Did Batman Bring About the Prestige Superhero Movie?
And does it need saving?
On the heels of the seventy-fifth anniversary of Batman's first film appearance, it was announced that three-time Academy Award nominee Joaquin Phoenix had signed on to play the Joker in the next Martin Scorsese-produced Batman spinoff, which, with every new detail feels more and more like a Gotham by way of Taxi Driver.
The talent assembled for the film is, ahem, no joke. And with Phoenix playing the Clown Prince of Crime à la Travis Bickle, audiences are in for—surprise, surprise—a dark and gritty comic book adaptation. But that might not be a wise course of action, as many recent blockbusters have demonstrated that bleak epics predicated on prestige filmmaking don’t necessarily resonate with audiences.
And now, Phoenix’s casting reaffirms that the Batman franchise has become a source of prestige roles for critically acclaimed actors. Such roles offer the chance for actors to exercise their dramatic chops, and perhaps even spark an awards season conversation. Daniel Day-Lewis’ turn in Phantom Thread is an example of this, as is Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Tonya Harding.
Of course, 2008's The Dark Knight was ground zero for Hollywood’s obsession with super-angst, and the “prestige” that such an approach affords. As most know, Christopher Nolan’s crime epic earned Heath Ledger a posthumous Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his chilling turn as the Joker, and after the film failed to garner a Best Picture nod, a very vocal public swayed the Academy to expand its Best Picture nominations to ten films.
But The Dark Knight was not the first comic book adaptation to take its source material seriously—and it might be reductionist to identify it as the ground zero of superhero cinema. Yet, it was the rare genre film to do billion dollar business and rack up awards, which (at least partly) set in motion the series of events that led to the forthcoming Joaquin Phoenix-Martin Scorsese adaptation of the Joker, and (perhaps more importantly) this scene from The Office.
Oddly enough, the most direct descendant of The Dark Knight isn’t exactly a superhero movie—it’s Skyfall. In talking about the movie, Director Sam Mendes says that he was "directly inspired" by The Dark Knight, as evidenced by the film’s anarchic villain and post-9/11 imagery. And like The Dark Knight, it became the first in its franchise to earn a billion dollars and garner multiple Oscar nods.
It wasn’t long before “dark and gritty” became a studio pitch-meeting catchphrase, spawning a dozen dimly-lit knockoffs—Fantastic Four, Power Rangers, Thor: The Dark World, Star Trek Into Darkness, and most of the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) opted for muted color palettes, excessive angst, and enough grit to put the sandpaper industry to shame. Logan is the most recent film to take on the mantle of The Dark Knight, predicating itself on a serious interpretation of a superhero, and earning the film an Oscar campaign on behalf of 20th Century Fox, which resulted in the film becoming the first comic book movie to earn a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination.
At this point, the ethos of The Dark Knight—validated by a handful of successful imitators—has become shorthand for respectability. Look no further than Christopher Nolan’s story and producer credits on Man of Steel, something the film’s trailers weren’t shy about advertising. The Batman mythos is perceived as a goldmine of “prestige roles,” attracting Oscar-winners such as Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, and Ben Affleck—all of who followed up Oscar wins by entering the DCEU.
In Leto’s case, the infamous method actor sent his costars live rats, dead pigs, and used condoms. It almost seems to be a game of one-upmanship, given that Heath Ledger famously spent months isolated in a hotel room to inhabit the mind of the Joker—though few remember that he never stayed in character throughout filming.
Such one-upmanship continues with the casting of Joaquin Phoenix, signifying that now, somewhat paradoxically, playing the Joker is serious business—a far cry from Cesar Romero’s clownish interpretation in the 1960s. And with Ben Affleck’s exit from the DCEU becoming increasingly likely, one expects no less than the ghost of Orson Welles to be next in line for the cape and cowl. It’s all well and good that superhero cinema be taken seriously, but the perceived prestige of the Batman franchise—the need to replicate the success of The Dark Knight by imitating its darker tone—has eclipsed the characters themselves.
For instance, The Dark Knight set a precedent for a vigilante wrestling with his own moral code, but in, what is perhaps, an attempt to build off of that conflict, the DCEU’s interpretation of Batman has become that of an unabashed murderer, who mows down thugs with a machine gun in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Such a move betrays the character’s core values in an attempt to edge him toward darker, presumably more “respectable,” territory. The same approach was applied to Superman in Man of Steel. In giving “Supes” the The Dark Knight-treatment—he snaps General Zod’s (Michael Shannon) neck in the film’s climax—the character inspires more fear than hope.
Even straight-to-video Batman films have attempted to follow suit, in pursuit of a The Dark Knight-esque edginess—half of the animated DC films released or announced since 2016 have been R-rated, as is the “Ultimate Edition” of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, as if smatterings of blood and a sex scene or two signify maturity. By these standards, The Dark Knight was tame, which speaks to the warping of its original ethos into hyperbole—if prestige means dark and gritty, then darker and grittier must mean more prestigious. But that simply isn’t the case, as we’ve seen time and again.
But if history teaches us anything, it’s that Batman’s emo phase might be on its last legs. The sea change caused by The Dark Knight is merely the latest cycle of mega-brooding in Batman's history and these phases are often punctuated by stretches of pure silliness. Adam West’s lighthearted romps followed the serious, propagandist serials of the 1940s, and Joel Schumacher’s neon nightmare ended Tim Burton’s gothic fantasia. And of course, the Nolan trilogy followed the Schumacher years. If precedent is to be followed, then the current dark and gritty trend might be on its way out, as audiences tire of the same tonal approach being recycled endlessly in the same franchise. Will Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker be an ultra-violent, hyperbolically glum, Oscar vehicle? If the lighter tones of The LEGO Batman Movie, Wonder Woman, and Justice League are any indication, then perhaps not.
By no means should the Batman franchise embrace a lighter tone to be merely reactionary. In fact, the prestige surrounding the Batman franchise can be leveraged to its advantage, rather than being a handicap that tethers it to The Dark Knight. With a host of talent ready to enter the Batman mythos—including from Phoenix, Scorsese, Todd Phillips, Matt Reeves, and Cathy Yan—the series has the potential to experience an abundance of creativity. Are the franchise’s best days ahead? We can only hope so.