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For me, the most interesting thing going on in movie non-news right now is just how little positive buzz there is for The Dark Knight Rises. That’s not to say it’s being hated, but there’s no denying that thus far the pre-release hype – which is, at this point, an unavoidably huge aspect of marketing a movie of this size, in the form of “working the fan buzz” – for this particular film comes mainly in two flavors: reserved disinterest and hand-wringing over impending disappointment.

Now, granted, both flavors come equipped with the mother of all caveats: “In Nolan We Trust.” But even that carries with it the same basic problem – right now, the main reason to be looking forward to The Dark Knight Rises is that The Dark Knight was awesome. There are worse problems to have (just ask anyone who had money in a Western before Disney canned The Lone Ranger) but it’s still a remarkable turn for a movie that, as early as three years ago, everyone and their mother would’ve assumed would be the safest bet – and the biggest smash – on the planet.

But there’s no mistaking it; in the game of fan management, TDKR is taking a beating. Spy pictures – read: pics snapped by the camera phones of passers-by during its location shoots – have been found almost universally underwhelming (though, granted, that’s based on the rather small sample group of people who actually care about location shoot spy photos). Batman’s armor, which doesn’t even look good in the final films much of the time, looks positively wretched when snapped under such conditions. Tom Hardy’s Bane was going to be a hard sell as a character to begin with, but thus far (with notable exceptions) he’s being received tepidly at best. And while it was kind of inevitable that Nolan’s reputation as an erotically disinclined technician would yield a Catwoman that didn’t look much at all like a fetish icon, it’s a whole different level of odd that she also doesn’t look much at all like a cat.

Right now, the most overwhelmingly positive buzz for the film (excluding the aforementioned “you loved the last one” factor) exists in the realm of speculation. No one from the production has said anything concrete about The League of Shadows (from Batman Begins) turning up again, but Bane’s outfit looks kind of ninja-ish and fans sure hope they are – just like they hope Juno Temple is “secretly” playing Harley Quinn (not gonna happen) or that Marion Cotillard is playing – well … let’s not say that one out loud just in case. A month or so back someone took a set pic of a hole in the ground, and everyone got all excited that it might be a Lazarus Pit, because that would mean … well, click the link and see for yourself.

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How did this happen?

A big part of it is crummy luck. The Dark Knight had the good fortune to follow a well-regarded sleeper hit in Begins and be opening at a moment in time when it was the unquestioned Big Dog of the superhero genre. The Spider-Man films had just come to a somewhat problematic end, the X-Men movies had become a joke, and the only other big entries in the genre that year were Iron Man (well liked, but no Batman) and The Incredible Hulk (largely seen as an apology for an earlier installment.) And, of course, it had the unquestioningly loyal fanboy set as its champion. Here was the prayer to exorcise the ghost of Joel Schumacher – and maybe also the horse that gets us to the Oscar finishing line.

But the fanboy set is nothing if not fickle. While Christopher Nolan’s genre legitimizing gritty realism was giving them goose bumps back in ’08, the intervening years have seen the rise (irony intended) of Marvel Studios’ ambitious Avengers experiment, which – along with putting out a steady stream of good-to-excellent individual films – has been hitting every positive button there is to hit in terms of fan management. Marvel (now Disney, too) isn’t stupid – they’ve been selling this stuff for a long time, long enough to know that fan candy like comic-accurate character designs and inter-film continuity threads pay big dividends when executed properly.

Simply put, I think it’s fair to posit that Marvel/Disney has spent four years giving genre fans page-to-screen translations that actually worked, and as a result the Nolan Batman aesthetic – handily summarized as “bare-minimum-of-what-we-can-get-away-with-in-a-realistic-world” – now looks (somewhat unfairly) wanting in contrast. This is definitely the case with the pre-release hype. On the same movie blogs where fans are frantically cropping and contrast-correcting photos to try and find some evidence that Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman might at some angle look remotely like Catwoman you’ll find similar set photos depicting over-the-top brawls between Captain America, Thor, Iron Man and more versus Loki and who knows what else, altogether looking like a splash-page – or, more accurately, an Alex Ross print – come to life.

Christopher Nolan, in other words, may or may not end up making the superior film overall, but his vision of Batman simply isn’t built to generate this type (or even level) of excitement in pre-release. In the upside-down world of marketing-via-publicity-still, “The God of Thunder and The First Avenger exchanging a ‘brofist’ in the middle of an urban war zone” handily trumps “Lady wearing goggles on a motorcycle.

