Two pivotal developments in the superhero film industry occurred in 2008 so quickly that you might be excused for assuming they both meant the same thing. In a short period of time, Marvel Studios introduced the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) with Iron Man, and The Dark Knight, directed by Christopher Nolan, altered people's perceptions of how seriously to take these films. Both are seen as turning points in how moviegoers and, more significantly, the industry treated such tales, with The Dark Knight being singled out as the benchmark against which all later movies about masked crime fighters are assessed.
But how much of an impact did Nolan's chilling vision—in which a lone vigilante represents the last, greatest chance for a sizable American metropolis on the edge of collapse—have on the genre? The culture, both back then and now, was undoubtedly profoundly influenced by The Dark Knight. You witnessed it when The Dark Knight Rises' exclusion from the Best Picture race and Heath Ledger's brilliant portrayal of the Joker made him just the second actor to receive a posthumous Oscar, respectively. Only the second superhero film, The Dark Knight, was added to the National Film Registry only last year.
I couldn't help but disagree, though, when a buddy who had been watching the The Falcon and the Winter Soldier premiere the previous week claimed Marvel was going back to the "realistic" tone of The Dark Knight and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The new Disney+ series may have a slightly more realistic aesthetic than when we last saw these characters (when they were battling aliens for magic stones in Avengers: Endgame), but the series' ability to cross multiple media refutes any claims that Marvel borrowed significantly from the exclusive and self-contained Dark Knight Trilogy.
It's fascinating to take a look back at just those 2008 movies since, on the surface, they appeared to have some commonalities. Because Nolan directed Memento (2000) and Jon Favreau wrote and starred in Swingers (1996), both films focused on incredibly wealthy billionaires who use their wealth to fight injustice on a potentially global scale. They also both featured unexpected casting choices, including Heath Ledger as the Joker and Robert Downey Jr. resuming his career as Tony Stark.
But their objectives and methods were quite unlike. Apart from the fact that Iron Man is an origin story and The Dark Knight is a sequel to Batman Begins from 2005, the most evident distinction between the two is that The Dark Knight thought of itself as an allegory about post-9/11 America whereas Iron Man had a subtly humorous sensibility. Due in great part to Downey's talent for humorous improvisation and freestyle, the former was a hit. In fact, co-star Jeff Bridges admitted in 2009 that during rudimentary rehearsals, he, Downey, and Favreau were literally creating their sequences from fresh every day. Bridges mused with his Dude diction, "They had no screenplay, bro.
The Dark Knight, on the other hand, seems at first look to be an exercise in self-seriousness and high ambition. Each scene, scripted by Nolan and his brother Jonathan Nolan, reads like a chess move, with each character acting as a piece or knight that has been placed to induce absolute dread in modern audiences using images and words from the War on Terror. Naturally, this clock-like presentation is also a Nolan illusion, as lesser-known actors like Michael Jai White, who played the movie's mobster Gambol, have been rather open about. On the Nolan set, there is still some flexibility and workshopping, as with practically every movie.
In the end, the main distinction between the Nolan strategy and the ultimate Marvel strategy is what each is trying to achieve with the present project. The Dark Knight made an effort to create a sprawling criminal drama epic that would stand alone, independent of its standing as a Batman Begins sequel, rather than merely giving a "realistic" version of Batman. The Dark Knight was intended to be a cinematic distillation of Batman and the Joker's fundamental charms, not "the next chapter." By taking this tack, the movie also deviated from the superhero movie mold that Batman Begins followed three years prior and that almost all superhero movies still follow today.
The Dark Knight essentially shown that while superhero films may be dark and sophisticated, they can also be subversive, unexpected, and really startling. Even though it was excellent, Nolan's previous superhero film adhered to the plot points established by Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie, which came out over 30 years prior. They follow the same patterns as Iron Man and almost all other superhero origin stories, including the vast majority of Marvel Studios' work. The Dark Knight, in contrast, sought to use a cinematic idiom distinct from its genre. It's not handled subtly in the film either. The opening sequence of Nolan's epic makes overt reference to Michael Mann's Heat, and Jaws' plot structure predominates over Jor- El's.
