Christopher Nolan’s Batman set the bar high, perhaps too high, for other superhero films
Why 'The Dark Knight' was a game-changing superhero film
Christopher Nolan’s genre-defining The Dark Knight turns 10 this week – the film first released in cinemas on July 24, 2008. Warner Bros and DC have revealed that to celebrate, they will be re-releasing the movies in select Imax cinemas. It’s a fitting tribute – Nolan’s film was the first to shoot extensively in the Imax format, using 70mm cameras designed specifically for the giant screen rather than the standard 35mm movie cameras, and the film’s epic landscapes truly come alive in this format.
Unfortunately, most of us won’t be able to enjoy the film in its original format. When Warner Bros says “select” cinemas, it really means select. The movie will re-release on just four screens in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Toronto. The majority of fans, then, will be left marking the anniversary on a much smaller screen, but just what is it that we are celebrating? Why does Nolan’s film deserve honouring with birthday celebrations when hundreds of films have birthdays every year without studios or fans feeling the need to mark the occasion?
With The Dark Knight, Nolan truly redefined the superhero movie genre. There’s a solid argument that the process of taking the superhero movie from throw-away fluff to serious art had begun two decades earlier, with Tim Burton’s take on the caped crusader. Prior to this the camp “Kerpows” of Adam West’s Batman and the wholesome silliness of Richard Donner’s Superman had been the standard for superhero fodder on screen.
Even Nolan’s own journey into the darkest realms of Gotham’s psyche had itself begun with 2005’s Batman Begins, but The Dark Knight felt like the finished object. Burton’s Batman had flirted with the dark side, before being swiftly repositioned by the studio with more family-friendly fare in the shape of Joel Schumacher’s 1995 Batman Forever. The first film of Nolan’s own trilogy, meanwhile, had simply laid the foundations for something greater and entirely new. That something was The Dark Knight.
Click below to watch the trailer for The Dark Knight:
Nolan’s film rewrote the rule book on superhero movies. Sitting firmly within the cultural context of a United States still wrestling with the impact and repercussions of 9/11, The Dark Knight asked the questions that were simmering in the back of the minds of an increasingly paranoid population. Who are the bad guys? Who can we trust? Where is the line between justice and vengeance? What liberties are we prepared to give up, and what laws are we prepared to break in exchange for security?
In fairness, the movie doesn’t really answer the questions, but who could? The important thing is that a superhero film asked them, and it was long overdue. Comic books themselves, or rather graphic novels as they now weightily address themselves, had begun to achieve peak maturity two decades earlier.
Frank Miller’s 1986 DC comic book The Dark Knight Returns had already transposed The Dark Knight into a dystopian, chaotic Gotham City where he is distrusted by the government and ultimately hunted down by Superman. In the same year, Alan Moore’s DC classic Watchmen became the first graphic novel to feature on Time magazine’s list of the Best 100 English Language Novels Since 1923. The comic book had come of age, but it would take the associated movies, and Nolan specifically, another 20 years to fully catch up.
When he did, Nolan delivered in full. Critics loved the film, audiences loved the film. It became the first superhero movie, and only the fourth movie ever, to bank more than US$1 billion (Dh3.6bn) at the box office and was nominated for eight Oscars, winning two. Even the notoriously fickle fan boy circuit loved the movie, though with time it became a double-edged sword for them. Batman fans had long clamoured for a grown-up movie adaption of their hero. Now, to paraphrase Jim Gordon, played by Gary Oldman, in The Dark Knight, they had got the movie they deserved, but not necessarily the movie they needed.
The downside to The Dark Knight’s genius was that it would go on to inform every superhero movie made from then on, and be the bar against which they would be judged. From here on in, superhero movies were synonymous with bleakness, tortured lead characters, unforgiving societies. Even light-hearted movies such as Deadpool and Ant-Man, would be referred to in terms of an antidote to all the darkness.
