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.