I saw The Dark Knight at midnight on opening day, but not because I wanted to. At the time, it was clear that Hollywood was getting better at making superhero films, as both X2: X-Men United and Spider-Man 2 had been clear improvements upon their predecessors, but I still wasn’t especially interested in the genre. I had loved comic books as a child, but the older I got the blander and flatter their universes seemed. As for Batman, I had barely thought about him since I finally got around to seeing, and being deeply disappointed by, Batman and Robin at the age of ten. When I was younger I had loved Batman deeply. I watched the animated series whenever I could and Batman Forever more times than I’d like to admit. I also read the comics religiously. Batman and Robin put a stop to all that. With one fell swoop, Joel Schumacher’s painfully wrought film eradicated not only my interest in Batman (so much so that I didn’t have as much as a passing interest in seeing Batman Begins when it was released), but in comic books in general. And so it remained until the summer of 2008, when my friends dragged me to The Dark Knight. From the start, I could tell something was different. The comic book films I’d seen before, even the better ones, didn’t seem to have particularly serious aspirations to do anything beyond deliver light, inoffensive entertainment. This was different. It had some real weight and depth to it. The longer it went on the more amazed I became. Outside, still trying to wrap my head around the film, I told my friends that I thought it was “all right”. And then I went to see it in theaters three more times.
I don’t want to oversell the film. I’m not calling it the second coming of Christ. I wouldn’t even call it a masterpiece, as many seemingly would. The film is certainly flawed, quite deeply in places. That being said, Christopher Nolan’s film made such an impact on me not just because it was very well done, which it certainly was, but because it was truly something different. In my eyes, it redefined what comic book films were capable of and, by extension, what popcorn entertainment could do. It wasn’t all fun and games anymore, and everybody knew it. Dark and gritty reboots trying to capitalize on Nolan’s style started to pop up everywhere. Everything old was new again, at least supposedly. Still, despite the massive success of Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Marvel continued to produce lighter fare, missing the mark just as often as they hit it. For every Iron Man or Captain America the studio produced there was a Ghost Rider or Hulk to bring it all back down to earth. As for DC, they tried to follow Marvel’s example for a few years with horrific results, namely Jonah Hex and Green Lantern, so, sensibly, they reverted back to what had worked for them in the past with the Christopher Nolan-produced Man of Steel, a gritty, dark Superman reboot. But this time, something felt a little off.
There are a lot of people out there who will tell you that Man of Steel is an awful film. I am not one of them. Personally, I think the parts of the film that focus on Clark’s younger years are borderline excellent, and that the script brings up a lot of very intriguing questions. I also appreciate the fact that Zach Snyder was able to tone it down a bit and not smother the film in CGI as he typically does. However, Man of Steel had the same problem as Snyder’s other superhero adaptation, Watchmen: the action sequences. In Watchmen, Snyder’s fight scenes irrevocably damage what is otherwise a nearly perfect adaptation by betraying the themes of the piece and sacrificing all else in the name of spectacle. Likewise, the first section of Man of Steel, which takes place on Krypton, is a bunch of sound and fury, signifying nothing as it is wont to do. However, most of the film is surprisingly restrained, something which I greatly appreciated. That is, of course, until the final fight scene, which is, as you might have heard, absolutely ridiculous. Basically, the film ends with the following sequence of events:
- Superman essentially destroys Metropolis as he attempts to defeat Zod and his minions.
- Superman snaps Zod’s neck, killing him.
- Superman rips a military satellite out of the sky and tells the army not to fuck with him.
- Superman, now in disguised as Clark Kent, begins working at the Daily Planet. He and Lois share a meaningful glance.
That’s it. Superman presumably commits manslaughter thousands of times, the military’s cool with it and then Clark and Lois have a moment. It’s a shocking, almost disturbing ending, and what really caught me off guard about it was just how relaxed the film was about the whole thing. In fact, it’s so nonchalant about it all that I only really realized what I’d seen, and what it meant, upon later reflection. There’s no mention of the destruction Superman caused, no scenes where talking heads on the television discuss whether or not Superman is a monster or a hero, no scenes showing Superman displaying any kind of remorse for all of the lives he destroyed. Of course, all of those things will probably be in the next film, but only because of fan feedback. I fully believe, based upon the “meh, so that happened…” ending of Man of Steel, that Snyder would have simply ignored the damage caused by the Superman/Zod fight if so many people hadn’t called him out on it. Some might say that by making criticisms like these I’m taking the film too seriously, but if you feel that way you probably haven’t seen it yourself. This is a film that takes itself EXTREMELY seriously.
I’ve always found Superman to be kind of an absurd character, in that he can basically do anything and his sole weakness is a rare rock which can only be found in the far reaches of space. Most superheroes are defined by the one remarkable thing they can do. In contrast, Superman is defined by the fact that there aren’t many things he can’t do. Superman is so ridiculously overpowered that the only reason Siegel and Shuster didn’t get laughed out of the room when they pitched him was that he was the first major superhero of his kind. Man of Steel takes this God-like character who can shoot lasers out of his eyes and freeze people with his breath, who can rip through steel like its paper and fly anywhere on Earth in a matter of seconds, and puts him on a barren Alaskan street with a muted color palate to walk around all forlorn and lonely while Chris Cornell emotes over an acoustic guitar. It’s the most self-serious comic book film ever made, and that’s the way DC wanted it. They looked at the success of the Nolan trilogy and learned four things:
- People like their superheroes to be dark.
