Saturday Morning Opinion: This Is All Christopher Nolan’s Fault

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Last Saturday at San Diego Comic-Con:

Marvel Studios starts off their evening presentation in the legendary Hall H with some of their most anticipated films—Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, and, of course, Avengers: Age of Ultron.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron portion of the panel kicks off with Robert Downey Jr. hurling roses into the audience to the strains of “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough.” After the rest of the cast assembles, he welcomes to “the Marvel Family” (his words) Aaron Taylor Johnson, who dances out on stage before hugging Chris Evans, Paul Bettany, James Spader, and Elizabeth Olsen, who Downey gives a white rose.

“This is supposed to happen,” sighs moderator Chris Hardwick, surveying the impressive line-up.

As they answer his light questions, the word family comes up a lot. In fact, the atmosphere is that of a family reunion, with Robert Downey Jr. playing the role of Proud Papa and the audience six thousand cousins. They hoot and holler and cheer at every self-deprecating remark, joke, and reveal. Mark Ruffalo pulls up Chris Hemsworth’s shirt sleeve to reveal his astonishing biceps. Chris Evans and Johnson crack each other up while Jackson fields questions. Olsen’s use of the word “mutant” is oooed at, and someone has to explain to Hardwick the family in-joke that mutants—with the X-Men’s film rights currently in the hands of Fox—are off-limits for Marvel Studios at the moment.

Kevin Feige screens a clip from the film for the audience. The Avengers, at a party, try to lift Thor’s hammer for a laugh. Captain America manages to shift it slightly, but the party is interrupted by Ultron. Several scenes are glimpsed in brief, shutter-like glimpses. One of these clips finds Black Widow calming down the Hulk in the middle of a battle by pressing their hands together; the last finds Iron Man staring, horrified, at the seemingly dead bodies of his fellow Avengers.

This is all after a signing at Marvel’s booth, where the cast chatted with attendees.

Last Saturday at San Diego Comic-Con:

Warner Brothers starts off their morning presentation in the legendary Hall H with one of their most anticipated films, Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

After showing some concept art, Zack Snyder screens some footage from the film. An armored Batman, his eyes glowing white, pulls a tarp off of the Batsignal. The light of the Batsignal reveals Superman above him, rage in his eyes. In fact, his eyes are red with it, his heat vision gearing up to incinerate the Dark Knight. Batman grimly stares him down.

The clip ends there. Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill are trotted out onstage, to the cheers of thousands. Those cheers swell when Gal Gadot, who plays Wonder Woman, join him. They smile, wave, and take a selfie with Chris Hardwick.

They leave without saying a word.

Traditionally, the difference between DC and Marvel has been pretty simple.

DC’s heroes are aspirational. Marvel’s heroes are relatable. Superman and Captain America are both moral pillars draped in the American flag, but Superman is both an unfathomably powerful alien as well as the epitome of cornfed Midwestern American manhood. Meanwhile, Captain America, as tumblr will happily remind you, started off life as a disabled kid in a predominantly gay neighborhood of Brooklyn during the Great Depression. In short—Superman sympathizes, but Cap empathizes.

But as last weekend has reminded us, there have been new differences between DC and Marvel in the last several years. A 2012 issue of Astonishing X-Men features a wedding between a long-running gay couple; DC refuses to allow Batwoman and her girlfriend get married on-panel. Marvel announces a new, female Thor and that a black man will take up the mantle of Captain America for the second time in the company’s; DC waffles over whether or not Constantine, one of the very few bisexual men in mainstream media, will be bisexual in his upcoming television incarnation. The director of Ant-Man boasts his own thin nerd credentials, consisting of superhero-themed flyers for his old band; Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice writer David S. Goyer calls a crowd of fans “virgins” for knowing who beloved DC character Martian Manhunter is, before going on to call the character inherently “goofy.”

