The year is 2012, and Hollywood is going through a bit of a renaissance. Movie studios have realized that not only are people interested in seeing films about superheroes, but that they’re also interested in seeing high-quality movies that adhere to a realistic take on the superheroes’ world.
One of the biggest examples of this is Christian Bale’s portrayal of Batman in the 2012 film The Dark Knight Rises. Bale’s acting skills absolutely mesmerize viewers, and the film’s overall quality is extraordinary. The Dark Knight Rises becomes the first installment of The Dark Knight Trilogy, establishing itself as the best of the bunch.
The film’s director, Christopher Nolan, took a bold step by choosing not to put a caped crusader in the center of the action, and instead opting for an intelligent, modernized take on the character. This is in stark contrast to the 1966 version of the story, where Batman is the focus, and most of the action takes place in a sort of ‘80s urban-set-meets-Roman-coliseum” environment. Naturally, Nolan’s decision not to go down the iconic Batman plotline road paved the way for more original stories and a greater emphasis on character development.
Which Version Is Better?
Although The Dark Knight Trilogy is an excellent example of the type of cinema that rose from the ashes of the Great Recession, it is not the only example. In fact, there are quite a number of films that managed to capture the imagination of moviegoers in the same way.
One of the best examples is the first film in the franchise, Batman Begins. Even if you’ve never heard of the character, you’ve almost certainly heard of the film. Released in 2005, the film was a massive hit, earning $274 million domestically on a $100 million budget. It also went on to become the highest grossing film of the year, and the fourth highest-grossing film of all time at the time.
The film’s director, Christopher Nolan, took a chance on a character that didn’t have much of a following at the time, and paid off. By reinventing the Batman character, Nolan helped breathe new life into a character that, while still popular, had slowly begun to lose his relevance in modern comics. In turn, this helped pave the way for future Batman films that explored themes of legacy and personal responsibility.
The Dark Knight is the culmination of a trilogy of films, with each film taking place five years after the last. Set in the same multiverse as the previously released TDK and The Dark Knight Rises, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice picks up where the latter film left off, as a new threat, the murderous Doomsday, threatens to tear the world apart. While many of the actors from the previous films are back, the setting is completely different, as the Dark Knight universe is now within living memory of the audience.
It should come as no great surprise that after 12 years of stagnation, the world of comic books and associated media is now at the center of popular culture. While superhero films have always been popular, especially in the ‘70s and ‘80s, they have largely been an ‘also ran’ in terms of critical and commercial success. That is, until recently. With the right kind of adaptation, and with a willing director and cast, comics can provide the inspiration for breakout films.
Marvel vs DC
The success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole, and in particular the wildly popular Black Panther, is another indication of the shift in cultural consciousness. It would be a mistake to view these films as simply ‘Marvel movies’ or ‘DC movies,’ as they represent the cinematic universes of both companies. For example, the Marvel Cinematic Universe includes a diverse array of characters from different backgrounds, and the settings are often multigenerational and multicultural. Black Panther, in particular, challenges conventional ideas of what it means to be ‘black’ in the United States. The film also marks the first time that a superhero movie does not feature any black actors in major roles.
The success of these films is undoubtedly a product of their willingness to be ‘out there’ and ‘artistic,’ in the words of Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige. “They want to push the limits,” he said of his company’s films. “We’ve always done the same. Whether it’s been Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, or now, Black Panther, we’ve never been afraid to experiment with new things, and that’s what makes us special.”
Part of the reason for the growing popularity of superhero movies is the increased willingness of comic book publishers to experiment with new storytelling techniques and settings. This is reflected in the rise of prestige comics, such as the recently launched Black Panther, where complex themes and strong stories of self-determination are placed at the center of the narrative. This type of storytelling would not have been possible a few years ago.
Bold And Brave
Comic book creators are also, as a rule, much more willing to experiment with ‘unconventional’ ways of telling stories. Take a comic book character like Poison Ivy, for example. Ivy is generally depicted as a beautiful, seductive woman who uses her wiles to ensnare men, and then uses them for her own selfish ends. The character originally appeared in the ‘70s, and has mainly appeared in comics aimed at a female audience. In more recent years, Ivy, and the rest of the Justice League, have become fairly popular, and are even referenced in the Batman v Superman trailer. So, it would appear, is the character of Poison Ivy.
That said, Ivy is one of the better examples. The vast majority of comic book characters, especially those belonging to the likes of DC and Marvel, are still generally thought of as ‘boy’s toys,’ and it is generally rare for characters to rise above their origins as children’s entertainment.
A Growing Trend
The recent success of the Marvel and DC Comics cinematic universes is, in part, the result of shifting trends in media and marketing. Younger audiences are now more used to consuming content on their mobile phones than they are on traditional television sets, leading to a shift in emphasis from linear to digital storytelling.
This trend is being reflected in the types of stories and characters we see emerging from the large publishers. For example, look no further than the Dark Knight Trilogy, and its continuing influence on popular culture. While the first film adheres fairly closely to the comics, it also marks the first time in the character’s history where he does not appear in the flesh. Instead, we are treated to an origin story, told from the perspective of Batman’s great adversary, the Joker.
Comic book fans and filmgoers alike are clearly responding to this well-structured narrative that unfolds at a leisurely pace, providing numerous plot twists and turns. This can be attributed, in part, to the combination of the great character, and an incredibly talented director, who is able to capture the imagination of audiences while still staying true to the comics.
One of the questions this raises is where does this leave the previously established superhero movie franchises? Do they now become ‘foundations’ for future films, or have they been surpassed by more contemporary stories and characters?