Chasing the Dark Knight – How DC’s Blockbuster Left a Dark Shadow on Cinema

Movies go through many different phases as the years go by.  As changing attitudes evolve in our culture, cinema reflects back those changes in the market place.  And usually what prompts the changes in the market is the presence of the unexpected blockbuster.  Sure, there are plenty of movies that end up being big hits that fall into the expectations of the audience and the industry itself.  But, then you have those other blockbusters that become unexplained phenomenons, tapping into a previously unseen element that ends up making the rest of the industry take notice.  These are the benchmark blockbusters that create a tidal wave of new perspectives within the film-making community, and with them, a slew of imitators and copycats, all trying to capitalize on what this new film has done.  You see films of this kind emerge in every generation and they are often what ends up the generation of cinema that follows in it’s wake.  Star Wars (1977) is a perfect example, because it’s the movie that launched the era of the blockbuster that would dominate much of the 1980’s, and a good part of the 90’s.  Before that, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather marked the beginning of an era where auteur driven, counter-culture cinema was dominate.  In the 90’s, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) created a boom for the independent cinema market, as well as sparking interest in a lot of dialogue driven action films.  Every era seems to have that one defining film that changes the direction of the industry, sometimes for the good and othertimes not so much.  The era we live in now is dominated by comic book adaptations, as well as the concept of shared cinematic universes.  And the movie that clearly turned the tide in this direction more than any other would be Christopher Nolan’s iconic Batman blockbuster, The Dark Knight (2008).

The Dark Knight is justifiably regarded as a masterpiece, not just of it’s genre, but of all cinema as well.  Made as a sequel to the also highly praised Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight continued to build on the Batman mythos through the unique and ambitious style of Christopher Nolan.  Up until this point, superhero films had been largely hit and miss as a viable genre in Hollywood, with some hitting the mark like Tim Burton’s original Batman (1989), while others failed miserably (the Ben Affleck headlined Daredevil from 2003).  After achieving modest success with Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan set out to create a Batman movie that fulfilled the full potential of the character, and he not only managed to do just that, but it blew away everyone else’s expectations.  Pitting Batman against his archnemesis, The Joker (played by the late Heath Ledger), had been done before, but never depicted in such a visceral, grounded way as seen in this movie.  Nolan’s Dark Knight transformed the genre, stripping away the comic book campy-ness that had come before and made his Batman feel as authentic as possible.  It was a bleaker, more complex superhero movie; one in which the stakes felt very real.  As a result, people responded to the movie very well, seeing it as a revelation compared to what they were used to from the genre.  Grossing half a billion domestically alone, The Dark Knight became one of the biggest success stories of it’s era, and when the smell of big money out there, you know that Hollywood will begin to swarm in.  Since it’s debut, The Dark Knight has since been imitated not just in the comic book genre, but in other unexpected places as well.  Hollywood seems to believe that the key to it’s success was a grittier style and bleaker story-line.  But, as we’ve observed over the years, what works for Batman might not necessarily work for everything else, and that has unfortunately led to a not so positive legacy for this groundbreaking film.

But, to understand what led to The Dark Knight’s bold statement, it pays to look back on what preceded it.  For years, comic book movies had been more or less been undervalued by the industry.  Studio execs recognized the potential of comic book characters as viable big screen icons, but never quite understood how best to translate them from the page to the screen.  Oftentimes, you would see a lot of compromises being made with regards to the characters.  Costumes would be altered to make the superheroes seem less campy and more “realistic.”  We have yet to see any of the X-Men don their brightly colored gear from the comics in any of their film adaptations for example.  Sometimes, the characters would luck out and be matched up with a filmmaker who believed in authenticity with the characters, like Richard Donner with Superman (1978) or Sam Raimi with Spider-Man (2002), but even their movies felt compromised in other places.  For most of the time, comic books and superhero movies never felt liked they belonged together.  This became particularly true with the Batman movies, which felt closer to being realizations of their director’s visions rather than a faithful adaptations of the comics.  Tim Burton’s style was serviceable enough for Batman, but once Joel Schumacher stepped behind the camera, Batman was buried underneath a colossal neon, overproduced mess.  After hitting rock bottom with Batman & Robin (1997), the Batman franchise went through an identity crisis, ultimately leading to the hiring of Christopher Nolan.  Nolan, best known then for gritty thrillers like Memento (2001) and Insomnia (2002), brought the character back to his roots, taking inspiration from Batman’s darker tales like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns series.  He in turn created a more acceptable, grounded version of Batman, which would hit it’s full potential in it’s middle chapter, The Dark Knight.

