I, Probert

Former GeekPlanetOnline Site Editor Dave Probert is a man with an ear to the ground of the geek community. When that ground starts to rumble, our man in East Sussex has something to say...!


So the press campaign for The Dark Knight Rises rumbles on like an out of control tumbler with TV spots and the now obligatory posting of future DVD extras online. Christopher Nolan's much anticipated conclusion to his trilogy of Batman films is but three days away and I'm looking forward to the reaction it's going to get with interest.

When Batman Begins was released in 2005 it was a massive critical and commercial success. It gave us a gritty, dour take on Batman who felt like he could exist in the real world. Its sequel The Dark Knight built on this, giving us a genuinely disturbing take on the Joker. The films have a feel of crime dramas like Heat or The Departed but just happen to have a main character who dresses as a Bat. I wrote a column a while back saying that one reason I thought fans like these films so much was that after the neon, puntastic nightmare that was Batman and Robin, Nolan was taking the source material seriously. These weren't just good Batman films, they were good films full stop and he managed to bring a level of legitimacy to the character that, arguably, had been absent up to that point.

What interests me is that the landscape of superhero films has shifted a bit since The Dark Knight was released in 2008. It started the same year when Marvel Comics began producing films of their properties and decided to begin with Iron Man.

No one was expecting that much from Iron Man. Director Jon Favreau had helmed a couple of films to modest success, including the Will Ferrell Christmas vehicle Elf, but he was still known to most people as the guy from Swingers. Leading man Robert Downey Jr was in something of a career limbo. Having had very public addiction problems he had been making regular supporting appearances in films like Good Night, and Good Luck and Zodiac but the general consensus was that his time as a leading man was behind him.

Iron Man became the big surprise hit of 2008. In an era when it seemed that the only way to make a successful superhero film was to take the Christopher Nolan route of dark, gritty drama and real world verisimilitude with an emotionally tortured hero, Iron Man dared to be fun. Bruce Wayne was a billionaire who used acting irresponsibly and dating models as a smokescreen to hide his true identity as a brooding vigilante. Tony Stark, on the other hand, was a billionaire who acted irresponsibly and dated models because he was an irresponsible billionaire who liked to date models. His kidnap by terrorists changes his ideas about what's important, but instead of brooding on rooftops dressed in black and psychologically toying with his enemies he builds a suit of armour that is gold and hot-rod red and blows shit up. Is that less nuanced? Yes, but most people left Iron Man with a big grin on their face and wanting more.

Iron Man's success somewhat overwhelmed Marvel's other offering that year. The Incredible Hulk played things much closer to the Nolan template with Ed Norton's Bruce Banner struggling to contain the beast inside him. It was by no means a flop but The Incredible Hulk is certainly thought of less fondly.

Marvel realised that Iron Man's embracing of its silly four colour roots was the way to go and its subsequent projects Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, while both very different films, gleefully dragged audiences into Asgard and a WWII that only existed in boys' own adventures respectively. In fact one of the frequent criticisms of Thor was the fact that the middle part of the film, set in small town America, is far less interesting than the brightly coloured, Nordic disco theatrics of the realm of the gods.

This tone culminated in Joss Whedon's The Avengers (bollocks to adding “Assemble” to the title) which threw all of these characters together, added some new ones and gave them an invading alien army to beat up. Even Bruce Banner was remodelled to fit with the new tone. Ed Norton's tortured Banner was out and Mark Ruffalo's wry, sardonic Banner was in. Coupled with an alter ego who got all the biggest laughs while still being a credible force, the Hulk stole the film because he was far more fun than he had ever been before.

Now, the fact that you are visiting a site called GeekPlanetOnline means that you obviously know most of this already. The reason I lay it all out here is to explain the background of why I am interested in how The Dark Knight Rises is received, not just by geeks but by the movie-going public in general. I'm a big fan of Nolan's first two Batman films and I hope that the third will continue in the same vein. However, I do wonder if Nolan's more realistic approach to comic book adaptation will be viewed as a relic of an era that has now passed. In the years since The Dark Knight Marvel have shown that you can not only make a fun superhero film, but that a fun superhero film can also be a commercial juggernaut.

The Avengers was a film that many people went to see multiple times, which as far as Marvel are concerned is a licence to print money. The reason many went back to see it was because it was so damn fun. When you think of Nolan's Batman films many words spring to mind but fun isn't one of them. My feeling is that it will be watched and appreciated but I don't think people will be rushing back to the cinema for a second helping. I'm not saying that would make it a bad film, it's just that The Avengers had such a feelgood factor to it which I know that The Dark Knight Rises won't. Indeed the two films differ in style so much it's like comparing apples and oranges but the comparisons will be made because of their shared roots on the comic book page.

I hope The Dark Knight Rises does do well with audiences because what Nolan achieved with his films shouldn't be underestimated. They are a landmark of superhero cinema because he took a character that had become farcically silly and gave him the gravitas that he has in the comics. What I question is whether gravitas in a superhero film is what the public is looking for anymore? For that only time will tell.