Audiences are spoiled with superhero movies today.
Between this year and last, we’ve been treated to six movies within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, not to mention everything else in between. Whether it be DC and Warner Bros.’ answer to the MCU in the divisive DC Extended Universe, or Fox’s “X-Men” franchise, superhero fans — for better or worse — have no shortage of movies to consume.
It was a different landscape 10 years ago.
In 2008, superhero movies were still popular, but they were at a dramatically different place tonally and culturally. “Cinematic universes” weren’t the talk of Tinseltown. In fact, the MCU had only just begun with “Iron Man” and the less impressive “The Incredible Hulk” later that summer. And “The Dark Knight” was a blockbuster phenomenon.
Looking back at that year today, it’s apparent that it was a turning point for the superhero genre. “The Dark Knight,” widely regarded as the best film in the genre but also regularly recognized as more of a crime thriller that happens to star a comic-book character, inspired countless less-successful copycats. Characters like Spider-Man and Superman would get the “dark and gritty and grounded” treatment in an effort to replicate the success of “The Dark Knight.”
But “The Dark Knight,” in hindsight, seems like an outlier. It’s hard to imagine the movie working by today’s superhero movie standards, which is why the movies it inspired were destined for failure. That’s thanks to the MCU, which was laying the groundwork for what the superhero genre — and much of the rest of Hollywood — would become at a time when studios thought “The Dark Knight” was the way of the future.
With that in mind, the genre has faced a sort of “whiplash” effect throughout the last 10 years, and below I’ll go through the evolution of the genre over that course of time — from the failure of “The Amazing Spider-Man” movies to the ascension of the MCU, and why no other studio can seem to replicate it.
Below is the evolution of the superhero genre since 2008, the notable movies that helped shape it during the last 10 years, and what the future may hold:
2008: “Iron Man”
“The Dark Knight” would become the cultural sensation of 2008, but it was released in July. “Iron Man” preceded it by a couple months in May, and little did we know at the time that it would set the precedent for the superhero genre 10 years later. “Iron Man” was the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It got things off to an impressive start, but the franchise wouldn’t find its footing again until “The Avengers” four years later.
“Iron Man” is a remarkable achievement for a number of reasons, even excluding the fact that it kickstarted the MCU. Before this Jon Favreau-directed movie, Iron Man wasn’t a household name. But as soon as Robert Downey Jr. stepped into the gold and red armor, Iron Man was suddenly A-list. The movie grossed nearly $600 million worldwide and has a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes, which was the highest rated MCU movie until “Black Panther” this year.
There’s an argument to be made that if not for the promise of “Iron Man” that the MCU could have derailed, just as its competition, the DC Extended Universe, has. The movies that followed it in the franchise weren’t as well-received, but “Iron Man” kept the ship afloat until “The Avengers” in 2012.
2008: “The Dark Knight”
Looking back, “The Dark Knight” is one of a kind. It was unique in 2008, but against the current status quo of superhero movies, nothing has matched it (the closest is “Logan,” but more on that later).
In an age of cinematic universes, “The Dark Knight” succeeded in a time when superhero stories still had a definitive end. Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” trilogy had wrapped up a year prior with “Spider-Man 3,” and “The Dark Knight” was the middle part of a planned trilogy from Christopher Nolan. Today we have franchises within franchises — there have been three Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America movies, but they are all within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They may be trilogies in the traditional sense, but they are also cogs in a larger machine. Whatever happens in “Captain America: Civil War” or “Thor: Ragnarok,” even if they have their own distinct tone, carries over into the rest of the franchise.
That wasn’t the case with “The Dark Knight.” Audiences flocked to the theater despite Batman being on his own (the late Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn as the Joker may have helped). There is no Superman, or Wonder Woman, or Flash. This was a Batman story, told the Christopher Nolan way, and it still made over $1 billion worldwide.
The MCU has managed to let filmmakers imbue the movies with their own style recently, but “The Dark Knight” trilogy feels like the last time a superhero series wasn’t heavily influenced by outside forces, whether studio involvement or the pressure to tie into a larger universe. It ended on its own terms.
And even though it was the second part of a trilogy, “The Dark Knight” has become a classic in its own right. It’s known more for the backlash the Oscars received for not nominating it for best picture, and the expansion of the number of nominees the following year, and less for being a superhero movie. Whatever accolades movies like “Logan” or “Black Panther” may receive, it’s hard to match the significance of “The Dark Knight.”
A year after “The Dark Knight,” another “dark and gritty” superhero movie was released that can also be perceived as not a superhero movie, but a political thriller that happens to star costumed vigilantes.
While “Watchmen” was obviously in development before “The Dark Knight” struck success, Warner Bros. was probably hoping it would have another cultural phenomenon on its hands. But “Watchmen” had more going against it than for it. It featured no recognizable characters like Batman, was rated R, and was based on a highly acclaimed graphic novel. But the thinking was maybe if it didn’t make a lot of money (it didn’t), then it would at least be praised by critics (it wasn’t).
Director Zack Snyder was a hot item at the time, having directed 2004’s “Dawn of the Dead” and 2007’s “300.” And while “Watchmen” didn’t become the groundbreaking piece of art that the graphic novel is regarded as, Warner Bros. would later go all-in on Snyder’s abilities to carry its own cinematic universe — to mixed results (more on that later).
If “Watchmen” proved anything, it’s that audiences didn’t see “The Dark Knight” just because it was a “dark” superhero movie. It had cultural importance, and was just as much of an “event” as it was a movie. “Watchmen” the graphic novel had that importance among comic-book readers, but to casual moviegoers, who cared?
“Watchmen” also proved that some ideas are better for the small screen: As movies have leaned more and more on franchise tentpoles, television is in a “golden age” for the opposite reasons. As Ben Fritz writes in his book “The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies,” “shifting economic and technological factors have fueled an explosion of originality and risk taking that makes the ‘idiot box’ home to arguably the best content Hollywood has ever produced.”
Even though it’s based on pre-existing material, the risk and creativity involved in something like “Watchmen” makes it perfect for television. “Lost” and “The Leftovers” creator Damon Lindelof is currently developing a “Watchmen” pilot for HBO.
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