Why the Superhero Genre Failed to Emulate ‘The Dark Knight’

     July 18, 2018

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Studios love copying the success of other studios. They may not understand why a movie worked, but they’ll at least try to point to some formula or aspect they might be able to recreate with their own movies. When The Avengers broke records in 2012, it sent other studios scrambling to create their own extended universes only to come up short in quality or fail to get them off the ground altogether. So why didn’t other studios try, four years prior, to replicate the success of The Dark Knight, which was a smash at the box office and earned two Oscars?

By its reputation, The Dark Knight should be one of the most influential movies of its decade, especially for the superhero genre. And yet ten years later, we see that while it had some serious changes on the character of Batman and his universe (I don’t think we get competing Joker movies in development without The Dark Knight), superhero movies have branched away in different directions. Yes, there’s the occasional “serious” superhero movie like Logan, but for the most part, Marvel sets the tone and other studios try to catch up. Even within in the bounds of the DC Universe, the most influence The Dark Knight had was on Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, movies that came out five and eight years later, respectively.

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Image via Warner Bros.

The “problem” with The Dark Knight is that it has an incredibly specific vision for both what a superhero movie should be and what kind of story it’s trying to tell. It’s a singular film, both in terms of its assets (a well-known superhero, a well-known villain) and in terms of what it’s pursuing (a narrative about the war on terror). When you throw in that director Christopher Nolan is an expert craftsman who doesn’t have a hair out of place on his pristine movie, and you start to realize that the reason other studios didn’t replicate The Dark Knight is because they couldn’t.

If you look at the superhero movies that follow in the wake of The Dark Knight, you’ll see that most of them couldn’t really couldn’t copy what Nolan accomplished. Marvel Studios doggedly went on its path for the MCU, sticking close to what it wanted for its characters. The X-Men movies went back in time and tried something lighter with X-Men: First Class. The closest anyone came (and it was still a far way off) was the 2012 reboot The Amazing Spider-Man, which tried for a grittier, more realistic take on a well-known superhero. The problem is Amazing Spider-Man wasn’t about anything larger than just an origin story nor did anyone really care about the Lizard and his quest to turn people into giant lizards.

Even Christopher Nolan couldn’t really decipher his own template when he returned to Batman with The Dark Knight Rises. He had all the elements (the subtext move to income inequality, the villain once again brought the hero low and his own ideals about the future of Gotham), but the mixture didn’t work. Instead of being the tight crime thriller of The Dark Knight, the sequel is this bizarre hodgepodge where nothing really works correctly and the script takes far too many shortcuts and detours to come to a weird egalitarian concept of Batman that’s in direct conflict with what we learned about the character in Batman Begins.

The Dark Knight is a special movie, and that’s okay. A film can be great without influencing tons of other movies. Ten years ago, it was easy to see The Dark Knight as a revolution for the superhero genre, a masterpiece that would change the direction of superhero films forever into something darker, grittier, and more concerned with real world themes rather than perfectly lining up with the text of the comics. Instead, ten years later, and the superhero genre is still growing and diversifying. Yes, you have Marvel out front with its big superhero universe, but you also have raunchy comedy with Deadpool, serious drama with Logan, feminist themes with Wonder Woman, and more. If there is a lasting influence with The Dark Knight, it’s arguably that while comic book movies didn’t have to hold fast to the comics, they could be free to live in other genres and breathe as cinema. Other superhero movies may not look like The Dark Knight, but they’ve become more than just good guys with a bunch of wonderful toys.

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