It always seems like the summer movie season begins earlier every year, but it doesn't, not really. The unofficial beginning in 2012 is May 4, when The Avengers—a movie that's so big, apparently, that it turned massive tentpole films like Iron Man 2 and Thor into, essentially, prequels—opens wide, followed in subsequent weeks by Tim Burton's Dark Shadows, the Rihanna-screaming-G7!!-for-two-hours-infused Battleship, the New Year's Eve-but-with-horrifyingly-distended-vaginas ensemble comedy What To Expect When You're Expecting and whatever the hell Sasha Baron Cohen thinks he's doing with The Dictator.
May 4 might seem early for summer to start, but it isn't. Last year, Fast Five—which made more money than freaking Cars 2—came out on April 29. 2010: Iron Man 2, May 7. 2009: X-Men Origins: Wolverine, May 1. I see no apparent problem with this; now that I'm a grownup with a job that requires me to sit inside and stare at my computer all day, the movie schedule is sort of the only thing that reminds me that it is, in fact, summer, so if they want to expand that season past its natural breaking point, I will not stand in their way.
But if it's almost summer movie season, it's time to start thinking seriously about the only summer movie that matters this year. We are three months and one week away from the release of The Dark Knight Rises.
Sometimes I'm not sure people understand just how much of a miracle The Dark Knight really was. The film is still the third-highest-grossing film of all time—not adjusted for inflation—and I'm not sure there's another film in the top 100 that's half as profoundly and relentlessly dark. (With the possible exception of The Passion of the Christ, which is disturbing for entirely different reasons.) With The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan essentially:
• Took the globally recognized superhero lead character that was his main selling point and essentially turned him into a bystander in his own story.
• Turned summer entertainment into an extended and powerful metaphor for Bush-era police state invasiveness.
• Was a lot less on-the-nose about it than I was in that sentence right there.
• Sketched a surprisingly detailed character study of three men—Batman, Harvey Dent, and Commissioner Gordon—and how they react to chaos, personified by Heath Ledger's The Joker.
• Took one of the hoariest characters in the Batman canon and reinvented him—of course with assistance from an extremely skilled, daring actor—into something that's instantly become an icon of both movies and popular culture.
• Oh, yeah, didn't forget to skimp on some truly thrilling IMAX action sequences, including a breathtaking sequence that might be the best use of a Chicago location in movie history.
In short: The Dark Knight is pretty much perfect, once-in-a-lifetime kismet that led to a movie that was commercially irresistible, artistically impeccable, and emotionally wrenching. (After I saw The Dark Knight for the first time, I felt like I'd just run successive triathlons.) And the public went crazy for it. (It is also worth noting that some of this was driven by the rubbernecking after Heath Ledger's death.) Everything had to come together precisely the right way. It's so self-contained and excellent that the only real flaw is that its ending so obviously pointed toward a sequel/conclusion; part of me wanted The Dark Knight to exist by itself. The only thing that could sour it would be an inferior sequel, the Matrix problem.
Here we are, three months from the "epic conclusion," The Dark Knight Rises. The early signs, to be honest, were a bit ominous. The silliness of Anne Hathaway's Catwoman costume. The rumors that scenes would be filmed at Occupy Wall Street. Most worrisome: the prologue that was shown before IMAX screenings of Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol. The scene itself was staggering, particularly in IMAX, but the real issue was the total incomprehensibility of Tom Hardy's Bane; we don't ask much of our screen villains, but we do ask that they not sound like they are issuing threats while locked in a trunk at the bottom of a well.
Then the trailer came out. It's worth watching it again.
Pretty much everything is exactly what you'd want it to be, culminating in that shocking, surreal shot of Heinz Field exploding beneath Hines Ward's feet. That shot would be the most amazing one in any summer movie of the last 10 years. Here, it's tossed off in a trailer six months before the movie comes out. I've even watched the thing in slow motion. It was a vivid reminder that Christopher Nolan knows what he's doing; that he's going to finish this right.
And then it's going to be over. We're three months away, and it already feels like something is ending. Nolan says this will be his last Batman film, and the rest of the cast, particularly Bale, is out too. There will be more Batman movies, of course; there's too much money to be made for there not to be. But there will not be another trilogy like this one, not done this well, this smartly, in this vital of a fashion. (Try watching Tim Burton's original Batman today. It feels a lot more like the Adam West series than anyone realized 22 years ago.) I'd like to say that Nolan reinvented the summer blockbuster, but he didn't; it's still the same crap. Which somehow makes it more impressive. And that much sadder that it's going to end in three months. The Dark Knight Rises is a movie I'm anticipating so much that I'm already depressed that, at some point, I will have actually seen it.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch. Top image by Jim Cooke.