What The Dark Knight Has Done: A New Direction at WB

At first, the darker tone and grittier feel of Christopher Nolan’s vision for a Batman franchise may have seemed risky to the heads of state at Warner Bros., a fact supported by the tentative nature into which they entered the franchise in 2005 with Batman Begins. Ever since Joel Schumacher drove the Batman truck into a forest of brick walls back in the late 90s, the characters of DC comics had been put on cinematic hiatus. But in 2005 and 2006, WB decided to go for broke, handing their two most iconic heroes over to a pair of hotshot directors who had both found success with unique, stylish thrillers. For Batman, it was Memento director Christopher Nolan, and for Superman it was Usual Suspects helmer Brian Singer.

At the time, Singer may have seemed like the better bet, as he had succeeded in getting the X-Men franchise off the ground in a positive way for 20th Century Fox with X-Men in 2000 and X2 in 2003. Nolan on the other hand, had a much shorter but nonetheless impressive resume, which included the highly acclaimed Memento and the mostly underrated thriller Insomnia.

But since the cinematic futures of these two iconic, beloved superheroes, these two directors seem to have gone in a different direction. For Nolan, it has been two films, including The Dark Knight, which just this week became the second highest grossing film of all-time, passing Star Wars: A New Hope. His reinvention of Batman as a dark, authentic character in a Gotham City that could very well exist in the real world has proven to be the perfect formula for the Batman, one that has delivered not only critical praise, but great financial success.

On the other hand, Brian Singer’s Superman franchise stalled after the release of Superman Returns in 2006. His sequel, tentatively titled The Man of Steel, has been caught up in a whirlwind of studio-head anxiety and script problems. Much like George Miller’s Justice League of America movie, it seems that anything that could go wrong in getting Superman another movie has gone wrong. For many fans and pundits, Singer’s Superman-directing days are done and if Warner Bros. ever intends to have success with this character, they will have to re-invent him once again.

Yet, since the release and box office boom of The Dark Knight in late-July and on into this month, some new details have emerged from the bowels of Warner Bros. to suggest that they might just be learning the same lessons. We brought you a report earlier this week that sources inside the studio were talking about ‘rebooting’ the franchise, with or without Singer at the helm. Today, Warner Bros. Pictures President Jeff Robinov was quoted by The Wall Street Journal saying that “now the plan is just to reintroduce Superman.”

Robinov also told The Wall Street Journal that Warner Bros. is focused on releasing four comic-book films in the next three years, including a third Batman film, a new film reintroducing Superman, and two movies focusing on other DC Comics characters. Movies featuring Green Lantern, Flash, Green Arrow, and Wonder Woman are all in active development.

As well, the report talked about Robinov’s role in the darkening of tone for The Dark Knight:

Many of the studio’s directors credit Mr. Robinov for taking Warner Bros.’ films in a darker and deeper direction. Christopher Nolan, who directed “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight,” says Mr. Robinov “really encouraged the logic of the villain” from “Batman Begins.” That led to focusing heavily on the Joker in the sequel. “At the script stage, Jeff really wanted us to be very clear on the Joker’s lack of purpose,” he says.

This change in direction should be a great sign for many fans, many of whom have seen and documented the problems with DC adaptations here on the web over the past few years. It doesn’t take a studio-head to figure out that some of these characters should have their own franchises, and should also be treated with the same earnest approach that Christopher Nolan took to Batman.

In fact, if we really take a close look at what caused Chris Nolan and Brian Singer to go in such different directions, we see that it was all in the approach. At the outset, Nolan’s vision was to re-establish the character in the first film, then add in a great deal of escalation with the second. Almost as if to say to the fans, “I am taking my time, but I am going to give you the Batman movie you deserve.” Singer, on the other hand, took Superman as he existed after the Richard Donner franchise of the late 70s and early 80s. On top of that, he took Superman Returns to an end that left him with almost nowhere to go — they not only failed to connect fans with the character, but they spent Superman’s arch nemesis in one quick shot. It was superhero franchise equivalent of premature ejaculation. And overwhelmingly, it failed, despite making $200 million at the box office.

So while fans can smile again at the thought of Warner Bros. learning their lesson about their superhero franchises, they aren’t exactly out of the woods yet. What The Dark Knight has proven is that the right franchise plan, laid out by the right director, can result in unquantifiable levels of success in the long run. Should Warner Bros. find the right filmmakers to bring the likes of Wonder Woman, Flash and The Green Arrow to the big screen in a very authentic manner, we should all be in for a treat. Much of the same could be in store for Superman, with or without Brian Singer, should they go through with a reboot. The question going forward will be whether or not WB is seriously committed to giving these characters an earnest shot. The answer to that question won’t be known for at least a few years, or as the WSJ reports, sometime around 2011.

Do you think Warner Bros. will commit to going a different direction with their superhero franchises, or will it be more of the same?


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