Trailer Analysis: Dark Knight Rises

Filmmaking is an art form and the same can be said for the art of cutting trailers. Much thought goes into trailers, particularly when it concerns major blockbusters like, for example, The Dark Knight Rises. I’ve talked a bit about movie marketing, so I thought I would apply these ideas to an in-depth analysis of the recently released DKR trailer. The internet is abuzz talking about the six-minute prologue and new trailer and all the questions it raises, so I’ll run through these in detail while defending a claim that this trailer is a superb example of well executed trailer cutting. Let’s start!

Warning: This analysis contains HIGH-LEVEL spoilers from the DKR trailer, but no major spoilers beyond what is shown.


Trailers serve several purposes. Most will guess the easiest: excite, entertain. Trailers tell people “This movie called X with Y starring in it is coming out!” Trailers also tell people “this movie is filled with jokes!” or “this movies has EXPLOSIONS!!1!!1!” Trailers tell genre and, usually, audiences will know after about fifteen-seconds whether they want to watch a trailer or finish that last-minute text. These things are accomplished largely in mood. The viewer shouldn’t have to really pay attention to get a sense for mood; it should be a natural process of audiovisual stimulus. Low bass chords for a horror or mystery or a popular song if it’s a comedy.

Trailers also give information. They tell story, or perhaps the better phrasing is raise questions that make people want to, you know, see the movie and have them answered. A good trailer will walk a fine line between playing to ignorant viewers (in the sense of they don’t keep up with movie news) and those who scour SuperHeroHype for the latest on-set pics. The winter trailer for Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, the conclusion to his Bruce Wayne/Batman trilogy, does all of these exceptionally well. Here’s how.

Section One: Opening Kickoff

I set mood!

We start with the obligatory production logos before sliding into our first shot from the film: a young boy, formally dressed, singing the Star Spangled Banner on a football field. It’s a quick one-second shot that accomplishes several things. First it sets setting: a football field, so there’s a football game in the film. When this was revealed back in August many were skeptical. It’s a bit weird having a football game in a Batman movie. This trailer addresses that immediately by telling us “this is a football game, but it’s going to be ominous and probably not end like you expect.” The boy’s singing, thus, establishes the trailer’s mood. It’s an easily recognized patriotic song, yet something about his low key and slow tempo makes it eerie and creepy. It’s just not right.

Nolan's football games don't seem to include shirtless drunkards

The next shot is of fans at the game. It’s quick, and some of this you only pick up after multiple viewings and pausing, but this tells us a couple things: the teams in this game are the Gotham Rogues and the RCM Monuments, with the Rogues’ colors black and yellow. The average viewer only knows a team is called the Rogues, but when they watch the film and see the name “Gotham Rogues” it will register and make a connection. There’s also a dude holding a sign that says “Demolish the Monuments,” which is more for the fans that like to pause and analyze. Like us!

Section Two: Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!

Next, still with the boy singing, we get a shot of Bane climbing. Cool shot establishing a character people may not be familiar with. Then, with Michael Caine/Alfred dialogue, we’re given a very clever shot of Wayne taking steps with a cane. This quick sequence does a lot. Alfred’s dialogue establishes Wayne is in trouble to the point of Alfred truly fearing for his life, something we haven’t really seen at such a deep core in the other two films. The cane raises a question: why is Bruce walking with a cane? Many hope Bane will break Batman’s back, as that’s what the comic character is most famous for. A broken spinal cord would probably mean more than a cane, but at least it looks like Wayne will be taking a beating.

Boy singing: “At the twilight’s last gleaming” brings a fittingly creepy twilight cityscape of Gotham. Cutting to music is common for trailers, but it goes beyond cutting to a new shot with new verses and the beat; it includes the symbolic meaning of the words. The title card drops Nolan’s name because he’s one of the rare directors who is sometimes a bigger box office draw than his stars.

New and improved in the southeast wing! Or...whichever wing it was, I don't feel like pulling the Blu-Ray out.

Section Three: Peacetimes

The boy’s singing remains low key as we see a shot of Wayne Manor, newly rebuilt! The Dark Knight based Wayne in a penthouse after the Manor was burned down by Ras al-Ghul in Batman Begins. Considering DKR jumps eight years it’s good to know they finally finished rebuilding. The important piece here is the dialogue. We see the Mayor welcome Commissioner Gordon to a podium, celebrating something, with pictures of Harvey Dent on both sides. A cop (I think) and a judge (I know) at the event discuss how “the Mayor’s gonna dump him in the spring…because he’s a war hero, these are peace times.”