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This, then, begs the question: If TDKR can’t benefit from a publicity deluge until there’s at least a full trailer to give people some (edited, scored and color corrected) context for what they’re seeing … why don’t they stop it? Now, no studio can stop all spy photography, but they can definitely put a massive dent in it. Hollywood location shooting keeps security firms well employed elsewhere, and even beyond that, a studio the size of Warner Bros. can easily (and do frequently do) make life difficult for press outlets that run unauthorized images and videos of their productions. Disney shot much of John Carter on location over a year ago, and nobody saw a frame of it until the debut of the trailer – and Disney has much less riding on that film than WB has on Batman, who (until Superman: The Man of Steel comes out) is once again shouldering their entire superhero division after the failure of Green Lantern.

So why aren’t they? Why would they be so content to just let the web hype machine sit and stew about Catwoman’s ears or Bane’s underwhelming Bane-y-ness? If nothing else, why are they essentially ceding this whole part of the field to their competition (and make no mistake, all genre parsing aside Rises and Avengers will be framed as direct rivals in the 2012 entertainment press)?

Y’know what I think? I think they may not want you to be excited.

Here’s the thing: The Dark Knight – while a tremendous film in its own right – was lightning in a bottle – a once in a lifetime confluence of the right director, the right material, the right cast and the right time, and that was before it became a memorial to Heath Ledger. To my mind, you’re never going to replicate those circumstances because you are never going to replicate the Summer of 2008. It’s like trying to make The Next TitanicTitanic will NEVER happen again.

Thusly, while TDKR is very likely to be every bit as good as its predecessor – in fact, it could easily be better – it is astronomically unlikely that it will have as much of an impact, create as big of a cultural phenomenon or make as much money. The problem is, the fact that Dark Knight‘s heights are rather unreachable will be of no concern to those who do the box office reporting – “Dark Knight Rises Reasonably High Given The Circumstances” is not nearly as arresting a headline as “3rd Batman Fails To Equal Predecessor!

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Warner Bros., despite what you may assume after watching Green Lantern, is not run by idiots. Everything I just outlined above, they are undoubtedly aware of. Which is why I think it’s a distinct possibility that they are not all that broken up about just how lukewarm the pre-release hype for this particular film: They know it’s a mistake to get overhyped.

Lots of movies underperform at the box office, but the bombs you hear about are the ones that were also heavily promoted. Nobody was expecting Scott Pilgrim to do Avatar business, but the massive year long hype made its tepid reception into a story rather than a regrettable inevitability. This year the same thing happened with Cowboys & Aliens. Meanwhile, while well reviewed, X-Men: First Class actually opened the least well (though by no means bad) of all the X-Men movies up to this point, but since it wasn’t massively over promoted (and since it followed two roundly despised prior entries), it’s the stellar reviews that are the story instead.

I’m inclined to imagine that this may be why TDKR’s hype train seems to have slipped off the rails: Warner Bros. wanted it to. No one thinks the film is in danger of a being a flop, but just as Dark Knight‘s box office phenomenon status drove more business to theaters to see what the big deal was, a pop culture narrative of underperformance can hold audiences back. All told, Warner Bros. would much rather have Dark Knight Rises measured as “better than its crummy pre-release footage” than “not as good as the second one.” They’d also really, really, really like to not go through another year of relentless “Marvel is kicking your ass at comic book movies” drumbeat – especially since one of the big reasons they can’t make a continuity-driven fangasm piece of their own is that The Nolan Brothers aren’t finished playing with the Batman toys yet.

After all, if one was hoping to get expectations for their product to drop from “dangerously unreasonable” to “easy-to-exceed,” letting the interweb shark tank do what it does best (read: nitpick into oblivion) is certainly one of the easiest, most cost-effective solutions you could hope for.

Granted, this is all purely conjecture on my part, but if there’s one concrete thing you may wish to take away from this piece, let it be this: This is 2011. Marketers, especially those employed by Hollywood studios (or the videogame industry, for that matter), have gotten really, really good at manipulating spontaneous buzz to their own ends. Something to think about the next time you’re joining in the fracas over the next “leaked” screenshot or “spy” video.

Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.

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