And while the success of The Dark Knight was warranted and deserved, the industry unfortunately took the message in the wrong way.  The movie was perhaps too good of a course correction for the genre, making it appear that the only reason that it succeeded was because it was a darker movie as a whole.  That’s not necessarily the case.  Yes, both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight had a darker tone than anything we’ve seen before in the genre, but it was a necessary change that needed to be made specifically for this character.  We had all but lost faith in the caped crusader because his last few outings had turned him into a cartoon character, and not a threat.  Christopher Nolan brought the character back to his roots; a crusader shaped by tragedy destined to right the wrongs of the world.  It also helped that Nolan’s re-imagining looked outside of the superhero genre for inspiration.  His movies are heavily influenced from crime thrillers of the 80’s and 90’s; in particular, the films of Michael Mann.  Just look at the opening bank robbery scene with the Joker, and tell me that doesn’t remind you a little of the movie Heat (1996).  It was a perfect way to revitalize the character for a new generation, and most importantly, it made Batman a character worth taking seriously again.  But, there in lies some of the issues with how the industry responded to the character.  Hollywood looked at the new Batman and believed that this is what they needed for their own franchise characters.  In the decade since it’s release, we’ve seen The Dark Knight become the inspiration point for what many call “gritty re-imaginings.”  But, not everything needs to have a gritty side to it, and yet that hasn’t stopped Hollywood from taking the opportunity for a cash grab.  All of this has led to an unfortunate legacy for this iconic film.

This kind of “following the leader” mentality has resulted in some unusual decisions in franchise reboots.  Did you ever think that goofy brands like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Power Rangers were in need of darker tone?  Yet, somehow, we’ve seen these once colorful characters re-imagined in grittier, more action packed visions from the last couple years.  No where is this more evident than in the same comic book genre that The Dark Knight has risen out of.  To follow in the footsteps of the blockbuster film, several other studios have tried and failed to give their own characters a darker tone as well, including DC, the same people who started this in the first place.  Many people have complained that DC’s insistence of riding the Dark Knight coattails with regards to tone has zapped out all the fun from their favorite characters.  Many want a more warm-hearted version of the beloved Superman, but with Zack Snyder at the helm, DC seems to not only desire to move the Man of Steel closer to their Dark Knight, but also make his world even bleaker.  It’s even worse in other studios who completely miss the mark.  Sony failed to relaunch their Spider-Man character with their Amazing Spiderman series.  The problem with their adaptation is that they thought focusing on the character’s tragic backstory would deepen the experience, but instead it just made Spider-Man a moody and unsympathetic loser.  Even worse, however, is Fox’s tone deaf re-imagining of Fantastic Four (2015), which remarkably managed to be the most dismal and bleak super hero movie ever made, using characters that are by design supposed to be colorful and heartwarming.  If there is anything that all of these movies prove is that darker doesn’t always mean better.  It’s too easy to just look at Batman’s success and instantly think that it’s the magic touch to renew interest in your franchise.  Batman is dark by design.  The rest of these franchises shouldn’t have been so eager to rewrite the book in order to follow The Dark Knight‘s example.