The method shocked viewers in 2008 after they had grown accustomed to seeing a particular kind of movie from masked do-gooders. Superhero conventions may be subverted or destroyed in The Dark Knight when love interest Rachel Dawes is brutally murdered in the middle of a sentence or when steadfast Batman is compelled to declare a hollow victory over the villain by getting involved in a criminal conspiracy and cover-up with the police. The movie's metaphorical themes about a society on edge were as astounding as the joy of novelty.
Even with its unresolved ending, The Dark Knight was nevertheless a distinct cinematic experience, complete with a concentration on IMAX imagery that was at the time ground-breaking. The concept of setting up Harvey Dent's fall from grace for a third movie, proposed by co-story author David Goyer, was abandoned by Nolan since he was so insistent about making this as self-contained an experience as possible. Dent's fate, like everyone else's, would be solely dependent on what happens in the current movie you're viewing.
Marvel Studios showed a completely new set of goals in Iron Man, and then more clearly in Iron Man 2 (2010) and the remainder of its "Phase One" era. Iron Man 2 eventually came to embody Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige's broader plans for the kind of movies he was creating, much like how Batman Begins cleared the way for Nolan to achieve what he really intended with that material. Iron Man 2 was episodic, totally designed around audience expectations for a sequel, and much more like a comic book world than our own, in contrast to The Dark Knight, which was singular, unorthodox, and one step closer to our reality than its comic book beginnings.
To put it another way, the first Iron Man subtly introduced audiences to the fantasy by opening with modern shots of Tony Stark in a Middle Eastern desert; Iron Man 2 then made bold steps toward quickly defining what that MCU fantasy is: Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), is introduced solely to establish the superspy who will be crucial to The Avengers two years down the road, and the central narrative about Tony Stark fighting an ominous
To put it another way, the first Iron Man subtly introduced audiences to the fantasy by opening with modern shots of Tony Stark in a Middle Eastern desert; Iron Man 2 then made bold steps toward quickly defining what that MCU fantasy is: Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), is introduced solely to establish the superspy who will be crucial to The Avengers two years down the road, and the central narrative about Tony Stark fighting an old enemy was paused to reinstate the supporting and unnecessary side character Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Even the post-credit sequence, which has nothing nothing to do with the narrative you just witnessed, randomly inserts genuine magic with a glowing hammer. Even so, it's a fantastic teaser for Thor, which was scheduled to hit theaters a year from now.
With the release of Iron Man 2, Marvel Studios' focus shifted away from the central idea of The Dark Knight Trilogy. Marvel's movies would be interwoven chapters in a continuous narrative arc that covered numerous franchises and endless sequels rather than being isolated, stand-alone cinematic experiences like the classic Hollywood epics. This isn't always a negative thing. Feige and his team of writers always know where the next movie (or five) is headed and have a better understanding of the broader concept than any one filmmaker working inside this structure, in contrast to Nolan after The Dark Knight. Ironically, this gives the studio and producer more authority as they appear to be the films' authors. Similar to the Golden Age of Hollywood, hired hands are used as directors more frequently than famous auteurs.
However, this means that the qualities Nolan genuinely prized in The Dark Knight—aspects such as spontaneity, subversion, and a distance from superhero tropes—became incompatible with the kinds of films the MCU produces. The Marvel Cinematic Universe prospered for at least the first 10 years of its existence by developing a formula and house style that are as familiar to viewers as the ingredients in a Big Mac.
An sardonic, self-deprecating tone, a plot that frequently focuses around a CG MacGuffin that must be retrieved from the enemy, and a plotline in which several heroic individuals come together after some entertaining, unpleasant banter are all pretty much what you can expect when you see a Marvel movie. In actuality, The Avengers (2012) by Joss Whedon honed the Marvel formula into what it is now more so than Iron Man had.
Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Since Iron Man, Black Panther is likely the first Marvel film to address topics that are relevant to everyday life, in this case, the heritage of the African diaspora. James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy films may follow the narrative formula of most MCU films, but they're embedded with a cheeky and idiosyncratic personality that is distinctly Gunn's; and in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) and Captain America: Civil War (2016), directors Joe and Anthony Russo, as well as screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, attained their first superhero film nomination for Best Picture. But just up to a point.
