In 2008, the superhero movie was foundering at the box office. Just a few years after the success of films such as X-Men and Spider-Man had convinced Hollywood that a growing audience existed for comic-book adaptations, the bloom was off the rose. Films such as Hulk and Superman Returns were high-profile disappointments, opening big in theaters before fading in the face of mixed reviews; other efforts such as Daredevil, Fantastic Four, Ghost Rider, and Catwoman were largely reviled. The hit of the summer was expected to be Steven Spielberg’s long-awaited fourth Indiana Jones movie, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Instead, the two biggest movies of the year were superhero films—Iron Man and The Dark Knight—each providing a very different road map for the future of a genre that now totally dominates multiplexes. Iron Man kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a colorful and energetic linked series that just released its 20th entry this year. But none of that would have been possible without Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which came out 10 years ago. It did more than make money. It was such a phenomenon that it conferred instant validity on the comic-book movie and realigned studios’ business strategies—enough that, ironically, a movie like The Dark Knight could never be made again.
The fact is, Nolan had only found his way to the Batman franchise because it was a distressed asset. After distinguishing himself with neo-noir crime dramas such as Memento and Insomnia, Nolan was handed the keys to the character by Warner Bros., years after the financial failure of 1997’s Batman & Robin. Nolan’s 2005 reboot, Batman Begins, was well received and a solid box-office hit, but nothing on the scale of The Dark Knight, which made almost three times as much worldwide. The film was so beloved that its Best Picture Oscar snub led to public outcry, which in turn prompted the Academy to widen its nomination field to 10 films the next year.
The Dark Knight legitimized comic-book movies—not with audiences (who, after all, made the original Batman a huge success in 1989), but with studios. In a way, superheroes in cinema have always followed trends set by the Batman franchise. The throwback, Gothic feel of Tim Burton’s 1989 film inspired the revival of goofier vintage properties such as Dick Tracy, The Shadow, and The Phantom in the 1990s, while Marvel’s more modern characters were ignored. The failure of the supremely garish Batman & Robin convinced studios to hire more acclaimed directors for future projects, such as Sam Raimi for Spider-Man, Bryan Singer for X-Men, and Nolan. And finally, the triumph of The Dark Knight transformed a non-prestige genre into a key part of every studio’s strategy moving forward.
While Batman Begins had one foot firmly planted in the pulpier side of the character, The Dark Knight was filmed like a gritty, atmospheric crime movie, with Nolan taking visual cues from Michael Mann’s bank-robber epic Heat. Rather than heightening Gotham City to the point that a man dressed as a bat makes sense as its public defender, Nolan turns Batman (Christian Bale) and the Joker (Heath Ledger) into jarring archetypes who are incongruous to the world of gangsters and cops around them, and symptoms of an increasingly polarized society of heroes and villains.
Part of Batman’s quest in The Dark Knight is to push the attorney general Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) as Gotham’s hero of the future, an effort that implodes when the Joker attacks and scars Dent, turning him into the monstrous villain Two-Face. Most comic-book antagonists have specific motives of world domination or personal revenge. But Nolan presents the Joker more as an elemental agent of chaos—one who’s interested only in upsetting the natural order of things wherever he goes, and who’s fascinated with Batman because he represents the opposite extreme. It’s a vision of evil as something trollish, amoral, and anarchic. “Some men just want to watch the world burn,” says Batman’s reliable butler, Alfred (Michael Caine)—a line that became an online refrain in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election.
Nolan got to make The Dark Knight exactly as he wanted, focusing on smaller, more practical stunts (the film’s biggest set piece involves a truck flipping over). He didn’t have to worry about setting up future sequels, shooting in 3-D, or doubling down on CGI spectacle to make for a more epic trailer. The film’s colossal success with both critics and audiences meant that almost every future superhero movie had to be more than just a fringe project for its studio. Couple that with the franchise potential of Iron Man, and a film as single-minded as The Dark Knight just couldn’t be made again. Even its eventual sequel, The Dark Knight Rises, again directed by Nolan (who was coaxed into returning to the franchise after making his passion project, Inception), didn’t connect with audiences in the same way, as it scaled up the action to more calamitous proportions and lost sight of the realism that made its predecessor work so well.
Nolan has since moved on from franchises, but he’s one of the very few directors in Hollywood who can write his own check no matter what his next project is (that short list includes names such as Spielberg, James Cameron, and Clint Eastwood). For many other young directors, getting to helm a comic-book movie remains the goal—just as Nolan made the Dark Knight trilogy after shooting his indie hit Memento, up-and-coming filmmakers get superhero projects to prove their blockbuster bona fides. But the directors working for Marvel by and large haven’t been able to escape the intense gravity field of the comic-book movie, instead coming back for more sequels and spin-offs. When The Dark Knight came out, it was a stepping stone to something greater for Nolan. Now the superhero movie has become Hollywood’s apex.