Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” debuted in theaters on July 18, 2008, forever changing the landscape of Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking. Ten years later, Nolan’s grounded and practical approach to the superhero genre continues to effect the tone and stylings of studio tentpoles. Chances are more than likely you’ve seen a “dark and gritty” blockbuster at least once over the last decade, and that’s because “The Dark Knight” proved to be so revolutionary.
To celebrate the 10th anniversary of Nolan’s epic, IndieWire looks back at the decade of blockbusters since and the 15 tentpoles unquestionably shaped by “The Dark Knight.”
Marc Webb traded in the giddy pop energy of Sam Raimi’s original “Spider-Man” trilogy for a more grounded, Nolan-esque take on the iconic web-slinger. Andrew Garfield leaned heavily into teenage awkwardness and angst for his iteration of Peter Parker, but the script had trouble balancing a character-specific Nolan appraoch with a more traditional CGI action spectacle.
“X-Men: First Class” director Matthew Vaughn openly admitted that he was trying to do for “X-Men” what Christopher Nolan did for Batman with his character-focused reboot. Vaughn succeeded, mainly by casting acting heavyweights Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy, and Michael Fassbender to give real dramatic gravitas to his comic book characters.
Josh Trank’s “Fantastic Four” was supposed to be about four friends struggling to come to terms with the physical and mental consequences of being granted super-powers. Producer Simon Kinberg originally said Nolan’s practical approach was what the “Four” reboot was going for, but Fox took over the film from Trank in the editing room and got rid of the Nolan elements and delivered something far more traditional and forgettable.
Rupert Wyatt and screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver leaned into Nolan when relaunching “Planet of the Apes.” The 2011 installment went the prequel route for a more grounded take on the “Apes” storyline, focusing on the real-world side effects of chimpanzee testing. The franchise would grow tougher and darker with Matt Reeves’ two sequels, but each one maintained a practical emotional core about humans and apes trying to save their species against extinction.
Nolan’s character-driven perspective towards action filmmaking served Gareth Edwards well on his 2014 “Godzilla” reboot. The film approached its giant lizard mayhem from the ground up, often favoring the handheld-camera human perspective over sweeping, VFX-crowded shots. The result is one of the most grounded takes on the monster movie to date.
Rupert Sanders’ “Snow White and the Huntsman” defines the “dark and gritty” approach to blockbuster filmmaking in the years following “The Dark Knight.” The film takes the classic fairy tale and turns it into “Braveheart”-meets-“Lord of the Rings” epic, trading in Disney wonderment for a brooding atmosphere.
Nolan produced Zack Snyder’s 2013 Superman reboot, so it makes sense he brought shades of “The Dark Knight” with him to launch the DC Extended Universe (the movie was also written by frequent Nolan collaborator David S. Goyer). Snyder’s film grounded Kal-El by exploring the psychological repercussions of being an advanced alien being raised on Earth. The approach to the character was straight out of Nolan’s playbook.
The DC Extended Universe was built in the shadow of “The Dark Knight,” no entry more blatantly so than Zack Snyder’s “Batman v Superman.” The film takes “dark and gritty” to an extreme with its shadowy cinematography and copious night-time action scenes. The script even introduces a Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) more psychologically scarred than Nolan and Christian Bale’s version.
José Padilha’s “RoboCop” reboot commits the ultimate sin of “The Dark Knight” effect: Mistaking Nolan’s darker tone for a complete lack of humor. The filmmaker and his actor Joel Kinnaman turned “RoboCop” into a self-serious psychodrama and satire, forgetting humor and pulpy violence were the winning combo of Paul Verhoeven’s original.
J.J. Abrams’ 2009 “Star Trek” reboot was well into production by the time “The Dark Knight” premiered in theaters, so it wasn’t until the 2013 sequel where Nolan’s blockbuster legacy could be felt on Captain Kirk, Spock, and more. Screenwriters Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci, and Alex Kurtzman turned the famous villain Kahn into “Stark Trek’s” own Joker-influenced terrorist.
Speaking about his 2015 “Terminator” reboot, director Alan Taylor said he wanted to do for the James Cameron franchise what Nolan did for Batman. “Tim Burton’s first ‘Batman’ is just glorious and by the time it got around to nipples on costumes and all that stuff it sort of lost its way,” Taylor said. “And for [Christopher] Nolan to come in an say ‘I respect this material so much I’m going to take it up to here,’ that’s a great inspiration.”
Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe re-teamed to bring some grit to the legend of Robin Hood, envisioning the famous story as a grand war epic. Critics mostly ignored the 2010 release, but that didn’t stop Hollywood from trying to make another gritty “Robin Hood” with this fall’s Otto Bathurst-directed remake of the same name.
If you’re looking for a villain carved directly from Heath Ledger’s Joker in “The Dark Knight,” look no further than Raoul Silva in Sam Mendes’ “Skyfall.” Javier Bardem’s cyberterrorist pulls from Ledger’s lethal combination of charisma and chaos, while Mendes mimics Nolan’s approach to Bruce Wayne by forcing James Bond to confront the psychological weight of his past actions.
“Power Rangers” got its own a-little-too-serious reboot in 2017, getting rid of all the franchise’s trademark camp and showcasing teenage angst instead. Director Dean Israelite tried his best to juggle Christopher Nolan grit with some of the sillier aspects of the story, but the result was a tentpole too tame for adults and not fun enough for kids.
Even 10 years later, Nolan’s effect on blockbuster storytelling remains very much alive. Christopher McQuarrie borrows thrillingly from Nolan’s mix of grounded, practical action, and psychological character building in the sixth “Mission: Impossible” movie. Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt has never felt more like Nolan’s introspective and worn-down Bruce Wayne, and McQuarrie manages to perfect the art of Nolan’s on-the-ground visceral action scenes.
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