For a long time, the most popular (to the extent that anything on this blog can be described as popular) piece I’ve written was the one about Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s role in the Dark Knight Rises, and the early speculation that he would be cast as the Joker. At this point, we know much more about the film and it seems pretty clear that Gordon-Levitt will just play a young cop.
The most likely recurring villains will come from Batman Begins, with rumors that Cilian Murphy reprised his role as Scarecrow, and Liam Neeson returned as Ra’s Al Ghul for a flashback sequence. The finale of a trilogy typically goes back to the start, although the problem for Dark Knight Rises is that the second film was the most famous with more than double the box office of the first, along with a really acclaimed villain.
Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films had a slightly similar problem. The general consensus is that the second one is the best, although the difference isn’t as pronounced. Spider-Man 2 was a blockbuster, but it had a slightly lower box office than the first one. The different on imdb is minor (7.4 VS 7.6) as is the split on rotten tomatoes (89% VS 93%.) Doctor Octopus also died at the end of his film, his role in the overall mega-arc complete when Harry Osborn found his father’s weapons.
Nolan intentionally kept the Joker alive because he felt that Burton had made the mistake killing off the villain in 1989’s Batman. Jack Nicholson’s iteration of the Joker had been beloved enough to appear on the American Film Institute’s list of the Top 50 Villains. Ledger’s take on the character would certainly rank higher in any current list.
Due to Heath Ledger’s death, Nolan’s in the uncomfortable position of seemingly being unable to feature his most popular character in the sequel. The only precedent I can think of, in the context of good sequels, is literally Shakespearean, with Falstaff’s off-stage death in Henry V. In The Dark Knight, Nolan also killed off Two-Face, meaning that the conclusion of the trilogy won’t have any of the villains introduced in the best superhero film. For what it’s worth, Eric Roberts’s Sal Maroni also perished in the film. It seems that they’ll keep the character’s arc from The Dark Knight, but there isn’t much else they can incorporate for the sequel.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a talented actor, although it was still an interesting decision to choose a guy who some though would be perfect for a better known role that won’t be in The Dark Knight Rises. It’s sort of if Keith Richards was cast in Pirates of the Carribean, after all the chatter about him being the perfect choice to play Jack Sparrow’s dad, but the role turned out to be something completely different. I thought the Levitt casting was unprecedented, but that isn’t quite true. Before Emma Stone was cast as Gwen Stacy in The Amazing Spider-Man, there was speculation that she would be good as Mary Jane, so it may be a bit like of that. Although Kirsten Dunst’s take on MJ was not as beloved as Ledger’s Joker.
Dark Knight Rises will probably be a good film, although initial reviews aren’t spectacular. I doubt it’s just the absence of the Joker, since reviews for Batman Begins seem to be better. But this is a new narrative that was largely necessitated by Ledger’s death. Otherwise, Nolan’s Batman trilogy might have been more like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, where Gollum stole the show in The Two Towers and stuck around.
Instead, the focus is on a new type of threat. Though it could also mean that Nolan and company are going to introduce two more of the best villains in cinema, instead of just giving us more of a villain we’ve already seen.