DC in particular was a victim of its own success. After The Dark Knight’s all-conquering run at the global box office, the comic giant immediately put Nolan in charge of redrawing the DC Cinematic Universe, installing him as producer on 2013’s Superman film, Man of Steel, which Zack Snyder would direct.
Click below to watch the trailer for Man of Steel:
Snyder has gone on to work as director, writer or producer on every DC Universe film from then on, including next year’s Wonder Woman 1984 and his main goal seems to be to “out-Nolan” Christopher Nolan. If Nolan’s trilogy was dark, then Snyder’s films must be darker. If Nolan had blurred the line between hero and villain, Nolan must obliterate it, giving us a Batman who routinely tortures his enemies and a Superman who uses his powers to exert a God-like command over humanity.
Sadly for Snyder, none of the latter-day DC movies have emulated The Dark Knight’s success. None could be termed as outright flops, but the likes of Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad (both 2016) have failed to excite audiences and critics alike and have performed passably at best at the box office. The one exception is 2017’s Wonder Woman, which, interestingly, lightened the mood a little and opted for a period setting rather than the usual dystopian near-future. It fell short of The Dark Knight’s $1bn haul, but made up for that in critical acclaim.
With DC’s universe seemingly in a constant state of reassessment following each disappointment, time will tell if it can emulate its biggest rival, Marvel, and mix the correct amount of Nolan’s intelligence and epic scale with the knockabout fun and humour of a superhero flick. For now, it seems that DC’s most successful superhero movie of all time may also be the biggest hurdle to its future success.
Comic-book movies coming soon
Superhero movies have always been a staple at the box office, but since The Dark Knight, and to a lesser degree Marvel’s Iron Man, which both released in 2008, the genre has exploded. Marvel alone has released 20 movies based on its characters since Iron Man kick-started the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But Marvel was absent from this year’s San Diego Comic-Con over the weekend, with no big movies to promote for the rest of the year, so the stage was clear for other properties to take the spotlight. Here are some of the new comic book movies to look forward to.
Aquaman (December 2018)
After making his big-screen debut in Justice League, Jason Momoa’s Aquaman is getting his own film. In it, Aquaman, the rightful king of the Seven Seas, has to challenge his brother to a battle in order to prevent him from waging a war on the land dwellers (also known as us).
Comic book heroes may be inspiring, they may be empowering, but they’re rarely attainable. Until Faith came along in 2016, that is. Sony has just picked up the movie rights to the first plus-size superhero, and while we may struggle to achieve her powers of flight and telekinesis, her geekiness, social awkwardness and obsession with comics are things many comic book fans will recognise in themselves. Even Faith’s obligatory “superhero job in journalism” is at a dull online news site, rather than Spider-Man’s glamorous Daily Bugle or Superman’s Daily Planet. Is Faith the first everyman superhero?
Shazam! (April 2019)
Asher Angel stars as Billy Batson, a teenage boy who can transform into an adult superhero by uttering the magic word “Shazam,” thanks to an encounter with a mysterious wizard. Judging by the trailer screened at San Diego Comic-Con, the film looks set to be an example of DC’s efforts to bring humour to its movie universe.
Glass (January 2019)
After a run of disappointing movies, M Night Shyamalan fans were thrilled when 2016’s Split turned out to be a sequel of sorts to 2000’s Unbreakable. Now, the heroes and villains of all the three films – James McAvoy’s The Beast, Bruce Willis’s David Dunn and Samuel L Jackson’s Mr. Glass, are united under the care of a doctor played by Sarah Paulson. We’re expecting greatness.
Titans (Autumn 2018)
DC’s animated Teen Titans are in cinemas this weekend in kids’ film Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, but the live action version of the teen heroes looks set to be a much grittier affair, judging by the trailer’s graphic violence, brooding tone and Robin’s (Brenton Thwaites) forceful statement that he’s not working alongside Batman anymore. The series will come to DC’s own online streaming service this autumn.