I realize I’m probably going to get stabbed for saying this, but I feel like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy has sort of ruined the landscape of DC comic book movies for us. Marvel has done such a good job because they jumped off the springboard Nolan set up, but they didn’t treat his stylistic choices as holy writ.
DC has struggled to gain universal acclaim with their films because they’re so slavishly trying to recreate the lightning-in-a-bottle success of The Dark Knight that they forget to have fun. And “comic book fanboys” have become insufferable because nothing will ever be as good as The Dark Knight, even though there are tons of nerds like myself who have had lots of fun at the movies because we have a sense of humor and don’t mind things leaping into the fantastical.
And so, I would like to state, for the record, that while the Dark Knight trilogy is well-made, it’s also completely overrated, and we need to move on from it instead of trying to constantly recreate it.
It all started with the X-Men films in the early 2000’s. The original Marvel and DC universes covered everything from magic to space aliens to gods. But the X-Men films (coming shortly after the Batman universe went full 60’s style camp with Batman Forever and Batman and Robin) decided to lure audiences back into the realm of comic book films with a superhero universe that contained no magic, no aliens, and no gods. It was all simply about genetics and evolution. Jean Grey was JUST a mutant, Storm would never get to wield Thor’s hammer because gods didn’t exist, and so on. It was fun and explode-y and wildly entertaining, but it had its feet rooted firmly in the “believable.” Obviously, real life is not that flashy and contains a lot less shirtless Hugh Jackman, but it was still a pretty prim and proper superhero universe compared to what the Marvel universe was actually like in print form.
The mid 2000’s were when “gritty” became the overused buzzword du jour, and so when Christopher Nolan decided to reboot the Batman franchise, he did it with two things in mind. It would be grounded in reality with no magic, space aliens, or gods as the X-Men films were. And it would avoid using any established Batman terminology unless it was absolutely necessary. No batmobile (it’s the Tumbler). No batarangs, bat bombs, or bat computers. No Catwoman (she’s Selina Kyle, the cat burglar). And no superpowered villains (*hugs Poison Ivy and reminds her that she’s a fierce bitch and I still love her forever*).
I get this image of Nolan slamming his fist down on a table during some conference meeting, screaming “I don’t want there to be anything fun in these movies!” while drops of spittle fly from his lips. That probably didn’t happen, and I’m sure Nolan’s a great dude, but that’s the impression I got.
The result was a sleek trilogy of films in which Batman gets speechified by absolutely everyone constantly. Rachel Dawes lectures Bruce. Ra’as Al’Ghul lectures Bruce. Alfred lectures Bruce (multiple times per film). Detective/Commissioner Gordon lectures Batman. Lucius Fox lectures Bruce. The Joker lectures Batman (and makes the most sense of any of them) and then finally Bane lectures Batman a whole bunch because he loves the sound of his own voice (but it’s OK because it’s Tom Hardy and he really does have a fantastic voice, regardless of which accent he’s using). It’s almost like Batman is just a ping pong ball reacting to the speeches everyone gives him.
I get that these speeches are all meant to show us how Batman creates his unique ideology, but it just takes all the power away from him. We get some great moments in Batman Begins where he commits to fighting injustice and giving the city back to its own police force which is completely crippled with corruption, but for the rest of the trilogy, he’s just a sad mopey dude who is sad because he has so much money (until Alfred or a villain gives him a speech that pushes him back into action, of course).
They’re not terrible movies, but they do need to be helped down from their eight thousand mile high pedestal. Christopher Nolan is a brilliant director (I adore Memento, The Prestige, Inception, and Interstellar), and he has a knack for taking complex ideas and presenting them in a simple fashion to an audience who believes that they’re the ones deducing all this complexity on their own. And boy does he know how to shoot action scenes. Seriously, they just glide along like clockwork. He has a single color palette that he sticks to, but that’s OK. And he’s not obsessed with shaky cam, which is marvelous. He’s a smart writer and a talented director, and the Dark Knight trilogy is a worthy addition to his canon, but as superhero movies, they’re stiff, preachy, and they take themselves way too seriously.
And let’s not forget that Dark Knight fanboys rarely ever talk about Batman Begins or the Dark Knight Rises (the latter of which received quite a few mixed reviews). It’s just The Dark Knight, and it’s almost always centered on Heath Ledger’s legendary portrayal of the Joker. Batman, on the other hand, is often mocked for his violently growly voice. Ledger completely reinvented the character to the point where folks who didn’t grow up with the comics or the 90’s animated series now consider Ledger’s Joker to be the Platonic Absolute of Jokers. It’s an inspired performance, and Ledger definitely deserved that Oscar (though he didn’t deserve to be taken away from us so soon!), but the entirety of the praise heaped on the movie rests on the Joker’s shoulders.
Essentially, people love the Dark Knight trilogy because of Heath Ledger.
That’s fair, but that doesn’t mean that the humorless, speech-laden, nothing-fun-exists-in-this-universe-ness of the trilogy needs to be replicated in order to make us happy (even though the IMDb fanboys would say so).
Seriousness works for Batman because he’s kind of a wet blanket, but we don’t need an angry humorless Superman. And I really hope we don’t get an angry and humorless Wonder Woman. Marvel has been churning out fun, enjoyable, colorful superhero movies since Iron Man and people love them. The X-Men franchise hit a bizarre low streak after their first two fantastic films, but they’ve recovered and have won their audiences back. Meanwhile DC spent two movies bombarding audiences with bleak, angry, colorless films that failed to garner much praise before trying to actually have fun with Suicide Squad (and the critics hate it because it’s light and fun and doesn’t take itself seriously’ basically, they hate it because it’s not The Dark Knight).
The Dark Knight is a good movie. It happened at a time when we as a culture were incredibly cynical and angry (going through the Recession) and so its clashing of rigid order and liberating chaos was an attractive narrative. We all wanted to set fire to Wall Street at that point, after all. But we’ve moved on. We’re trying to have fun again. The CW is giving us fluffy, fun superhero series that deal with good folks beating bad folks and justice coming out on top, and they’re great! They’re hardly deep and complex and thought-provoking, but that’s not what we need as a culture at this point. We are trying to return to the fun of the 80’s and 90’s before 9/11 crippled our ability to believe in anything as silly as unity, peace, and good triumphing over evil.
It’s time to let The Dark Knight rest. I hate to see DC being so severely bowled over by Marvel because I actually like DC better, but I crave the day when DC creates a movie as fun as Marvel’s The Avengers. Warner Brothers’ animated division makes great DC movies. Why can’t the main studio do the same?
Thanks for letting me rant and rave. I’ve needed to get this out of my system for a while.
I will see you again on Saturday with another review!