And when it comes to the big screen—well, last weekend’s panels couldn’t be in starker (pun completely intended) contrast. DC screened a grim, desaturated clip highlighting the violence and conflict between its characters, followed by their stars barely interacting with the audience or each other. Marvel screened a bright, epic clip reel highlighting the camaraderie between its characters, followed by their stars chummily interacting with the audience (both at the panel and at a signing) and each other.

SDCC 2014 Marvel Avengers 2 Age of Ultron Signing

Financially, the results are neck and neck. Last year, Man of Steel outperformed Thor: The Dark World, but Iron Man 3 steamrolled both. Critically, though, it’s a different story. Rotten Tomatoes scores Thor: The Dark World at 65% and Iron Man 3 at 78%, but Man of Steel at 55%. For all Thor: The Dark World’s faults, a lack of fun is not one of them. But Man of Steel is grim enough that even the Boston Globe’s decidedly mainstream Ty Burr laments that “But what’s missing from this Superman saga is a sense of lightness, of pop joy. This is a story about a guy who can fly, for pity’s sake…

How did we get here? How did we get to a point where the difference between DC and Marvel onscreen is not simply that of different characters and a slightly different worldview, but the difference between depressing yourself at the movies to prove to the mainstream that superheroes are cool and enjoying yourself at the movies because you think superheroes are already plenty cool? Much like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this is not something that happens overnight.

Luckily, there is an answer.

This is all Christopher Nolan’s fault.

Let me qualify that statement: this is all Christopher Nolan’s fault, insofar as this unsettling trend can be traced back to a single human being.

Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight Premiere - Navy Pier

Batman Begins did not herald the current cultural ascendency of superheroes. That would the long-gestating X-Men, which was released in 2000, six years after Fox realized that the smash success of the television show might translate into box office success and bought the rights. (They were completely right!)

But Batman Begins was the first DC film of the aughts that not only garnered financial success, but flirted with mainstream critical acclaim. (The less said about The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Catwoman, the better.) Christopher Nolan’s darker and more psychological film translated the Batman mythos through his own bleakly rich lens (a descriptor provided by the man himself). Critics granted that it was a superior superhero film, and it garnered an Academy Award nomination for cinematography, rather than the usual categories genre film finds itself in.

2008 was an important year in superhero films. In May, Marvel Studios’ first film, Iron Man, was released to critical acclaim that, like Batman Begins, singled it out as a superior superhero film. June saw the release of The Incredible Hulk, a more financially successful but less critically successful film that heralded the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

But when The Dark Knight was released in July, it steamrolled Iron Man—as well as any other film that summer, including the latest installment in the Bond films that so inspired Nolan. It went on to be the only film of the aughts to gross $500 million domestically before grossing $1 billion worldwide, becoming the 18th highest grossing film of all time.

And it wasn’t just financially successful; it was critically adored, in language that made it clear that it had “transcended” its comic book origins (as if those origins had to be transcended to make great art). Roger Ebert begins his thoughtful review by declaring that ““Batman” isn’t a comic book anymore,The Dark Knight being “a haunted film that leaps beyond its origins.” PL Travers called it “ too somber for the Hulk crowd” after marveling that Nolan could make “pop escapism” approach art. Even Rotten Tomatoes’ summation states that the film “succeeds not just as an entertaining comic book film, but as a richly thrilling crime saga.

It won awards right and left, from Heath Ledger’s post-humous twenty-plus awards for his work as the Joker and eight Academy Award nominations, becoming the first film based on a comic book to do so. It wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, but its runaway success contributed to the Academy’s decision to expand the number of films eligible for Best Picture.

Not only was Batman not for kids anymore (one of the Joker’s first gags is stabbing a man in the eye), it wasn’t just for fans anymore. It was for everybody. And it was art; specifically, art that sold. From DC and Warner Brothers’ perspective on a mountain of cash and awards, all was right in the world.

Except that Nolan’s bankability meant that he could devote more time to original projects, like 2010’s Inception. While Warner Brothers was obviously invested in a third Batman film, Nolan was only interested if it was artistically worth his while. Asked about the possibility of a third film shortly after the release of The Dark Knight, Nolan states that any possibility of a sequel requires a story that will keep him emotionally invested, before laughing, “On a more superficial level, I have to ask the question: How many good third movies in a franchise can people name?His introduction to The Art and Making of the Dark Knight Trilogy finds him claiming that he never planned a trilogy or even thought that either sequel would happen.