It’s not only in tone where we see a long legacy of influence that The Dark Knight has left on the industry.  If there is any one thing in the film that you can see imitated the most throughout the industry, it is the depiction of it’s villain.  Heath Ledger’s Joker is iconic in every way possible.  He not only blew away our expectations and silenced naysayers who objected to his casting with his performance, but his Joker has since gone on to become the high water mark for all future comic book villains on the big screen.  His untimely death before the film’s premiere also raised the iconic stature of the role, and he earned a posthumous Oscar as a result.  This, however, has led many in the industry to view Ledger’s Joker as a template for creating the ideal, iconic villain.  The Joker in the Dark Knight is defined primarily by his nihilistic nature, as well as his obsession with Batman himself.  Not only that, but he is also characterized by his unhinged, demented state as well, and his ability to rationalize his insanity with meme worthy philosophizing.  Ledger redefined the character for a new era, but that unfortunately led to a slew of imitators; some of who are re-imaginings themselves.  Sometimes you would find an interesting imitation, like Javier Bardem’s Silva from Skyfall (2012), creating one of James Bond’s most interesting and dangerous foes.  And then other times you get the re-imagined Khan from Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), whose Joker like motivations feel slightly out of character based on past interpretations.  While not every version of this type is bad, it nevertheless feels like Hollywood is lessening the power of these villainous characters by sticking too close to the Heath Ledger Joker model.  The reason his role was so iconic was because it was so unpredictable.  Now, with the recent stream of imitators, nothing seems as random as it used to, making these villains feel far too familiar when they shouldn’t.

It’s one of the reasons why The Dark Knight’s legacy has become so problematic; because all the imitators are sapping the original film’s impact by reusing it’s formula way too much.  This is only just compounded more now that a different model has emerged in the last couple years.  If there has been any company that has bucked the Dark Knight trend, it is Marvel Studios.  While most Dark Knight imitators strive to be grittier, Marvel is embracing it’s more light-hearted tone; which has benefited them very well.  Still, Marvel isn’t immune from the same kind of pitfalls that has plagued the fallout of The Dark Knight.  With so many different companies now trying to launch their own cinematic universes to compete with Marvel’s, your seeing a new troubling trend of diminishing returns in it’s wake.  DC contains the worst of both trends right now, trying to play catch up to Marvel with their own cinematic universe that unfortunately is still adhering to the Dark Knight formula.  One would hope that Marvel is not undone by it’s own success, with audience fatigue setting in over time with the market continually being over-flooded with new cinematic universes being launched.  The only thing that helps to overcome this feeling of fatigue is variety.  As long as new films take inspiration from things like The Dark Knight and Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, but puts their own spin on it to make it still feel original, audiences will embrace it the same way.  In the end, the biggest problem is the lack of diversity in too many of these imitators.  The Dark Knight’s legacy was perhaps too strong for the industry and we found ourselves too overwhelmed by such a quick succession of imitators.

If anything, I think that the one negative outcome of the post-Dark Knight is that it created a generation of unnecessarily bleak and dark movies.  For a while, movies forgot how to be fun and entertaining.  That’s not to say that The Dark Knight ruined cinema as a result.  The movie still stands as an unparalleled masterpiece that holds up to this day.  The problem lies more with Hollywood, and how it responds to success.  What they thought was the key to The Dark Knight’s success proved to be exactly the wrong thing to exploit and that was the darker tone.  The Dark Knight, by design, is perfectly matched with a grittier tone, and trying to shoehorn it into other types of media only ends up leading to disaster.  Not every imitator fails, but to see the industry return to that well far too many times makes the original impact feel much less effective.  We don’t need to see a tragic, brooding backstory for every hero.  The villain doesn’t always need to be this unhinged psychopath with an unhealthy obsession with the hero.  It would also help if some of these movies added a little color to their design as well, and not have everything washed out in grays and dark blues.  Thankfully, companies like Marvel are proving that the flip side of the coin also works wonders for the genre, and hopefully this direction can help bring some balance to a super hero genre that’s still hung on trying to figure out the Dark Knight’s formula.  Overall, The Dark Knight is a great film that unfortunately has to be associated with a terrible legacy, none of which is it’s fault.  Hollywood should understand that movies are meant to entertain, and that entertainment doesn’t always come in one size fits all packaging.  The Dark Knight had grit, but the way it used it was what ended up entertaining us.  If you try to force a similar entree into a meal that doesn’t support it, then you ruin all of our appetites.

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