It’s the Citizen Kane of superhero movies.
That comparison gets thrown around a little more often than it should, but it’s completely appropriate in this case. Citizen Kane in 1941 was really the movie that alerted mass audiences to the fact that movies are, in fact, art, and a host of imitators followed immediately in its wake — there’s more to it than this, but basically every film noir released in the coming decade, and even up to today, owes its existence to Citizen Kane.
The Dark Knight is one of only a handful of films in history that truly had a comparable impact. It brought with it this sudden inescapable realization that comic book movies, these pulpy crowd-pleasing things, could be art. Not just art, they could be the pinnacle of their format.
Here was a movie made for mass audiences that violated almost every rule you could think of for that kind of distribution. The Dark Knight is a savage tragedy. The hero doesn’t get, or even save, the girl. Two lead characters are shot, and the other is mutilated. Shocking, viewer-unfriendly violence designed to attack up-to-the-minute anxieties fill the runtime. Batman is driven to moral bankruptcy in his quest to stop the Joker, and one of the main points of the movie is to cast doubt on the lengths necessary to achieve peace through superior firepower. Of his partners, Harvey Dent is dead and Jim Gordon is left to carry on alone in a much more dangerous world than he started in. The villain has won in almost every conceivable way.
This popcorn movie that ended its run as the fourth highest-grossing film ever — it’s already dropped to 35th, but that’s inflation for you — ended up on more top 10 lists than any other offering that year, with the exception of Wall-E, and its conspicuous absence from the year’s Best Picture nominations is what drove the Academy to widen the field to 10 nominees — which popular films still get boxed out of, but let’s not get too deep into that.
And, much like Citizen Kane, The Dark Knight also has a distinct lineage that has dominated the pop-culture discussion over the past decade. But while Kane has the entire beloved genre of film noir as its children, The Dark Knight has the DC Extended Universe.
For the past 10 years as Marvel built its movie empire from the ground up with Iron Man — using storytelling techniques that, quite ironically, were pioneered by The Dark Knight’s predecessor, Batman Begins — Warner Bros. and DC have been trying desperately to recreate the massive critical and cultural success of The Dark Knight.
But The Dark Knight’s success is not repeatable for several reasons. The excitement for this film was on a completely different level. Not only was it following up the highly regarded Batman Begins, it had an extensive advertising campaign that had people marking their calendars eight months before release day, backed up by a viral marketing campaign. Star Heath Ledger’s tragic death that January put the movie back in the news in a way that no one would ever want to repeat. Marketers carefully avoided exploiting the topic, but the film definitely benefited from the added press.
Ledger’s instantly iconic, once-in-a-generation performance — in one of the best-written characters ever, independent of his contributions — is itself the largest element of the film that simply can’t be recaptured, no matter how many people they give the chance to try.
The gross stories about Jared Leto on the set of Suicide Squad may well have been Warner Bros.’ conscious attempt to set up that kind of excitement again, but there are a couple of primary things they’ve done across their movie franchise that are directly inspired by The Dark Knight — a reliance on “master directors” and dark, gritty realism, two things that the people in charge of the series don’t seem to fully understand.
One of the most easily mockable points of the DCEU, even if most people have forgotten about it by now under the avalanche of other reasons, is the emphasis on getting “master directors,” and if you look at the success of their Batman movies going all the way back to the first one in 1989, that makes sense. Tim Burton helmed the first two movies, and then things fell apart when he stepped aside and Joel Schumacher was brought in to replace him. After a several-year hiatus, Warner Bros. brought in another young director with a different vision in Christopher Nolan, and the rest is history.
The successful Batman films have been driven by hungry directors looking to make a name for themselves — Batman and Batman Begins were only Burton’s third and Nolan’s fourth features, respectively — so the idea that the director is a driving factor is a natural conclusion. So the early parts of the DCEU were marked by a search for “master directors,” a phrase which was seen as a barb toward their Marvel competition when it was first uttered.
But they haven’t been getting hungry directors looking to make a name for themselves. They’ve been looking for directors like Zack Snyder, David Ayer and James Wan, guys who are in the unique spot of having widespread name recognition, but also still accept corporate projects because they’re not actually good enough to get their own work sponsored.
The result is a series of movies that, in the early parts, clearly gave a lot of leeway to directors who didn’t really deserve it.
The DCEU’s attempts to capture The Dark Knight’s bleak atmosphere is another effort that betrays a lack of understanding of their own film. Realism is one of the key identifying traits of the Dark Knight series relative to other superhero movies, but that artistic direction was complemented by the characters and the story they were trying to tell. You can’t tell a story about a bulletproof alien in goofy primary colors with a castle in the Arctic and pretend like this is something that is happening in the real world.
The attempts to capture the “dark” atmosphere in The Dark Knight were similarly poorly thought-out — they just toned the colors down. The earliest DCEU films, despite being about cheery, optimistic Superman, were desaturated into grimy greys and muddy browns. Darkness as a story element comes from a well-written story filled with good characters, which the DCEU still doesn’t have any of.
Under heavy criticism, the series has shifted away from its attempts to rehash The Dark Knight and started imitating more recent successes from across the comic book isle. Attempts to directly recapture The Dark Knight are at an end, for now.
I guess it’s good that what’s ended has ended, but it inspires no hope for what’s to come. Until original movies that are designed to be their own endeavors from the ground up become the norm — which they are not for either DC or Marvel — we may never see another comic book movie that can truly rival The Dark Knight.
Then again, even if we do start getting more inspired offerings, that may still be the case.