Dent, still looking good eight years in the grave

Lots of background here. First, Dent’s portraits remind us of the deal made between Gordon and Batman at the end of TDK: Batman takes the blame for murder so Dent dies a martyr and inspires Gotham to pick itself up. Apparently the plan worked and Gotham, eight years later, has picked itself up. So much so that Gordon’s services are no longer needed. Political subplot. The line also specifically mentions dumping him in the spring, and the cool blue sky in the darkly silhouetted shot of the Manor establishes a time: late fall to early winter, very cool weather, chilly, even, which fits the tone.

Section Four: Selina Kyle

Wayne's ear must smell like cat nibble.

First, simple introduction of her character. We’re shown Anne Hathaway talking to Bruce, not Batman, at some sort of gala (perhaps the same party the previous scene with Gordon is). It’s Hathaway, so people know she’s in the film playing some sort of femme fatale. We never see her in Catwoman costume, but her gala gown does include cat eyes, a nice foreshadowing. Her line of dialogue is followed with another shot of Bane, raising of the question of whether Kyle and Bane are connected. The trailer has now created a triangle of major characters: Bruce Wayne/Batman, Selina Kyle, and Bane with Gordon playing the supporting arm he played in the first two films.

The rest of her dialogue is very well cut. Note the boy is still singing in the background and has now reached the “rockets’ red glare, bombs bursting in air” verse. Never to miss a metaphor, the trailer visually overlays this with chaos. Not chaos on a large scale, but planned. Selina warns Bruce of the dangers of “living high and leaving so little for the rest of us,” setting up some sort of social/class commentary subplot, and images of renegades tearing up some rich dude’s house confirms this. Add in a nice explosion to establish Gordon probably won’t be getting that simple retirement the Mayor has planned for him and we’ve been given the basics for the entire film. Not specific storylines, but themes.

Section Five: Bane’s Fury

Selina’s warning about the lower class rising up is followed by a group of prisoners escaping from jail, which is curious as usually prisoners are not the “lower class” described in class warfare. It’s Bane’s legs in the shot, so he’s involved in their breakout. The next shot brings us back to that football game with a quick glance at the other team: RCM Monuments. Notice the boy’s singing has been replaced by the overpowering chant of the prisoners/mob/whoever. This chant is becoming pretty well recognized by now, kind of like that DUM-DUM of Inception. We see Bane walking under the stadium seats. He’s at the football game…uh-oh, what’s he planning to do?

Salvator Dali, apparently, built prisons, too

Before this question is answered, three small things happen: we see a new setting, completely different in both time and place. It’s a prison? Or something. The stairs are weird but really cool. There’s not much to go off for this place, but it’s cool enough to make you interested. Second, Bruce asks what the chant means and the man tells us “Rise.” The title of the film! Very important. Third, we see Bruce with a beard…but he didn’t have a beard in the other shots. So this scene either takes place in the past or future, and considering the film jumps eight years I would guess this sequence is in the interim.

Now we finally see what it means when you read “Chris Nolan is shooting a football game in his new Batman movie.” It means…well…that he is goes to collapse a football field. I’ve got to admit, I never would have guessed that, and I never read anyone else doing so. I heard the football game would be an important battle for the film and include Bane, but…just wow. It’s a cool shot because it’s not in-your-face explosions. It’s simple, clear, extremely well planned and executed destruction. This establishes Bane as fundamentally different from the Joker, which is important considering all the unnecessary/necessary comparisons people are going to be making. The Joker was all chaos and anarchy. He “planned” in the sense of set up bombs, but he didn’t care who died or how, just that people freaked out. Bane makes sure everything is right. He waits until the right moment to set up the explosives and very precisely collapse the field.

Touchdown! Not sure if they'll get to try to the field goal, though

This section ends with a really awesome and rather debated two-shot. First, Bruce Wayne bloodied and battered. Not Batman, Bruce Wayne. Followed by Bane and our first line of dialogue from him: “When Gotham is ashes, you have my permission to die.” These two shots take two-seconds and yet accomplish so much. First, Bane is standing over a bloodied Bruce, which leads us to wonder whether he makes the connection between Wayne and Batman. At the least it means Wayne as a character, beyond as Batman, will serve an important role in the film. Bane’s line also sets up his character.

He’s planned out everything and it would seem everything is going to plan up to whatever point this shot is from. Furthermore, this plan ends with Gotham in ashes. Bane giving Wayne permission to die is psychologically vital in setting up the villain’s personality as very Type A. He has power over everything and doesn’t like when something messes that up. Batman is in the way, so Bane is going to keep him out. Bane is pure ego, raw energy and power. Hardcore.

