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Documentary on Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy: The Fire Rises

by Lambert Varias

The Fire Rises is a behind-the-scenes documentary about Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. It’s originally exclusive to the movies’ Ultimate Collection disc bundle, but a copy of it has inevitably found its way online. I highly suggest that you watch it before it gets taken down. Or grab the Blu-rays or DVDs.

As you’d expect, there’s a considerable amount of back-patting and hyperbolic mission-vision statements here. I nearly stopped watching when casting director John Papsidera said they were analyzing which actors “had enough darkness in their soul.” Really? But overall it’s an informative piece that will make you appreciate Nolan and crew’s contribution to superhero movies.

The documentary’s central theme is that Nolan wanted to make a grounded philosophical movie – which ended up being a trilogy – that just so happened to use Batman and his associated characters as the mirrors that focused and reflected modern day issues at the audience. Like Frank Miller, Nolan et al questioned if one man or a even handful of people could actually help the world – our world – by taking drastic measures, and whether these people comprehended or cared about the unintended consequences of their actions. It seems normal to talk about the Dark Knight trilogy in this way now. But as often pointed out in the documentary, previous superhero movies were popcorn flicks, not intentional philosophical or social discussions, as their source material had become decades ago.

That clarity and Nolan’s conviction to follow through on his treatment despite previous superhero movies mainly focusing on the genre’s potential for fantasy, escapism and of course merchandise served as the trilogy’s north star.

For instance, when the suits at Warner Bros. told Nolan that Batman Begins had to have a Batmobile, Nolan agonized over how he could incorporate such a ridiculous element to his world, especially when you consider the vehicle’s previous versions. We all know that they came up with a great solution to that dilemma. Then there’s Christian Bale’s now legendary decision to change Bruce Wayne’s voice to a monstrous growl when he’s Batman. Or Heath Ledger leaving flecks of makeup on his hands.

The documentary didn’t touch on this, but perhaps one of the best examples of Nolan’s insistence on making this film grounded is that Batman actually quit by the end of the trilogy. Batman quit! It sounds pathetic and defeatist, but it really was the only believable happy ending to this story. Over the course of the three films, this well-meaning traumatized terrorist tried to show the citizens of Gotham that there were vile souls among them, and while they’re powerful, it’s possible to weed them out and make them pay for their sins. But his actions also brought catastrophic levels of violence and trauma to the city. Evil pushed back, and Batman unwittingly attracted the worst villains to Gotham – the exact opposite of what he was trying to accomplish.

So either he dies while carrying on his crusade, or Gotham accepts that it must collectively take the load off his back. It makes life harder for everyone individually, but they come out safer as a whole. The MCU’s Tony Stark has this same vision now – the goal of heroes is to have a world that doesn’t need them – but Nolan’s Batman was long headed for such a resolution.

And this is what I hope DC and Warner Bros. don’t miss about how the trilogy played out as they look to milk the superhero genre. Batman v Superman plays up the grimdark that the trilogy does have in spades, but I feel like Snyder’s movie missed that Nolan’s films firmly established reasons for its bleak outlook and, equally important, left room for a positive outcome. The trilogy asked a lot of questions, but it believed that humanity could come up with decent answers. It presented a dark past and present but it wasn’t hopeless. It wasn’t a downward spiral but a slowly rising arc. So yeah, watch the documentary and let’s be grateful that these miracle triple A films happened. Even though the third one sucked. But that’s a discussion for another day.

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