Anthony Stokes asks whether Christopher Nolan is both the best and worst thing to happen to comic book movies….
In a recent interview, writer Damon Lindelof (Prometheus, Star Trek Into Darkness) made a statement about Christopher Nolan’s influence on the comic book movie industry: “Christopher Nolan is the greatest thing that ever happened to comic book movies. Period. And Christopher Nolan is also the worst thing to ever happen to comic book movies. He executed it letter-perfect, [in part, because] he took a character like Batman that wants to be grounded and wants to be real.”
He then went on to compare it to a comic book movie he had a hand in writing, Cowboys & Aliens – a movie which triggered a collective “meh” from every one who saw it: “I think the instinct there was that all parties agreed that of the two roads to go down — a sci-fi film set in the Old West or a Western that had aliens as bad guys, two distinct genres—the latter felt like the cooler movie. Once we embraced the Western and all its trappings … the tone naturally got more serious along the way. Maybe too serious for a movie called Cowboys & Aliens.”
This brings up an interesting point, and while it sounds like a backhanded compliment it really does make a lot of sense. There wasn’t an impulse to make everything “dark and gritty” until recent years. But does it really hurt more than it helps?
I’d say yes. Cowboys & Aliens is a perfect example of a movie that I expected to be tongue and cheek and fun, which ended up being cheesy in all the wrong ways. Imagine if Men in Black was remade but re-imagined as darker and more realistic. A pretty asinine notion but I wouldn’t put it past the studio. The are two other clear cases of The Dark Knight’s influence on reboots resulting in mixed receptions, Man of Steel and The Amazing Spider-Man, two movies I really don’t care for. And I’m not alone. Neither of these have anywhere near the level of acclaim of The Dark Knight Trilogy, let alone the originals they’re rebooted from. Nolan’s echo can be felt throughout several projects, and most of them don’t fare too well with the critics.
I think what Nolan really ruined was the notion of the “dark tone”. A dark tone means something is introspective, gloomy, melancholy, somber, and has sinister, cynical, and depressing undertones. While The Dark Knight Trilogy is certainly gloomy, gritty, and dark relative to Batman & Robin, it’s more of a serious tone then a dark one. And I’d argue that, especially with The Dark Knight Rises, there’s a lack of teeth or edge and there’s a veneer of something dark, but upon closer inspection it’s not much more serious or darker than the average thriller.
So you copy the tone of a franchise, remove the talent and finesse that is Christopher Nolan and replace him with filmmakers who aren’t familiar with said tone, and add in characters where it doesn’t fit. They only capture the aesthetics instead of the actual tone and style. Superman shouldn’t have that serious of a tone. He’s a man who for the better part of his mythos wears his underwear outside of his pants and can reverse time by flying against Earth’s rotation. Man of Steel’s pseudo “realistic” tone gets thrown out of the window after Metropolis is destroyed, hundreds of thousands are dead, and Superman puts on a pair of glasses and goes to work the next day with Hans Zimmer blasting triumphant feel good music. Overall Superman should be a sign of hope and promise. In other words the complete opposite of cynical and depressing.
Anybody who’s read a Spider-Man comics know that they’re dark. Almost every issue ends with Spider-Man perched up on a ledge moping and crying. Instead of Marc Webb getting inside of Peter’s head and his psyche, The Amazing Spider-Man is a romantic comedy once again pretending to be more realistic and serious. Spider-Man has never been a serious guy – he’s a jokester who more or less laughs to keep from crying. It’s so frustrating to see synthetic webshooters that never run out and a climax which includes a giant lizard man attacking the city and turning people into other giant lizard men. I’m only looking for logic because these movies are shouting while jumping up and down waving their arms pleading: “take me seriously, take me seriously”.
If you’re going to try to make a dark and serious comic book movie you should tone down the more fantastic elements so that the mechanics of the story work better. In my personal opinion the darkest superhero movie I’ve seen – and one of my favorites – is Kick-Ass. Kick-Ass is as cynical, disturbing, and introspective as you can get. Hit-Girl and Big Daddy are more ruthless and bloodthirsty than the bad guys and while it’s funny, the sense of humor is really morbid and sadistic. The reason it works so well is because there’s no superpowers and in theory, everything could happen in the real world. The movies borrowing from Nolan don’t understand how his movies work so well and ultimately trip over their own feet by not changing the entire story mechanics to fit. Hopefully some comic book movies will come along that will benefit from his influence, but until that day I have to side with Damon Lindelof on this one…
Anthony Stokes is a blogger and independent filmmaker.