Staff Picks: The Dark Knight Rises

The second installment of a series showcasing our staff’s favorite movies and why they love them


Ron Phillips

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/Legendary Pictures/DC Entertainment/Syncopy

My favorite movie is a fluid situation. Generally, it stays consistent with two or three films that remain in the mix. The film which remains the highest in the rankings, regardless of time passing, is Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight.”

People always point to the Joker, the tone, or Nolan’s direction as the points of genius for this classic. While that’s true, the root of why this film is so incredibly satisfying is something else.

Genre alchemy.

This movie is working in two very distinct genres. One is obvious: the superhero movie. The other is what Nolan has called the “crime epic.” Gangster movies are a typical example of this genre.

Nolan talks about how each of the three movies marries the superhero genre with a different popular genre. “Batman Begins” was a superhero origin myth. “The Dark Knight Rises” was a superhero crime epic.

The difference between “The Dark Knight” and the other two is that while a superhero origin myth and a superhero disaster movie were both effective genre mash-ups, the superhero crime epic turned out to be perfect genre alchemy.

Why was it so perfect? Because it not only capitalized on everything that is great about both genres but by putting them together, it took the best of both genres and eliminated their flaws.

Superhero movies are inherently heightened and exciting. People in costumes going around causing and stopping mayhem, huge action sequences. It’s what they do well.

What they often suffer from is not feeling real. They’re not grounded because they wouldn’t happen. Crime epics, on the other hand, are gritty and real. They can be heightened and exciting, too. The problem, usually, is that they are joyless. They’re so dark and depressing that they can often be a slog to get through.

The alchemy of “The Dark Knight” was that it gives us all the fancifulness of a bat-suited hero and a crazy clown villain and all the realism of a typical American city ravaged by horrifying levels of crime. Thus, it was better than any other superhero movie and any crime epic, because by putting the two together, the genres solved each other’s flaws.

So, why didn’t the same thing happen with “Begins” and “Rises”?

Well, I think it’s because the genre mashups just aren’t quite as magical. Superhero plus origin myth? Those two genres are doing largely the same things: they’re both quite fanciful and unrealistic. Indeed, superhero movies are about heroes, and origin stories are essentially about people becoming heroes. They work well together, but they’re not creating crazy synergy with each other.

The same thing with a superhero plus disaster movie. Disaster movies just aren’t accurate to life. They’re about these big, crazy and earth-shattering events, not the dark realities of modern life. So no synergy there, either.

On the “Rotten Tomatoes is Wrong” podcast about “The Dark Knight Rises,” one of the critics shared the hot take that “The Dark Knight” was his least favorite of the trilogy. Why? Because the other two feel like comic book movies, he said, while “The Dark Knight” doesn’t.

I think that’s why the rest of us love “The Dark Knight” so much.

Because it feels so much more grounded and real than any other superhero movie out there. Of course, that was Nolan’s guiding vision for the trilogy as a whole, but in the other two movies, the genre was working against him in that goal.

In “The Dark Knight,” everything came together, the two genres completely complemented each other and Nolan was able to fully realize his vision and give us the Batman movie, the superhero movie, and the crime epic we both needed and deserved.