The Russos pushed for in-camera special effects and cultivated what they frequently referred to in the press as a "1970s espionage thriller" aesthetic, especially in the 2014 attempt. It was ostensibly hoped that The Winter Soldier would be as much of a spy thriller as The Dark Knight was of a criminal epic. In keeping with this, there were also attempts to graft on to the narrative very current worries about the expansion of a government surveillance state, which had only become worse in the ten years after the U.S. Despite a change in White House administrations, the PATRIOT Act was approved. All of these objectives, however, were constrained by a hidden ceiling.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier was able to avoid becoming overly focused on the espionage elements or departing too much from the Marvel house style despite having overtones about the peril of reactionary yet well-intentioned government leaders, such as the kind personified by Robert Redford's SHIELD director in the film. Redford's character was revealed to be a covert HYDRA double agent in order to relate the tale to other Marvel movies and fulfill viewer expectations for a Marvel movie. As a result, this "1970s spy thriller" concludes with a massive CGI fight and widespread urban devastation as Captain America places MacGuffins into devices that would detonate HYDRA's most recent weapon for global dominance.
Redford's character might have been a well-meaning patriot accumulating power "to keep us safe," and in the process destabilizing the institutions he claimed to revere, instead of retreating into comic book motivations, if the film had been developed a little longer and didn't have to adhere to a certain set of rules and expectations.
An Endless Universe
The Marvel approach encourages a strong need for familiarity and comforting predictability rather than confusion and pain. But both approaches are legitimate. While The Dark Knight received almost unanimous acclaim, Nolan's even more ambitious The Dark Knight Rises, a blatantly David Lean-inspired epic that borrowed more from A Tale of Two Cities and Doctor Zhivago than DC Comics, failed to win over audiences. Additionally, it represented a narrative dead end for the corporate and fan bases' need for a continued franchise. Instead, Nolan's cinematic depiction of the Batman legend reached a concluding, creative, and dramatic phase. Comparatively, Marvel Studios has developed a unique cinematic lingo that exclusively use commas, semicolons, and dashes. Always, there is more to say.
“That's a privilege and a luxury that directors aren't granted anymore”, said Nolan in reference to the shifting conditions for superhero movies in 2017. “That’s a privilege and a luxury that filmmakers aren’t afforded anymore. I think it was the last time that anyone was able to say to a studio, ‘I might do another one, but it will be four years.’ There’s too much pressure on release schedules to let people do that now, but creatively it’s a huge advantage.”
This is consistent with Jeff Bridges' remarks from 2009, following the release of the first Iron Man, on the growth of the Marvel approach: “You would think with a $200 million movie you’d have the shit together, but it was just the opposite. And the reason for that is because they get ahead of themselves. They have a release date before the script [and they think], ‘Oh, we’ll have the script before that time,’ and they don’t have their shit together.”
Despite Bridges' dissatisfaction with the new procedure, Marvel was changing the rules for how these kinds of movies were produced. Three completely separate and mostly stand-alone Batman movies were produced as a result of Nolan's one at a time strategy and years-long creative procedures. Marvel, however, has altered perceptions of what cinematic storytelling is and what a franchise can be.
Instead of three movies, their rules and structures have produced dozens of well-liked and acclaimed entertainments, which when combined can result in experiences as exceptional as Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019), which were more like a two-part season finale on television than individual movies. The latter went on to earn the most money of all time.
When one examines rivals who attempted to imitate both Marvel and Nolan's strategies—relying on a lone auteur to create a unified cinematic universe—while also maybe learning the incorrect lessons from the "dark" in The Dark Knight title, the effectiveness of this strategy is further highlighted. The DC Extended World's strategy failed after three films, leaving the linked, "shared," portion of its universe in ruins and fans and studio executives disagreeing on how to move on with the brand. The Marvel Cinematic Universe traveled a narrower path than The Dark Knight did. But it ended up being considerably longer and much smoother.