- They like them to be grounded in reality.
- They will put up with nothing more than a faint trace of humor.
- They do not value joy or fun.
Here’s the one thing they should have realized: Christopher Nolan is a great filmmaker. I’ve always believed, though many have disagreed with me, that The Dark Knight trilogy probably wouldn’t have worked without Christopher Nolan. Now, I’m not saying Batman shouldn’t be dark. Indeed, it’s an inherently dark concept. The only reason Batman exists is that a mugger shot his parents to death in front of him when he was a small child. It doesn’t get much darker than that. However, at the end of the day he’s still a man dressed like a giant bat fighting flamboyant super villains. There’s a duality there, a juxtaposition between the inherent absurdity of Batman and his opponents and the dark, realistic backdrop onto which they’re placed. That’s what makes Batman so compelling to me. Watching it at its best is like seeing the real world become invaded by a surreal nightmare. The realistic components of the story give it depth, while the over-the-top elements give it character. You need both to really get to the spirit of Batman.
There have been plenty of adaptations which have truly captured the spirit of the comics, most prominently the animated series and the Arkham games, but also the Burton films to an extent. I may not like Batman ’89 and Batman Returns as much as The Dark Knight trilogy, but I do think they’re closer in spirit to their source material. Ultimately, my main problem with Nolan’s films is that he places almost all of his emphasis upon the real-world aspects of Batman while barely flirting with the property’s more surreal dimensions. This is, of course, a perfectly valid way to interpret and present Batman’s universe, and lots of writers have taken the more realistic approach. It’s not the wrong way to do it by any means, it’s just not exactly what I’m looking for when I go to a Batman film. And yet, I love The Dark Knight for its boldness. For me, the film’s power is derived largely from its originality. When I viewed it for the first time on that night in 2008 I had never seen anything like it before, and that’s really what made it special, at least for me: Nolan did it first and, like many innovators, he did it best. The backlash against Man of Steel and, to a lesser extent, Nolan’s own The Dark Knight Rises (which I actually loved, for the record), occurred because they were attempting to imitate the feel of the Dark Knight, not to do something bold. DC thinks that fans loved The Dark Knight because it was dark and blooding and realistic, and they’re right, to an extent. But they also loved it because it felt so new, so fresh. As long as DC keeps trying to do the same thing over and over again they can’t logically expect moviegoers to have that same reaction again.
In contrast, Marvel, DC’s main competitor in the superhero game, has spent the past fifteen years or so refining their formula, failing and succeeding almost in equal measure but learning and adapting along the way. I’ve never been especially interested in their films, largely because I’ve always preferred DC’s superhero lineup to Marvel’s, but also because Marvel’s films looked awfully compromised and sanitized in the wake of The Dark Knight. I’d had enough of blockbusters which insisted on playing it safe. I wanted something a little riskier and a bit more human. After The Dark Knight trilogy ended and Zach Snyder had been tasked with trying to recreate the feel of Nolan’s films as closely as possible I thought I might simply be done with superhero films, at least until the next innovation came along. But then, somewhat reluctantly, I saw a film called Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and my whole outlook changed once again. Put simply, the film was a blast, but it wasn’t brainless either. It had fantastic action (much of it done with practical effects), but it was also character-driven and well written. At the time it just felt so welcoming. Hollywood had always presented their viewers with a choice: you could either have depth, well-written characters and artful filmmaking or you could have loud, dumb fun. And yet, here were both in the same film, working together in near-perfect harmony. For the first time, I was watching a fun superhero film with genuinely likable characters and strong writing and filmmaking, and I left the theater excited about the genre for the first time since the conclusion of the Dark Knight trilogy. There was life left in it yet.
Since that time Captain America: The Winter Solider has been, in my opinion, topped by two of the most remarkable comic book films I’ve ever seen: X-Men: Days of Future Past and Guardians of the Galaxy. Apart they are simply great films, but together they seem to represent something of a sea change in the superhero genre. I am aware that Marvel is not directly responsible for the creation of Days of Future Past, but still, watching these three films made me hopeful. It seems that, while DC is still working to create a hollow mirror of the Nolan universe, Marvel and Fox have found a way to make their films entertaining with sacrificing depth. Rather than forcing us to choose between dark complexity or light frivolity, these films beautifully illustrate that true popcorn entertainment can be as complex as it wants to be. DC will inevitably stay the course, and perhaps they will create something great again. Perhaps Batman vs. Superman will blow me away in 2016 and I’ll be left eating my words. However, as long as they spend all of their time trying to recapture their past glories, I believe that DC will always be at a disadvantage. The superhero genre is changing for the better, and it seems to me that DC has already been left behind. Of course, that’s probably the same thing that many critics said about Marvel when The Dark Knight was released. Maybe this year is just an anomaly. Maybe it was all a coincidence. All I know is that this year the comic book genre stepped up in a major way. Here’s hoping it wasn’t all in vain. - Max Castleman