Superhero cinema, pre-Millennium, was a strange beast. A melting pot of different styles, approaches and tones that included the sweet, camp flavours of Batman Forever and Superman IV, as well as the grungy horror of 1997’s Spawn, it was a landscape of little thought, transferring the comic book image directly onto celluloid. However, great innovation was soon to come, with directors Bryan Singer, Sam Raimi and Christopher Nolan each helping to piece together what we now recognise as the modern-day superhero movie.
Long before Christopher Nolan had released the gritty reimagining of the caped crusader with Batman Begins, the superhero genre was already beginning to take shape thanks to another filmmaker, Bryan Singer. When Singer’s X-Men and X2 came out in 2000 and 2003, respectively, spandex was still in fashion, so whilst retaining the campy aspects of ’90s cinema, Singer gave us a taste of what a superhero team-up movie might look like. His contribution to the genre cannot be ignored, creating a blueprint for what we see in modern Marvel movies, particularly the smart, quippy humour akin to Guardians of the Galaxy. Likewise, cult icon Sam Raimi created Spider-Man, and Spider-Man 2 and demonstrated the true blockbuster potential of such fantastical characters.
By the time Batman Begins arrived in 2005, the flickers of what would become a flourishing genre were just beginning to light, with Christopher Nolan bringing something that Singer nor Raimi had, an undisputable quality of realism. Where superhero movies of the past had shown little respect to their characters, treating each like a cartoonish property, Nolan showed that these films could be both financial blockbusters but also great films in their own right.
His vision of the Dark Knight, inspired by Frank Miller’s comic Batman: Year One, was worlds away from the candy-coloured dreamworld created by Joel Schumacher for the previous Batman instalment, Batman & Robin, operating in a dark, industrial Gotham riddled with crime. As such, Christopher Nolan’s iteration of the title character, played by Christian Bale, is himself troubled and brooding, plagued by the death of his parents, fatefully caused by his own fear of bats. As a result, Nolan’s Batman is grounded in a hellish version of reality, a tangible character with a sympathetic history and a believable troubled conscience.
Christopher Nolan’s Batman is less a ‘superhero’ and more a vigilante in a world that closely resembles our own. As Nolan noted in 2020: “Superman had a very definitive telling with Christopher Reeve and Richard Donner [in 1978]. The version of that with Batman had never been told. We were looking at this telling of an extraordinary figure in an ordinary world”.
Batman Begins was a groundbreaking success for this reason, cherry-picking Batman, his antagonists, origin story and iconography, and slotting them into the template of a real-world setting. Suddenly, such became the formula to reinvent all of cinema’s tired characters. James Bond’s reboot Casino Royale, Spider-Man’s reimagining in 2012, even Superman’s take in 2013 would each utilise a dark aesthetic re-conditioning each character for a modern treatment. The idea was to make each property more grounded, and more palpable, but of course this was rather a blind choice, as whilst Batman’s gothic Gotham may be suitable for such a setting, Spider-Man’s colourful New York is not.
Nolan inadvertently started the once-popular concept of the ‘dark reboot’, even spearheading 2013s Man of Steel, which aimed to give Superman a dark origins story, much to the general dismay of audiences. Although Nolan’s original format may have made way for one of the superhero genre’s greatest trilogies, it may have also set the DC universe on a confused course where it would inevitably be playing catch-up with the monolithic Marvel universe. Whatever its enduring legacy on the DC universe, its impact on modern cinema cannot be understated…