Christopher Nolan is daring us to ask the question.
Attempting — as difficult as it is — to turn the focus from the senseless tragedy at last week’s midnight screening in Colorado back to a purely cinematic discussion about Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, the question is quickly asked: Is it the best third film in a series ever?
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in October 2008, after the acclaimed release of the second film in the series, The Dark Knight, Nolan was asked about his interest in making a third Batman film. He said it would come down to an emphasis on story. Is there a compelling enough story to be told to revisit the franchise? Then he added:
“On a more superficial level, I have to ask the question: How many good third movies in a franchise can people name? [Laughs.] At the same time, in taking on the second one, we had the challenge of trying to make a great second movie, and there haven’t been too many of those either.”
Note that Nolan set the bar pretty low, asking only for “good third movies in a franchise.” That’s sporting of him, because after going through this exercise for a few days now, there really isn’t much of a list to delineate and rank. Let’s review the obvious candidates and determine how Nolan’s finale stacks up.
Return of the Jedi (1983)
The godfather of all trilogies isn’t The Godfather, ironically. It’s George Lucas’ original Star Wars series. With 21st century eyes, we can see now that Lucas shot his creative wad with The Empire Strikes Back and didn’t give himself enough time to reload before wrapping up the series.
Jedi isn’t awful, per se. It had enough juice and payoff to make it relevant. But it also had enough head-scratchingly bad moments to portend the train wreck that would be The Phantom Menace. The Ewoks were a harbinger for Jar-Jar. Lucas warned us; we just didn’t listen.
Edge: Dark Knight Rises, in a landslide
Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
Middle Earth jumps back into the zeitgeist with the forthcoming prequel The Hobbit due out in December. Director-writer Peter Jackson stayed fervently loyal to the classic J.R.R. Tolkien tales, and critics and box office receipts loved it. Epic, visually enthralling and intense? Sure. But — I hope I don’t get tossed into Mount Doom for saying this — the whole thing felt a bit bloated and lacked heart.
Edge: Dark Knight Rises for making you care
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Full disclosure: I think Raiders of the Lost Ark might be the most perfect film ever made. Word for word, note for note, shot for shot, everything was exactly as it should be. Was it any wonder that its follow-up (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) was going to suck out loud? Enter the third film, where Indy joins his father on a quest for the Holy Grail. It was so much better than the Doom-ed sequel that I tend to think people overrate it. It was fine, really. Good, even. But not great. Side note: Let’s all pretend like 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull never happened. Deal?
Edge: Dark Knight Rises
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
Director Alfonso Cuarón knew what Nolan found out a year later: Gary Oldman makes everything better. Inserting Oldman and Cuarón’s grim style to the world of Hogwarts elevated the Harry Potter series from safe, kiddie-bookworm fare to something wicked good.
Edge: Close call, but Dark Knight Rises
The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
All these films were good, but I got so dizzy by the threequel, I couldn’t tell them apart.
Edge: Dark Knight Rises
Toy Story 3 (2010)
I started to sense a pattern in this list. And then Toy Story 3 happened. A cowboy doll and a toy space ranger managed to do to Batman what no other characters from any other movie on this list could: beat him. Toy Story 3 is not only the best chapter of its own series; it’s the best third film in any series on record. Funny, whimsical, exciting and more emotionally power-packed than any animated film should be allowed to be.
Edge: Toy Story 3
You can say this for Nolan: When he made that comment, the one great third film hadn’t been made yet. So maybe he was right to worry.
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