While waiting on Nolan, Warner Brothers flirted with bringing other DC properties to the screen. 2006’s Superman Returns, inspired by the success of Batman Begins, did modestly well at the box office and critically, but Warner Brothers wanted bigger and better. 2009’s Watchmen also fared well, but as an R-rated big screen superhero generously laden with violence, sex, and full frontal male nudity didn’t tap into the same kind of mainstream audience. 2011’s Green Lantern, a throwback to the zippy, quippy, and CGI-laden superhero films of the early aughts, utterly tanked. The only DC property that was sticking on the big screen, it seemed, was Batman.

Meanwhile, Marvel Studios was proving that it could throw any character it still had the rights to and making it stick. Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger all did admirably at the box office and received positive reviews that highlighted their success as summer blockbusters, action films, and other genre fare. Marvel Studios, apparently, wasn’t after mainstream accolades. Just as long as the Marvel faithful were pleased and made the films solid successes, they were happy.

TATE'S Crew and YOU midnight screening of "The Avengers" on 5/4/12

But Nolan eventually found the right story for a third Batman film, and 2012 saw Marvel and DC do indirect battle at the box office with The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises. The Avengers’s careful seeding over the course of the past four years paid off—it became the third highest grossing film and the highest grossing superhero film ever, with a box office of a billion and a half dollars. Its critical reception highlighted its status as a superb superhero film and fantastic blockbuster, but clearly indicated that it was fan fare. “Comic-Con nerds will have multiple orgasms,” David Edelstein states in New York’s review of the film. The film’s single Academy Award nomination for Best Special Visual Effects and Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form confirmed the divide.

In contrast, The Dark Knight Rises, which also earned over a billion dollars at the box office, received another round of critical accolades that made it clear that it was a fantastic film, not just a good superhero film. Robbie Collin at The Telegraph called it “a superhero film without a superhero,” even going so far as to wonder whether or not The Dark Knight was really a superhero film due to its quality. Kenneth Turan at The LA Times found it to be “more than an exceptional superhero movie, it is masterful filmmaking by any standard.” While The Dark Knight rises was widely accepted to be the superior film in the trilogy, the point was made again: Nolan’s Batman films were high cinema with mass market appeal, only tangentially connected to superhero films as a genre.

But The Dark Knight trilogy was definitively over, as its final shot attests. Nolan went off to work on Interstellar; after all, he can essentially do whatever he wants now to the end of his days. Without Nolan, Warner Brothers’ only successful superhero franchise had vanished off the face of the earth. And with Marvel Studios nipping at their heels, that was unacceptable.

And time was of the essence if they wanted to avoid a lawsuit. You see, during a legal struggle with the estates of Schuster and Siegel, the men who created Superman, it was ruled that Warner Brothers didn’t owe the families any money—but if they didn’t put a Superman film into production by 2011, the families could sue for lost revenue.

While working on The Dark Knight Rises, David S. Goyer told Nolan about his own idea to reboot Superman, which Nolan then pitched to Warner Brothers in 2010. Warner Brothers, eager to copy the success of The Dark Knight, leaped at it, sensing a successful formula: take a comic book character and tell their story in a more realistic, grittier way. Nolan, of course, wasn’t available, and Warner Brothers considered several directors—including future Batman Ben Affleck—before settling on the director of Watchmen, Zack Snyder. Everything was lined up for another crack at financial success and mainstream critical acclaim.

Except that Man of Steel didn’t. It did as well financially as any of the non-Iron Man or Avengers Marvel films, but the critical response was mixed, pointing out its grim, joyless nature and wanton violence. The one thing most people seemed to respond to was the hint that Batman existed in this universe, perhaps because the world of Man of Steel seemed tailored to him, not to Superman.  Well, Warner Brothers reasoned, if Marvel could team up their superheroes, why couldn’t they?

