Christopher Nolan promised us that The Dark Knight Rises would be the final chapter in a trilogy — not just a third installment in an ongoing series. And he delivered. But does that mean the story can't continue after this movie leaves off? After all, any ending, no matter how final, always contains the seeds of a new beginning.
What would a direct sequel to The Dark Knight Rises look like? Maximum spoilers ahead...
Seriously, we're going to assume from here on out that you've seen all three Nolan films. If that's not the case, quit reading now.
Now that The Dark Knight Rises has made over $160 million in its opening weekend, it's clear that Warner Bros. won't want to wait too long before making another Batman movie. Warners can't make any more Harry Potter films, and even if they stretch out The Hobbit into a trilogy, that's the end of their Tolkien films. So Bruce Wayne is their main cash cow at this point. And rebooting Bats again, so soon after Batman Begins, is a risky endeavor.
So you have to imagine they're looking at continuing the story that Christopher Nolan told in his three movies. In particular, I would be kind of shocked if they weren't at least talking to Joseph Gordon-Levitt about what it would take to get him back for a second trilogy.
If the studio could secure Gordon-Levitt's participation, all they need Christopher Nolan to do is produce the next movies, which probably just means signing off on the basic story and letting them use his name, much as Nolan's apparently doing with Man of Steel. Warners would need Nolan's blessing to get back the rest of the original supporting cast, even in a reduced capacity. Most obviously, they'd need Gary Oldman back as Commissioner Gordon, but if they can lure Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine and Christian Bale back to film a few scenes each, they're in much better shape.
This is a good point to emphasize that this article is pure speculation, and we haven't talked to anybody about this. It's just based on watching the movie and noticing how open-ended it actually seems to be.
So just how open-ended is the ending of The Dark Knight Rises? It appears to set up "Robin" Blake (Gordon-Levitt) as the new Batman. At least, Bruce Wayne leaves Blake a package containing the GPS coordinates of the Batcave, and when Blake arrives, a platform lifts up, as if the Batcave has been programmed to await Blake's instructions. This fits in with the notion that Batman isn't a person, and anyone could be Batman.
But we don't get to see Blake put on the Batsuit, so it's actually a bit of a tease. Meanwhile, Bruce is alive but retired — and presumably available to offer some advice to Blake if he runs into an especially tricky situation.
At the same time, there are plenty of questions left unanswered at the end of the movie, and plenty of places a sequel could go. A lot would depend on who Nolan and Warners chose to take on Nolan's mantle and direct the next film — so you'd have to help they could find someone like Nicolas Winding Refn to take it on.
(The chances of a huge letdown with the next Batman movie are ridiculously high no matter what happens. Either a reboot, or a continuation with a new director will probably suck, especially compared to Nolan's films. There's a very tiny chance of getting a new Batman solo film that holds its own, and that chance probably stems from continuing the Nolanverse, and bringing on one of the few directors alive who's got both "action movie" and "art movie" chops.)
So what are the loose ends or story possibilities that the ending of Dark Knight Rises leaves open? Here are a few, off the top of my head:
As everybody's already pointed out, Gotham is a main character in the three Nolan films. And Dark Knight Rises leaves Batman's city in ruins, with its physical infrastructure trashed — but also with its social and political structures in ruins. The city's leaders have to confront the extent to which they failed during the crisis, plus the extent to which their law and order regime was built on the lie of Harvey Dent. The combination of political and physical wreckage will make it way more of a nightmare to rebuild.
Batman on a shoestring
And then there's just seeing Batman operate without unlimited funds. I mean, Bruce Wayne will probably get his fortune back at some point, given that Bane's money-losing trades were obviously fraud. (You barely have to prove fraud when your stock trades were executed by armed thugs who then held the city hostage for months.) Still, Blake may not have access to Bruce Wayne's fortune — and Wayne Manor is now an orphanage, right above the Batcave. John Blake won't necessarily be able to replace stuff that gets broken, nor will he be able to restock with fancy gadgets. And if he gets injured — when he gets injured — he probably won't have Alfred to patch him up. Plus what will Blake live on? Will he need a day job? I kind of want to know the answers to these questions.
The relationship between Batman and Commissioner Gordon
This is the other thing that I'm kind of dying to see play out. Gordon won't necessarily know who the new Batman is, but they do have a history together. Blake idolized Gordon — and then was disillusioned to find out that Gordon participated in a huge lie, holding up the mass murderer Harvey Dent as a hero and pushing the blame onto Batman. Assuming the disgraced Gordon even stays on as Commissioner — which is a big if — his working relationship with the new Batman might not be so cozy. Even as the cops might demand that the new Batman prove himself worthy of the role, he might not be so willing to trust the cops since he's seen first hand how they participate in deception. (Also noteworthy: It's the Gotham cops, not the army, who blow up the bridge and strand a busload of kids who are about to be nuked in Gotham.)
There are also plenty of villains left alive at the end of the movie. We don't really know for sure that Talia Al-Ghul dies, for one thing. And even if she does die, some members of the League of Shadows certainly remain alive. Also still kicking around: Scarecrow, who could find a completely trashed and subverted Gotham his perfect element. (Although let's assume that the prohibition on recasting Heath Ledger's Joker remains in effect, since it would be kind of sad to see some other actor botch that role.) In any case, the relatively upbeat ending of The Dark Knight Rises still does leave Gotham in horrible shape — and that creates huge opportunities for one or more maniacs to wreak enormous havoc.
The bottom line: It probably would be best if Batman takes nice a long rest after TDKR, or only appears in a Superman/Batman, Trinity or Justice League film. At the same time, though, a new solo Batman film seems inevitable — and it's hard to deny that the new status quo at the end of TDKR opens a lot of avenues for some really interesting storytelling. Or maybe we just really want to see one or two movies with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Batman.