I remember the moment I felt a renewed sense of hope for the future of the comic book movie. It was a Friday afternoon in August 2000, and I had just seen X-Men. For the previous three years the fortunes of the genre had been at a low, following a spectacular fall from grace of DC’s Batman franchise. What had begun with such promise in 1989 with Tim Burton, had ended eight years later when Joel Schumacher put the proverbial final nail in the coffin of the series. The sustained success of the genre over the past 12 years, combined with the benefit of hindsight, I now look back on August 2000 as a moment of redemption.
X-Men would end the year as the eighth highest grossing film, backed up by solid home entertainment sales. Despite its commercial success, X-Men should not receive all the credit for resurrecting the genre. Prior to the release of X-Men, David Koepp and Sam Raimi were signed on to write and direct what would be the commercial and critically success that was Spider-man for Columbia Tristar. The reality of the situation following the disastrous Batman and Robin was more a question of how much rope the genre would be given to hang itself. X-Men provided the comic book movie with commercial and critical credibility, suggesting that the genre still had some mileage left in it. Two years later Spider-man was an important follow-up success, and each film would go on to spawn successful sequels.
The X-Men films finished their respective years amongst the Box Office top ten, whilst Spider-man 2 exceeded the opening weekend performance of its predecessor, which had been the first film to take $100 million on its opening weekend, outshining the impressive performance in 1989 of Batman. In just four short years the genre’s fortunes had witnessed a dramatic turnaround. For Marvel and the studios it was, “…the start of a beautiful friendship.”
From the outset of the noughties, Marvel’s success in collaboration with the studios has been the development of franchises for their properties as opposed to one shot features. That is not to say Marvel did not encounter problems: Daredevil (2003), the less than impressive Fantastic Four films (2005-2007), and the sequel or reboot that was 2008’s The Incredible Hulk. However, both the original X-Men and Spider-man films concluded as trilogies, and the rebooted X-Men: First Class sequel is set for 2014. The release of The Amazing Spider-man is imminent, and already with the nod from critics and the inevitable sequel insinuations, one would expect to see the Andrew Garfield reboot to follow the example of other Marvel properties. Next year will see Iron Man become a trilogy, the sequel to Thor will hit cinema screens, and in addition we can look ahead to the Captain America and Avengers sequels.
The success of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight constitutes a minor contribution of DC properties to the success and growth of the superhero movie over the past 12 years. Superman Returns (2006) was an attempt to reboot Superman, though like the underwhelming Green Lantern (2011), both concluded as one shot films. Next years Man of Steel will be a second Superman reboot, whilst less than a year on, the Green Lantern’s fresh start has already been announced. The announcement of the Justice League movie hot on the heels of Marvel’s Avenger’s Assemble, coincides with the news of a number of DC properties going into development; characters such as The Flash and Aquaman who will make up the ranks of the Justice League.
These movies will inevitably be driven by the need to follow Marvel’s successful blueprint: origin stories that will set-up the ensemble film. Despite intentions for the screen version of the Justice League movie since as far back as 2008, the inability to develop origin stories for their characters, let alone franchises, is telling as to the struggles of DC in comparison to the fortunes of Marvel.
Christopher Nolan, who has provided DC and Warner Bros with their only success, is their guy. Nolan’s work within the DC universe will not end with The Dark Knight Rises. Next year’s Man of Steel has Nolan’s imprint all over it. Along with a producing credit, the film’s story is conceived by Nolan, with the screenplay being written by David S. Goyer who has shared the writing credits with Nolan on the Batman trilogy. DC and Warner Bros. will be hoping that Nolan’s input into the Superman reboot will be the genesis for a prosperous franchise. Beyond Man of Steel, Nolan will produce the Batman reboot, credited for the story, the screenplay will be written by Goyer, and unconfirmed rumours are circulating of the possibility that Nolan will produce the Justice League movie, and remain hands-on with other DC properties currently in development.
DC eagerly await what they hope will be a third success for Nolan on July 20th when The Dark Knight Rises opens, detracting what little they can from what has already been a successful summer for Marvel with Avenger’s Assemble and a second superhero blockbuster scheduled: The Amazing Spider-man. As spectacular as his rise to fame with the Batman series has been, next year’s Man of Steel will be a referendum on Nolan’s suitability for the far reaching plans being orchestrated by DC and Warner Bros.
Man of Steel is being pitched as a darker Superman, bringing the dark aesthetic of Batman to DC’s other figurehead; despite the inherent differences between Batman and Superman and their worlds of Gotham and Metropolis. If Nolan’s dark vision fails to fuse with the Man of Steel, the difficulties of developing a Superman franchise will be compounded, and DC’s willingness to trust in Nolan’s cinematic vision beyond the dark world of ‘The Batman’ will be in question. Failure on his part could have far reaching implications for DC and Warner Bros’ future contribution to the genre Marvel has dominated for so long. They need success, and they are seemingly betting on their ‘golden boy.’ Nolan’s input on the two most important DC projects, if successful, will only provide him the opportunity to further consolidate control of other DC properties, and his success will only encourage DC and Warner Bros to climb on his back to see just how far he can take them. After all they are desperate.
Jim Gordon’s voiceover at the conclusion of 2008’s The Dark Knight eloquently described ‘The Batman’: “He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector… a dark knight.” The title may just refer to Nolan himself, DC’s watchful protector and dark knight. At least that is how events are setting him up to appear… A Dark Knight Rising.