Justice League

They can’t in any effective fashion because they didn’t put in the legwork. Marvel Studios spent several years seeding The Avengers before unleashing it onto the world. More importantly, they can’t, because DC’s superheroes—in their current cinematic incarnations—are necessarily isolated characters. Half of that is due to the fact that DC’s characters tend to be more individual than Marvel’s. Each DC superhero, more often than not, has their own city to protect, as well as a supporting cast. Marvel’s superheroes, on the other hand, are almost entirely based out of New York City and heavily network with each other even when they’re not actually working with each other.

But the other half is that Warner Brothers and Snyder, the dominant director for what we now must call the DC Cinematic Universe, are trying to apply Christopher Nolan’s cinematic methodology to their upcoming films. And that doesn’t work, because Nolan’s Batman specifically existed in a world without superheroes. Nolan went so far as to make sure that the Waynes didn’t even see Zorro on the night they were murdered (deviating from a popular idea in the comics), in order to make Bruce’s decision to become Batman wholly his own. “I don’t think our Batman, our Gotham, lends itself to that kind of cross-fertilization,” Nolan stated in a 2008 interview with the LA Times. In a 2010 interview with IGN, DC Entertainment President Diane Nelson denied rumors that DC was trying to create their own cinematic universe.

Warner Brothers and DC are, of course, more than welcome to change their minds. But Snyder’s explanation of how this came to be is incredibly telling. Snyder claims that including Batman in Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice was a natural story decision after wondering who Superman could fight next. Not explore different meanings of fighting for justice, not to explore the differences between a superhero with no powers and one with, not even to compare and contrast their very different psyches—just, who could possibly punch Superman in the face? If Man of Steel was originally conceived to exist in a world utterly without superheroes, the only way to introduce superheroes into that world is as a threat.

In order to make a DC Cinematic Universe work, they have to actually adapt Nolan’s methodology, not just apply it as a one-size-fits-all grimdark filter that celebrates violence and spits on the camper, brighter tones of comic books. Nolan’s Batman films are a result of him using the character to explore his own fascinations, thus the darkness, the violence, and the weightiness of it all. That approach is not appropriate for all of DC’s characters, even with the aim of making them more realistic. (As if cynicism is inherently more realistic than optimism.) Without that thematic motivation, that grimdark “realism” is feeling more and more like DC is trying to run away from the fans that built their empire and back towards mainstream acclaim. With the taste of the Dark Knight trilogy’s critical acclaim still in their mouths, Warner Brothers and DC seem to be frantically seeking mainstream appeal by toning down anything that might seem childish about their properties—including any sense of fun, camaraderie, or emotional depth—trying to imitate his style as best they can. Which is, of course, impossible, because Nolan is so actively and intimately an auteur. Without a keen understanding of the deep themes Nolan grapples with in his work, any pastiche of his bleakly rich style is going to feel like empty posturing.

And that brings us right back to last weekend, with Batman and Superman glowering at each other in desaturated tones, playing at seriousness, and the Avengers finding some kind of peace in their strange found family.

As Ledger’s Joker might say—DC, why so serious for no real purpose?

3 thoughts on “Saturday Morning Opinion: This Is All Christopher Nolan’s Fault

  1. Pingback: Currently reading: Steve Jobs (also: free Scribd subscription!) - Here There Be Books

  2. Excellent summary of the current state of the rivalry. And a great point about why the grimdarkness doesn’t work without Nolan’s deeper ideas.

    On first seeing a ‘Man of Steel’ poster in a subway, I was struck mostly by the near absence of the colour yellow in the costume. Red and blue could work, apparently, if toned darker. But yellow was just too cheerful. It was sort of laughably clear what DC was doing with the character, and I could read their intentions through their vendetta on the colour yellow…

    • Thanks!

      There’s a place in the world for grimdarkness—just not every place in the world for it.

      I find that color theory so interesting. Especially in the context of Snowpiercer, where the color yellow is highlighted specifically as a very soulless color.

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