Is 'The Dark Knight' the closest thing to 'great art' a superhero movie will ever reach?

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Oh, superhero movies.  You'll hear high brow critics moan about them countless times on this site, but sometimes one must just face the facts that they are here to stay. 

Sure, back in the day we had classic superhero movies such as Richard Donner's "Superman II," and Tim Burton's "Batman," but the genre has radically changed since then. No only are Marvel movies the biggest money-making machine in Hollywood, but they are very much part of the current zeitgeist. When did it all start? We'd probably have to go back to 2000 when Bryan Singer's "X-Men" made $157M at the box-office and kick-started a chain reaction which we still haven't gotten rid of to this day. 

Two years later Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" upped the ante by making $403M domestically.  That's when it REALLY started. The beginning of what would be an important chapter in film history: The mass invasion of a genre that has restructured Hollywood in the most important of ways.


After the watchable, game-changing "Spider-Man" in 2002, director Sam Raimi made the most important and influential Marvel film imaginable: "Spider-Man 2." This was still 4 years away from "The Dark Knight," but the mind blowing mix of action, humor, heart, character in "Spider-Man 2" changed the game. In Alfred Molina, and his Dr. Octoppus villain, superhero movies had their most complex and scariest villain to date. The film also climaxed on an action sequence, atop a moving train, that could surely be considered one of the very best ever shot on celluloid, a mind-blowing mix of humanism, special effects and artistry. And, how about that final shot? Mary Jane finally figuring out Spidey's identity by the subtlest facial expression.. Raimi perfected the game with this movie, he took everything that came before him and upped the ante at every level. "Spider-Man 2" was considered by many film fans as the best "Superhero ever made." until Nolan changed the game himself with his Batman trilogy. 


In 2003, Warner Bros. announced that Christopher Nolan, hot off critical darlings "Memento," and "Insomnia" was hired to direct a Batman trilogy. Nolan was just 33 years old when he signed on to the project and his fan base was less-than-stellar despite wowing critics and audiences with his last two features. 


Commenting on the notion to tackle the Dark Knight back in 2003, Nolan had this to say:


All I can say is that I grew up with Batman, I’ve been fascinated by him and I’m excited to contribute to the lore surrounding the character, He is the most credible and realistic of the superheroes, and has the most complex human psychology. His superhero qualities come from within. He’s not a magical character. I had a fantastic experience with the studio on ‘Insomnia,’ and I’m keen to repeat that experience.


Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" trilogy is as close to "art" as the genre has attained thus far. There hasn't been any other filmmaker that captured the current zeitgeist quite like he did with "The Dark Knight" back in 2008. All Marvel and DC movies today are cash cows, muckrakers that put the bottom line way ahead of any kind of artistic statement, they might be entertaining, but there is no discernible, heavy substance to them, they don't necessarily adhere or parallel our current world. "The Dark Knight" did.


Nolan, along with an extraordinarily effective cast headed by Christian Bale as Batman and the late Heath Ledger as a Joker to haunt your dreams, perfected the genre, in fact, since then, there hasn't been anything that has topped its staggering quality by either Marvel or DC. This was the way a modern-day blockbuster should triumph, with character before action. The haunted psyche of a superhero tormented by a terrorist Jokester and, in turn, brings about existential dilemmas about how to defeat this evil menace that just wants to see the free world burn. 


Many have evoked "The Dark Knight" as a post 9/11 depiction of a world gone astray with the leader of the free world making concessions to battle terrorism: To defeat the Joker, Batman had to use un-heroic acts of violence, bend the rules if you will, which led to the ultimate question being asked by Nolan: how much evil must one commit to defeat evil? Many conservatives championed the film as their own, this was George W. Bush's fight against Al Qaeda! Whereas, in the other end of the spectrum, liberals were saying "No, this is our film! It's about standing up for what's right in the world or as The New York Times' Ross Douthat signified: "It's all about the belief that a compromised order can still be worth defending, and that darker things than corruption and inequality will follow from putting that order to the torch."


Talk about heavy stuff, you definitely won't see these kind of politics being deciphered with the likes of "The Avengers" or "Wonder Woman."  Nolan's eye for detail captured the madness of a demented mind. This was Nolan's beautiful, dark, twisted fantasy before Kanye West even had the idea of mixing dichotomous themes, socio-politics (consumer culture, celebrity and the concept of the American dream). and pop culture all in one perfectly assembled package.  


The Dark Knight" not only ended up making close to 600 million dollars in the domestic box office, but it captured the zeitgeist in a way that very few movies ever would again. This was "Titanic" proportion hysteria, you HAD to see this movie. It was literally everywhere.

Of note, the same year of "The Dark Knight,"director Jon Favreau brought forth his own landmark superhero film, albeit one that seemed the the complete opposite of Nolan's film, "Iron Man." A mix of action and humor that would define the tone of every single Marvel movie that released for the next 17 years, but, more importantly, it kick-started the Marvel Cinematic Universe. To this day the language and style Favreau used in "Iron Man" has infused everything Marvel, hell, even James Gunn seemed to riff on it yet again with this summer's "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2."  Favreau's film felt fresh, innovative and just downright satirical about the self-serious superhero movies that came before it. "Iron Man" hit a high standard of excellence for mainstream entertainment by combining humor, pop culture references with well-choreographed action, it was and still is a cinematic shape-shifter. In a year that had a never-ending war in Iraq and a severe a market crash, it was time to escape and escape is what audiences did, choosing to elect hope in Barack Obama and escape with Tony Stark.

At its core, a superhero movie still has the potential for greatness. It is the apex of what the Lumieres and George Melies wanted to achieve with advanced technology at their disposal back in the 1900s. Am I far reaching? Of course not. The superhero movie has all of the elements that have led to the inception of cinema more than a century ago: Science Fiction, Horror, Drama, Film Noir, and, especially in the Marvel movies, a little-added dose of Comedy. The problem is that the concessions Disney and Warner Bros. are putting into these movies is the opposite of artful. Will we ever see an auteur being given as much creative freedom as Nolan was given for his trilogy of films? Doubt it, the more the years go by the more restrictions superhero filmmakers seem to be constrained with. Just look at the long list of auteurs that left a superhero movie in the last 15 years: Edgar Wright, Ava Duuvernay, Darren Aronofsky, George Miller, Terry Gilliam, Paul Greengrass and JJ Abrams. And that's not even half of it. 


Marvel and DC are now gambling on untested directors for their tentpole movies and it's delivering mixed results. The more tickets they sell every year, the more they can't really afford the risk to hire cinematic auteurs such as Nolan or the above-mentioned outcasts. Why? A well-seasoned director with actual self-worth as an artist would never sacrifice his unique voice for watered-down filmmaking. 


As the L.A. Times' Josh Rottenberg mentioned in a 2015 article, "Studios Gamble with Untested Directors": "When bringing unseasoned directors like Trevorrow or Trank onto a big-budget project, studios typically tout the originality of their vision. But many insiders say the true impetus to hire relative neophytes is that — in addition to commanding far smaller fees than more established directors — they have less power and can, therefore, be more easily reined in." And that, is what's it all about, power. When you take away the power to create from a filmmaker the end result is a Marvel or DC movie. Not necessarily a bad thing since those studios have found a winning formula for their movies to win audiences worldwide, but when the heads of Marvel or DC have much of the creative input on a film and the director is left just standing there waiting for the given orders, that's not art, that's capitalism.


So to answer the question of this messy, but important topic, yes, "The Dark Knight" is the closest thing to great art the superhero genre has ever gotten, but the more important question that should be asked is, will it be the last?
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