced here than it usually is. Most of the Batman characters allow for different interpretations, but the version of Gordon dearest to me is that of the one good cop in a sea of corruption, struggling to right the ship. He’s one of the greatest supporting characters in comic books precisely because of this, and he’s the one character that none of the live-action versions ever got right. The 1966 Gordon was inept. The Burton Gordon started out okay, but never impressive, and spiraled down into a clown by the time Schumaker was done with him. Goldman, though, was magnificent throughout three movies. It’s Batman’s series, but Gordon here is a true hero in his own right, and I would have been just as happy watching him as the star. When he was shot in this movie, I didn’t really believe he was dead (although I knew I couldn’t discount it, as Nolan had proven himself willing to toy with the mythology of the franchise). Despite that, when he revealed himself, taking down the Joker, I jumped out of my seat and cheered right there in the movie theater. (My fiancé, Erin, still laughs about that.)

DarkKnightRisesPosterThe third film in this trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, has caused a bit of a division between fans. Although I don’t want to spent too much time talking about that movie right now there’s one point of contention I want to address, because I believe The Dark Knight sets it up very well. At the end of that film (and c’mon, spoiler warnings if I really need to say it), Bruce fakes his death and passes on the responsibility of protecting Gotham to a good cop, John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). This upset a lot of comic readers I know who argue that Bruce Wayne would never quit, never retire, because it simply goes against his character. And if we’re talking about the character in the comic books, I agree. But as I’ve been saying all week, Batman is a character that allows for many interpretations, and to me, The Dark Knight justifies the retirement of this incarnation of Batman. Several times in this movie, Batman clearly expresses a desire to quit. He latches on to Harvey Dent because he sees in him a man who can create a Gotham that doesn’t need a Batman. He wants to give it up and be with Rachel, but he doesn’t feel like he’s earned it and refuses to leave Gotham without a hero. Although Rachel is dead in the third film, he manages to find happiness with Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) and a hero to take over for him. Even in the first movie, Batman Begins, the groundwork was laid when Bruce indicates to Rachel that they can’t be together as long as Gotham needs Batman, as well as in an early conversation with Alfred where he makes it clear that he needs to be a symbol rather than a human being. If your version of Batman doesn’t allow for that, I can respect that. That’s pretty much how I feel about the 1966 version, after all. But I think it’s perfectly consistent with the world that Nolan created.

But this discussion is supposed to be about The Dark Knight, and I think it is The Dark Knight that is the Batman masterpiece. Warner Bros is already talking about restarting the franchise with a new Batman, as Nolan’s story is done, and I guess I’m okay with that. He’s been rebooted before, after all. But I can’t help but wish they’d wait a little bit longer, let this trilogy completely digest and fade a little bit before moving on to something new, because anything they try to do next will inevitably be compared to Christopher Nolan, Christian Bale, and Heath Ledger. And unless they pull off a feat of storytelling virtually unheard of in filmgoing circles, almost any movie that invites an immediate comparison to The Dark Knight will inevitably be left wanting.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!