Everyone for the last year or so has been asking whether this year would be “won” by The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises. And while The Avengers will walk away with the box office title not just out of the two films, but for the whole year, it’s likely that most critics will ultimately side with The Dark Knight Rises, a smart and dense film by one of Hollywood’s most beloved directors.
The larger question, though, as Nolan wraps his trilogy and Warner Brothers launches a DC Entertainment Universe on film leading up to their planned Justice League movie, is to what extent, if any, the Christopher Nolan method of superhero filmmaking will impact the industry moving forward. My guess? Not very much. My hope? Quite a bit.
I love comics as much as the next guy, but I also love cinema and I can accept that the two media are different. There are some similarities, though, and they’re illuminating.
The Marvel style of making superhero films, where everything is interconnected like the comics and nothing is ever resolved becuase they’re all part of a big corporate franchise that can never die, is a bit like the serialized, monthly comics that dominate the direct market and set the tone for the comics universes we all love. To me as a movie fan and as a reviewer, who has to think about the kind of technical details most people don’t particularly care about, the Marvel method is is not as appealing as the Nolan method of doing “his take” on a character and then moving on.
Think of Sherlock Holmes. He’s an iconic and enduring character, and since he’s entered the public domain, there have been dozens or hundreds of published novels set in his universe. The ones that tend to be better, though, are the ones that reinterpret the character in a new and interesting way, unique to the writer of the piece, rather than those that just try to continue the “continuity” of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle originals. See also: the difference between Cinderella II (a direct-to-DVD Disney film from ten or so years ago) and Cinderella in Fables.
The same is true for superheroes, for my money, and that’s where Nolan excelled. There was no need to worry about what came before or what came after, which meant that he got to totally define the world in which his stories took place and to give the character and his world a conclusive and satisfactory ending. It’s something that no other filmmaker has been able to do for a major, tentpole franchise superhero film, and as far as I’m concerned, the films were better for it.
Unfortunately, it’s not likely we’ll see it again anytime soon. Or if we do, it won’t be on a DC or Marvel series. With the launch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, comic book fans have been given the gift of a world that more closely resembles the world of the comic books, where everyone lives in the same shared world and, in the case of the Marvel movies, the same shared version of New York City. Those movies have been so phenomenally popular that Warner Brothers, who own DC Entertainment, have decided it’s time to put a Justice League movie in motion, presumably with solo films ahead of it for characters like Superman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman (all of whom have movies at various stages in development now).
There won’t be another The Dark Knight Rises, in part because there isn’t another Christopher Nolan out there–but also because there isn’t room for auteur filmmaking when your priority has to be creating a consolidated universe where everyone plays in the same sandbox. Even in comics, you can see how problematic this can be by simply looking at Action Comics, where DC has allowed Grant Morrison to essentially do a Christopher Nolan-style approach to Superman’s history, but forced him to do so in a kind of tangential continuity, where he’s set five years in the past and nothing Morrison does has to be run by other writers and no cooperation is required. After all, Morrison’s story is “the past.” What he says happened, happened, and the writers on Superman, Justice League and other books like that just have to work with it. It’s unlikely we’ll get a film franchise like that, though; Action Comics can happen the way it does only because there is also Superman.
In a nutshell, it’s the difference between monthly comics and graphic novels. Different approaches work for different people and neither is diminished because the other excels–but to me, the Nolan method feels more enduring, whereas the Marvel movies feel more disposable and temporary. We still read and discuss The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight Rises, after all, while almost every other Batman story told before A Death in the Family is ignored and even the ones that aren’t forgotten, are not reprinted and widely read.
Another problem with the shared universe approach to these things is something we see in comic books: the ones that don’t “count” (e.g., The Amazing Spider-Man, Ghost Rider) are getting the short shrift from fans because we’re being conditioned to believe that Marvel Studios, who control the “event” stories in the form of the Avengers franchise, are what matters. There are a lot of great comics out there that get no attention from the readers because it’s perceived that they don’t “matter,” and it would be a shame to see comic book film adaptations go the same way.
With the Marvel films, it’s almost like they’re only as good as the next one. They’re dessert, not a meal, and even if they’re incredibly well-done, they’re not really allowed to be substantive and contemplative. The Nolan Method, which is more like taking a character and applying the auteur theory to it, allowing the filmmaker to do everything he can with a property, is likely to turn out a more satisfying meal–but it’s harder. It takes more work, and doesn’t have all the fun and Easter Eggs that the other way does. So it’s probably an endangered species.