Heads up: this article deals heavily with spoilers from The Dark Knight Rises. Beware!
Fan service: the most delicate of comic book movie moments.
When crafting an adaptation of a well-known property — be it a comic book, old film or anything remotely founded in pop culture knowledge — the balance between reinvention and homage is always tricky. Do you make the film for the invested fan base with the potential of leaving the uninitiated in the dust, or do you broaden the scope, scrap the geeky details that made it popular in the first place in hopes of hooking a larger audience? In Hollywood, it's generally the latter, but the wisest of filmmakers have found ways of weaving source material details or inside jokes into their movies that serve as a wink to dedicated fans. Marvel Pictures is the master of fan service; Iron Man's after credit scene, in which Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) recruits Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) for the "Avengers Initiative" only made sense to true comic book fans. In 2012, that same seed that made The Avengers into a $600 million blockbuster.
Christopher Nolan's Batman movies have never been as dedicated to the comic book inspiration as any of Marvel's big screen properties — but still, that hasn't stopped the director from throwing fans a few bones. The conclusion of Batman Begins was the ultimate teaser: a recovered piece of evidence that pointed directly to the eventual inclusion of The Joker, Batman's greatest adversary. The fan service moment tied directly into the film's conclusion, signifying Batman's place in the dynamic of Gotham City. A new baddie? Batman's on the scene. Nolan paid it off with The Dark Knight, putting The Joker front and center, a presence that was so commanding, there was little room for wink wink moments of Batman mythology.
Four years after The Dark Knight, Nolan serves up the third and final installment, The Dark Knight Rises — an episode unexpectedly chock full of fan service. Unlike its Marvel counterparts (which take every possible moment to throw something in the background of a scene that can be traced backwards or forward to other films), Nolan's world building in the Batman franchise has been internal and rarely predicated on nods to the comics. One especially inspired choice has been the return of The Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) in every entry. In some ways, his appearance in The Dark Knight Rises is fan service — Murphy's deliciously sadistic take spices up the grim reality and always inspires cheers — but he's also a keystone of the Gotham City Nolan has constructed over the past decade. He should pop up because he's part of the fabric of Gotham's underbelly.
This is where the rest of The Dark Knight Rises' fan service takes a turn for the bewildering. Nolan has never let his Batman bad guys feel like random choices, always choosing members of the rogue's gallery for thematic connectivity over who would make the best action figure. Bane and Catwoman are great choices for Batman's peaceful fight for socioeconomic equality. From a fan's point of view, they're characters we know and love, but they don't feel like decisions made to serve that burning desire. But in the last few minutes of The Dark Knight Rises, the name-dropping goes off the rails. Tying Bane's past into Ra's Al Ghul and the League of Shadows is intriguing, logical connective tissue to Batman Begins, but revealing Miranda Tate to be Ra's' daughter Talia screams fan service. In the comics, Talia's allegiances to both justice and terrorism helps her become a dimensional character and a romantic interest for Bruce Wayne. She would have fit right in to TDKR (and even without her appearance, Liam Neeson's return as a memory of Ra's Al Ghul's works perfectly in the movie) — but not as a late-in-the-game reveal. When Talia finally pulls off her mask as Bane's puppeteer, there's little build up to it, a blank moment left to be filled in by people who know their Batman. Talia could have been a movie all her own had she been revealed earlier on, but in The Dark Knight Rises she helps overstuff the movie.
Even more facepalm-worthy is the reveal of John Blake (played earnestly by Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Another great character undercooked by the sheer volume and ambition of The Dark Knight Rises, the serious and heartfelt cop runs with the inspiration of Batman's sacrifice and prepares to take on the mantle of the Caped Crusader in the final moments of the film. Picking up a package left for him by Wayne, we get a blindsided moment of fan service: apparently, Blake's real name is Robin. John Robin Blake? Robin John Blake? John Blake Robin? The true organization of Blake's full name could stand as one of cinema's greatest questions, but which ever way it's assembled, the nod to Batman's Boy Wonder is cringe-worthy in the context of Nolan's trilogy. Why throw in the joke? For years, fans have speculated whether Nolan would dare introduce Robin into his films. But the casual inclusion works against the film's emotional finale. Blake could have simply been a man inspired by the greatness of Batman. Instead, he's tied to the comics in a goofy manner. (And Nolan has opened up a can of worms: prepare for a year of speculation on whether we'll see a Robin film starring Gordon-Levitt.)
Earlier this summer, we saw The Amazing Spider-Man trail off with a baffling mid-credit teaser scene. The two and a half hour film took its action out on an energetic scene of Spidey zipping through New York City — but the filmmakers wanted more. A tease. We got one more snippet of footage, a villain non-reveal that drains the film of all its last minute thrills. To a lesser degree, this is what happens to The Dark Knight Rises. Batman's final moments are breathtaking, guiding a timed atom bomb out of the city limits in one last moment of triumph (the action of this scene is so thrilling, there's little time to even process Talia Al Ghul). But as the final minutes play out, with Robin discovering the Batcave and the revelation that Wayne is — what!? — alive, Dark Knight Rises plays itself out with a less concrete finale that ultimately takes away from the emotional fulfillment. That's the trouble with fan service: playing the right card at the exact right amount can be a powerful connection with the audience. Playing it at the wrong time... and you get whatever the heck was going on in Green Lantern (a movie this Green Lantern nut absolutely dug, but found himself defending as the minority, and understandably so).
I love Batman and I love the colorful, expansive world that's been built up for decades in the comics. But when it comes to the movies, there's a careful balance to be found that Dark Knight Rises just didn't nail this time around. But what say you? Did you find the ending of Dark Knight Rises fulfilling? Did it nod to Batman in all the right ways or was it overkill?
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
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[Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures]