In 2008, there were two seismic events in the superhero movie genre so close together that you’d be forgiven for thinking they signaled the same thing. Over the span of a few months, Marvel Studios launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) via Iron Man, and director Christopher Nolan changed the perception of how seriously to take these movies with The Dark Knight. Both are credited as watershed moments for how audiences and (more importantly) the industry approached such stories; and The Dark Knight is specifically singled out as the gold standard by which all other masked crimefighter films are measured.
However, was Nolan’s haunting vision—one in which a lone avenger is the last, best hope for a major American city on the verge of collapse—really that influential on its genre? The Dark Knight certainly had a monumental impact on the culture, then and now. You saw it when Heath Ledger’s searing interpretation of the Joker made him only the second actor to win a posthumous Oscar, as well as when the film’s exclusion from the Best Picture race changed the way the Academy Awards handled its top prize. And just last year, The Dark Knight became only the second superhero movie inducted into the National Film Registry.
Yet when a friend watching last week’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier premiere told me Marvel was returning to the “realistic” approach of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and by extension The Dark Knight, I couldn’t help but disagree. The new Disney+ series may have a slightly more grounded aesthetic than the last time we saw these characters (back when they were fighting space aliens over magic stones in Avengers: Endgame), but the medium-blending existence of the series belies the idea that Marvel took anything significant from the insular and self-contained Dark Knight Trilogy.
The Dark Knight vs. Iron Man
It’s interesting to look back at just those 2008 films since at face value they bore minor similarities. They both were focused on fantastically wealthy billionaires using their fortunes to fight wrongdoing on a potentially global scale; each movie was directed by filmmakers with indie cred thanks to Nolan helming Memento (2000) and Jon Favreau writing and starring in Swingers (1996); and each starred unexpected casting choices with Ledger as the Joker and Robert Downey Jr. jumpstarting a career comeback as Tony Stark.
But their goals and approaches were worlds apart. The obvious thing to note, besides The Dark Knight being a sequel to Batman Begins (2005) and Iron Man being an origin movie, is that Iron Man had an slyly hilarious sensibility, and The Dark Knight fancied itself an allegory about post-9/11 America. The former’s success was engineered in large part by Downey’s gift for comedic improvisation and freestyle. Indeed, co-star Jeff Bridges said in 2009 that he, Downey, and Favreau were essentially improvising their scenes from scratch every day during primitive rehearsals. “They had no script, man,” Bridges lightly complained with his Dude diction.
By contrast, The Dark Knight appears at a glance to be an exercise in self-seriousness and lofty ambition. Every scene, written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan Nolan, appears like a chess move, and each character a pawn or knight who’s been positioned to put contemporary audiences in a state of pure anxiety with War on Terror imagery and dialogue. Of course this clocklike presentation is itself another Nolan illusion, as smaller players like Michael Jai White, who portrayed gangster Gambol in the movie, have been quite candid about. As with almost every film, there is still a level of fluidity and workshopping on Nolan’s set.
Ultimately, the bigger difference between the Nolan and eventual Marvel approach is what each is hoping to accomplish with the film they’re currently making. More than just offering a “realistic” vision of Batman, The Dark Knight attempted to tell a sweeping crime drama epic that would stand alone, separate from its status as a Batman Begins sequel. Rather than being “the next chapter,” The Dark Knight was meant to be a cinematic distillation of Batman and Joker’s primal appeals writ large. With this approach, the film also broke away from the superhero movie template Batman Begins followed three years earlier, and which nearly all superhero films still walk through the paces of.
In essence, The Dark Knight showed that superhero movies could be dark and mature, yes, but they can also be subversive, unexpected, and genuinely surprising. Nolan’s previous superhero movie, as good as it is, followed the beats set down by Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie nearly 30 years earlier. They’re the same beats trod by Iron Man and pretty much every other superhero origin movie, including a large bulk of Marvel Studios’ output. The Dark Knight, by contrast, reached for a cinematic vernacular separate from its specific genre. The movie’s not subtle about it either. The opening scene of Nolan’s epic wears its homages to Michael Mann’s Heat on its sleeves, and the story’s structure has more to do with Jaws than Jor-El.
The approach shook audiences in 2008 after they’d come to expect a certain type of movie from masked do-gooders. In The Dark Knight, superhero conventions could be subverted or obliterated when love interest Rachel Dawes is brutally killed off mid-sentence, or stalwart Batman is forced to claim a pyrrhic victory over the villain by entering into a criminal conspiracy and cover-up with the cops. The thrill of novelty was as breathtaking as the movie’s allegorical elements about a society on edge.
And even with The Dark Knight’s open-ended finale, it stood as a singular cinematic experience, complete with then-groundbreaking emphasis on IMAX photography. Nolan was so adamant about making this as self-contained an experience as possible that he jettisoned his co-story creator David Goyer’s idea of setting up Harvey Dent’s fall from grace for a third movie. Dent’s fate, as that of everyone else’s, would be tied strictly to the events of the movie you’re now watching.
“We Have a Hulk”
In Iron Man, and then more forcefully in Iron Man 2 (2010) and the rest of its “Phase One” era, Marvel Studios demonstrated a wholly different set of priorities. Similar to how Batman Begins paved the way for Nolan to do what he really wanted with that material, Iron Man 2 came to encapsulate Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige’s grander designs for the type of movies he was making. Where The Dark Knight was singular, unconventional, and two steps closer to our world than its comic book origins, Iron Man 2 was episodic, entirely crafted around audience expectations for a sequel, and even more like a comic book world than our own.
In other words, the first Iron Man gently submerged audiences into the fantasy by beginning with contemporary images of Tony Stark in a Middle Eastern desert; Iron Man 2 then made sweeping strides in defining what that MCU fantasy is as quickly as possible: Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is introduced solely to establish the superspy who will be vital to The Avengers two years down the road, and the central narrative about Tony Stark fighting an old rival is put on pause to reintroduce the character Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) as a supporting, and superfluous, side character. The post-credit scene even arbitrarily introduces literal magic with a glowing hammer that has absolutely nothing to do with the story you just watched. Still, it’s a hell of a teaser for Thor which was due in theaters a year later.
With the release of Iron Man 2, Marvel Studios’ emphasis became diametrically opposed to the driving concept behind The Dark Knight Trilogy. Rather than each film being an insulated, standalone cinematic experience like the Hollywood epics of old, Marvel’s movies would be interconnected episodes in an ongoing narrative saga that spanned multiple franchises and countless sequels. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Unlike Nolan after The Dark Knight, Feige and his stable of writers always know where the next movie (or five) is going, and have a better idea of what the overall vision is than any single director working within this system. Ironically, this returns power to the studio and producer as the seeming authorial voice of each movie. Like in the Golden Age of Hollywood, directors are more often hired hands than influential auteurs.
However, this means the aspects Nolan really valued on The Dark Knight beyond a gritty “realism”—elements like spontaneity, subversion, and a distancing from superhero tropes—became antithetical to the type of movies produced by the MCU. For at least the first decade of its existence, the Marvel Cinematic Universe flourished by creating a formula and house style that is as predictable for audiences as the contents in a Big Mac.
When you go to a Marvel movie, you more or less you’ll get: an ironic, self-deprecating tone, a story that often revolves around a CG MacGuffin that must be taken from the villain, and a narrative in which disparate heroic characters come together after some amusing, disagreeable banter. In fact, more than Iron Man, it was Joss Whedon’s The Avengers (2012) which refined the Marvel formula into what it is today.
There are of course exceptions to this rule. Black Panther became the first Marvel movie since Iron Man to arguably tackle themes significant to the real world, in this case specifically the legacy of African diaspora. It also became the first superhero film nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture as a result; James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy movies might follow the narrative formula of most MCU movies, 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, attempted to inject a little bit of that “realistic” aesthetic from The Dark Knight. But only to a point.
Particularly in the 2014 effort, there was a push by the Russos to rely on in-camera special effects and cultivate what they often described in the press as a “1970s spy thriller” style. Ostensibly, the hope may have been to make The Winter Soldier as much a spy thriller as The Dark Knight was a crime epic. In this vein, there were even attempts to graft onto the story very timely concerns about the overreach of a government surveillance state, which had only grown in the decade since the U.S. PATRIOT Act was passed, despite a change in White House administrations. However, all of these ambitions had an invisible ceiling hovering above them.
Despite having overtones about the danger of reactionary if well-intentioned government leaders, like the kind personified by Robert Redford’s SHIELD director in the movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier couldn’t become too focused on the espionage elements or too far removed from the Marvel house style. The story still needed to interconnect with other Marvel films, hence Redford’s character turning out to be a secret HYDRA double agent, and it still needed to give audiences what they expected from a Marvel movie. Thus how this “1970s spy thriller” ends in a giant CGI battle with citywide destruction as Captain America inserts MacGuffins into machines that will blow up HYDRA’s latest weapon for world domination.
It’s easy to wonder if the movie was developed a little longer, and didn’t have to play by a certain set of rules and expectations, that instead of backpedaling into comic book motivations, Redford’s character would’ve been a well-intentioned patriot amassing power “to keep us safe,” and in the process destabilized the institutions he claimed to revere.
A Universe Without End
The Marvel method breeds a heavy need for familiarity and comfortable predictability, as opposed to disorientation and discomfort. Yet both methods are valid. While Nolan achieved near universal praise for The Dark Knight, his attempt to replicate it with the even more ambitious The Dark Knight Rises—an unabashed David Lean-inspired epic that took more from A Tale of Two Cities and Doctor Zhivago than DC Comics—left fans divided. It also was a narrative dead end for the corporate/fanbase need of an ongoing franchise. Nolan instead reached a final, artistic, and emphatic period for his cinematic interpretation of Batman mythology. By comparison, Marvel Studios has created a new cinematic vernacular that only ever uses dashes, semicolons, and commas. There is always more to tell.
Nolan reflected on these changing circumstances for superhero movies in 2017 when he said, “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 lines up with what Jeff Bridges said about the evolution of the Marvel method way back in ’09 after the first Iron Man: “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.”
Bridges’ unhappiness with the new process notwithstanding, Marvel was rewriting the playbook about how these types of movies were made. Nolan’s approach of one at a time and years-long development processes created three distinctly different and relatively standalone Batman movies. But Marvel has shifted the idea of not just what a franchise can be, but also what cinematic storytelling means.
Instead of three movies, their rules and structures have generated dozens of well-received and adored entertainments, that when combined can produce experiences as unique as Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019): two movies that were more like a two-part season finale on TV than individual stories. And the latter became the highest grossing film of all time.
The success of this approach is further underlined when one considers competitors that tried to emulate both Marvel and Nolan’s approaches, relying on a lone auteur to build a shared cinematic universe—while also arguably taking the wrong lessons from the “dark” in The Dark Knight title. In the case of the DC Extended Universe, that approach collapsed on itself after three movies, leaving the interconnected “shared” part of its universe in tatters, and fans and studio hands alike divided on how to proceed with the franchise.The Marvel Cinematic Universe took a narrower road than that of The Dark Knight. But it turned out to be a lot smoother and much, much longer.