Why Superhero Movies Are Headed in the Wrong Direction

A discussion between the directors Richard Donner and Christopher Nolan sheds light on what’s broken about the current approach to comic-book films.

Warner Bros.

The release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which was greeted with negative reviews, a huge opening weekend at the box office, and then a precipitous drop, has inspired a new wave of hand-wringing about the state of superhero movies. With that in mind, a refreshing cultural nugget surfaced online Monday: a conversation between two of the most influential comic-book directors, Richard Donner and Christopher Nolan, on the appeals and challenges of the genre. The easiest thing to take away from it? Hollywood’s superhero trend, like so many fads the industry previously embraced, is headed in the wrong direction.

Nolan, of course, directed three Batman films that helped revive critical interest in the comic-book hero (along with Bryan Singer’s X-Men and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man). But Nolan says his Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) were deeply indebted to Donner’s 1978 film Superman, a landmark work in the superhero genre. Their 25-minute conversation is an extra on the DVD box-set for Nolan’s Batman trilogy and is hosted online at Dailymotion. Most importantly, the two discuss the difficulty and rewards of shooting “practically” (with special effects largely done in-camera without CGI assistance), a method that’s been quickly abandoned in the new superhero economy, to the detriment of fans.

The parallels between the approaches of Donner and Nolan are fascinating, especially considering the vast time gap between their films. Donner worked in a pre-CGI world, where special effects had to be accomplished with miniatures, stunt-work, matte paintings, and optical effects that could insert stationary shots of the actor Christopher Reeve over moving backgrounds to make it look like he was flying. By Nolan’s era, digital effects were the norm, but he insisted on using them only to slightly embellish his visuals. “I looked back at the ’70s blockbusters like Superman and felt like there was a tactile quality to what you see that you could really believe,” Nolan says. “I just think that you can tell the difference between animation and real photography.”

In 1978, Superman was the most expensive film ever made, at a budget of $55 million ($200 million in today’s dollars). Donner’s innovations included realistic front-projection photography to make its hero soar through the sky—as the film’s tagline went, “You’ll believe a man can fly.” In Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, directed by Zack Snyder (at the cost of around $250 million), there’s hardly a minute that isn’t swept up in a cacophony of computer-generated effects, from apocalyptic dream sequences featuring giant dragonfly soldiers to an epic showdown with a gigantic alien monster called Doomsday that shoots lasers from his roaring face. When Snyder’s Superman (played by Henry Cavill) flies, he blasts into the air with a sonic boom; it’s all very impressive, but doesn’t land with much weight.

When one CGI creation (Superman) is doing battle with another (Doomsday) in a landscape that’s largely created in post-production, it’s hard to get a handle on what’s really happening on screen. There are some benefits though: CGI does make the movies easier to shoot, and places less strain on the actors involved, which is essential for the franchise approach that Marvel has pioneered and that Warner Bros. is now attempting to replicate with its DC-branded heroes. Batman v Superman will lead into a Wonder Woman and Justice League movie, both out in 2017, with several more films planned for the coming years.

That kind of rapid production schedule necessitates cutting corners wherever possible, and helps explain away the fairly bland visuals of the Marvel movies, which favor coverage and quick, choppy editing over the grand master shots and practical set-pieces used by Nolan’s Batman films. The biggest action moment in The Dark Knight involves a truck flipping 180 degrees in the air, and it was all accomplished in one massive shot. It’s smaller-scale, but a thousand times more memorable than the planetary lunacy that’s become the superhero norm. Practically every Marvel movie ends with a portal opening in space and a thousand aliens or robots pouring out of it, while Snyder’s first Superman movie, Man of Steel (2013), saw his hero level an entire city while fighting the villain General Zod.

“What CGI is incredible for is if you photograph something and then you manipulate it. But if you ask the CG artists to produce things whole-cloth ... to me as an audience member your brain can always tell the difference,” Nolan says. Donner spends much of the interview picking Nolan’s brain about particular images in his Batman movies—the waterfall of the Batcave, the plane hijacking in The Dark Knight Rises, and that film’s use of New York City’s bridges in its climax. His question is always the same: How much of that was real? The answer is almost always: most of it, with a little bit of computer enhancement. Donner’s gasp of astonishment at learning that Nolan’s team dammed up a river for weeks to achieve the proper waterfall flow is the most delightful moment of the conversation.

Nolan had a minor hand in Man of Steel (he was listed as a producer), but Snyder is a director who favors CGI (using it heavily for films like 300 and Watchmen), and he’s taken the lead on establishing Warner Brothers’ burgeoning comic-book franchise. It’s likely an approach Nolan or Donner couldn’t have pulled off anyway—Donner was fired from the set of Superman II after clashing with producers over the film’s creative direction, and Nolan always takes two to three years in between his epics, pursuing original screenplays like Inception and Interstellar. The franchise approach, churning out two to three films a year, embraces heavily serialized storytelling and a crammed cast of characters; Donner and Nolan’s films were spare by comparison. But watching the directors talk, it’s hard not to feel like the newer superhero movies would be more creative and engrossing—if only more filmmakers today felt the same way they do.