There’s much controversy over Bane’s line, along with his lines in the six-minute prologue. Can you understand him? I could on this line, but many of the prologue lines are unintelligible. He speaks with a very elitist English accent, adding to the egoism and intellectual qualification, but he also speaks through a mask, so it’s modulated. Obviously, Nolan hasn’t cut the film, much less sound mixing, so his lines will get better, but hopefully he and the producers take reactions to heart when making sure there’s no question what he says. Speaking of speaking through a mask: this motif of masks is crucial to the trilogy, so keep that in mind when watching anything and everything related to these films.

Section Six: Awesome Montage

Next Summer! With the ominous chanting in the background we see several establishing shots: Marion Cottilard. Some dude jumping off a building, which is unexplained but cool. Hathaway in a different costume looking mysterious, almost straight out of a noir murder mystery. Title card: The Epic Conclusion! Batman with a new light weapon that no one knows what it does, but it looks cool! A tumbler, camouflaged like in Batman Begins, exploding! Explosions are always good. Men spelunking down a very unnaturally circular cave, which establishes another motif: falling and rising as applied to Bane and Batman. These are themes and motif vital to the symmetry of the trilogy as a whole.

Another scary shot of Bane showing how ripped he is. Joseph Gordon-Levitt! No one knows his true purpose, but we like him and he’s in the movie! Title card! Now the juicy bits. Place: the steps of what seems to be a courthouse. Time: a winter day, it’s snowing slightly. People: lots of them, fighting, thugs and cops in an all-out brawl. But what catches our eye is center frame: Bane walking to Batman. The teaser featured a shot like this with a very tired looking Batman, but here both looked strong and ready to duke it out. My guess would be this is from the climatic Battle of Gotham and is part of their final duel, but we’ll see.

Cops runs somewhere and now we’re shown another shot of the courthouse battle, no Batman or Bane in sight, but there is a weird tumbler-inspired tank thing firing on the courthouse. Whoever could be inside?! Hopefully not Batman considering all the civilians around. We’ll find out! Now we get what we really want: Bane and Batman fighting. Not much, just two quick shots of two quick punches, but boy do they look heavy. It’s enough to tease, and personally I would consider this the weak point of the trailer as I would have preferred a solid three-second clip of punching, but oh well. These shots tell us there’s going to be an all out battle involving a lot of new vehicles and heavy handed brawling.

Finish things up with that circular cave again and more people in that weird location with the cool stairs and we’re given the final shot of the trailer. Generally, trailers end with a bang. You introduce the audience to some cool guest star or a really funny/awesome scene (Mission Impossible teased the Dubai tower scene). You want to leave a lasting impression. The DKR trailer does that with a quick look at the Batwing, though no doubt it will be given a more military-sounding name. It’s quick but enough for us to realize this dark vehicle is flying. Not about to fly, but flying. It’s awesome. There are also two tumblers in this shot, so apparently Wayne Enterprises has been investing well.

Impossible for Iranians to shoot down!

Conclusion

These things set the audience up for a battle that is huge on all scales: there are tumblers, tanks, flying tumblers, lots of thugs and prisoners fighting lots of cops, and somewhere in the middle Batman and Bane will hit each other. That satisfies all the requirements I can think of for an awesome battle in a film’s third act. Trailers are supposed to leave you with a lasting impression, and for me DKR leaves me with a sense of total collapse. Things start out well, Gotham in peace times and the city prosperous enough to host a football team (and a stadium they hopefully insure), but Selina promises class tension will soon rise, key word, and Bane’s introduction adds unstoppable destruction.

Most importantly, however, is our final shot of the title: The Dark Knight Rises. This trailer has promised us we will be shown a peaceful Gotham pushed into the fire, but with a hint that out of the ashes may rise its savior. I’ve heard and read people call this trailer “epic” and an equal number groan at how loosely Nolan fanboys throw around the word epic. I’m not going to call this trailer epic. I’m going to call it well executed. To the casual moviegoer, it tells us there’s a new Batman movie coming out this summer that is the final in a trilogy of those last two Batman movies. It sets a mood of dark and foreboding for all involved. It tells us it features Batman and this new muscle man with a mask as well as Anna Hathaway looking like a sexy woman with plans of her own. It tells us there will be explosions and battles and lots of action because it is, in the end, a superhero film.

I'm called a visual motif. Look for me!

To the fan, the film connoisseur, it gives settings and times as well as hints at plot: Dent’s plan of bringing peace to Gotham worked but not for long, class warfare, Bane’s destructions, flashbacks about this “rise” chant, a prison breakout. It lets us hear Bane speak for the first time. It lets us hear Selina Kyle speak for the first time, though not in Catwoman gear. It also establishes motifs of masks and rising/falling along with the general sense that this film is going to be filled with symmetry in story, themes, and visuals.

All in all, this trailer tells us there’s nothing to worry about because come 20 July 2012 we are going to be granted admittance to as fitting a conclusion anyone could ever ask of a trilogy. Is anyone not excited?

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