It's been over a year since The Dark Knight made a billion dollars and revolutionized genre cinema. At the time, everyone said we'd be seeing a spate of Dark Knight-influenced "dark" superhero films. So are any of them still happening?
We know, we know: the Hollywood development cycle is a slow, lumbering beast. It can take anywhere from a couple years (for a "fast-track" project) to a decade for a movie to see the light of day. But given how many people were saying, this time last year, that The Dark Knight had changed everything, you'd expect there to be at least some films in development, if not in pre-production or actually filming.
And there don't seem to be any movies in "the pipeline" that seem consciously influenced by TDK. Here are a few possible contenders:
- Super-Max. Written by TDK co-writer David S. Goyer, this film has obvious elements in common with Knight. From the scraps we've gleaned, it's about the snotty trust-fund superhero Green Arrow, who gets sent to prison, probably for a crime he didn't commit. And he has to escape from the world's toughest, most advanced prison by teaming up with a host of DC Comics supervillains. Gritty dark action? Check. Moral ambiguity? Check. Heroes who cross the line? Pretty much. Too bad that every time we hear about this film, it sounds more and more like it's stuck in limbo.
- Superman Returns (Again). Every time someone mentions doing another Superman movie in the wake of 2006's underwhelming Superman Returns, they say it'll feature a "dark" take on the Last Son Of Krypton, influenced by Christopher Nolan's take on Batman. Says Warner Bros. president Jeff Robinov, "We're going to go dark, to the extent that the character will allow." More recently, rumored Super-director James McTeigue said something similar. But this "darker" Man Of Steel movie is still stuck in limbo, and Warner Bros. execs told a courtroom that they don't see much box-office potential in another Superman movie. (Granted, they were trying to get out of having to pay Superman's creators' heirs tons of money for Hollywood rights.) In fact, when they talk about doing a "darker" Superman movie, it's usually said with an air of "Well, nobody really wants to make a Superman movie, but if you put a gun to our heads, we'd do a darker one." The confusing copyright situation with Superman means they have to start development on a new Superman film in the next few years, but assuming Warners gets more enthusiasm for the cinematic Man Of Steel again, they'll probably rediscover their love for his fun, escapist side.
- The Fantastic Four. News sites started claiming last spring that Fox was considering rebooting this super-family series as a darker, "less bubble-gum" version. And now, just the other day, Fox announced it was definitely rebooting the Fantastic Four. On the other hand, they tapped the decidedly non-dark Akiva Goldsman (Batman And Robin, I Am Legend) to produce the new movie, and
Michael Greene, writer for Smallville, Heroes and the upcoming Green Lantern movie, will write the script. I am having a hard time imagining that team creating a "dark" FF movie. Plus everyone assumes Fox's sudden interest in moving forward with Reed Richards & Co. was motivated by Disney's purchase of Marvel, and the fact that Disney reportedly wants to take back all of the Marvel properties' movie rights as soon as outside deals expire. If Fox wants to impress Disney, a misguided "dark" Fantastic Four doesn't seem a likely approach.
- Shazam. It's hard to believe, but yes, they were talking about a dark Shazam movie in the wake of The Dark Knight. This is the story of a little boy who discovers a magic cave full of statues of the Deadly Sins, plus an old wizard who teaches him a magic world that will transform him into a big galoot whose nickname is The Big Red Cheese. And then he fights an evil mad-science worm with the help of a talking tiger. Actually, screenwriter John August and director Peter Segal wanted to do a fun, upbeat take on Shazam, but Warner Bros. wanted something more like The Dark Knight. So August rewrote his fun script to make it darker:
This wasn't "Big, with super powers" anymore. It was Black Adam versus Captain Marvel, with a considerable push into dark territory and liminal badlands like Nanda Parbat. It wasn't the action-comedy I'd signed on to write, but it was a movie I could envision getting made.
But then Warners pulled the plug on the Shazam movie altogether — remember how I said the enthusiasm for "dark" stories often seems to coincide with a lack of enthusiasm for making the movies at all? And now Shazam is back on track, with Bill Birch writing and comics scribe Geoff Johns pitching in. Says Variety, "The studio is now looking to go back to the original DC Comics source material for inspiration." Going back to the original comics source material is slang for "not fucking it up with a dark reimagining."
So what happened? There are a few theories.
Watchmen happened. You could argue that The Dark Knight changed everything, and then Watchmen changed it all back. Zack Snyder's movie version of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' classic graphic novel was everything the studios were saying they wanted: dark, controversial, morally gray, challenging — and it didn't resonate that well with audiences. It had a so-so opening weekend, followed by a steep drop-off. (Sample headline from the L.A. Times: "Watchmen is going largely unwatched.")
Another "dark" movie that came out this summer, Terminator Salvation, did similarly badly. (It wasn't strictly a superhero film, but it had superhero-ish themes, and starred Bruce Wayne himself, Christian Bale.) And while Frank Miller's The Spirit was more goofy than dark, it did have a noir-ish look to it and was the handiwork of the original "Dark Knight" reinventer.
Meanwhile, movies like G.I. Joe and Wolverine, which were fluffy and bubbly and only challenged you to avoid giggling at their ridiculous dialogue and acting, did great. Audiences didn't suddenly stop liking braindead fun just because they liked one smart, bleak movie.
Also, the economy happened. Suddenly, people were hurting and depressed, and there were a spate of news stories saying that people in an economic shitstorm want upbeat, happy films. They want escapism and a pick-me-up, not a dreadful reminder that life is full of no-win situations and suffering. Whether that theory is true or not, it's one that seems to have a lot of currency in Hollywood.
And finally, looking back through those articles where execs are saying "I want a dark Shazam! I want a dark Dazzler! America needs a dark Howard The Duck!", I can't help noticing that this is usually accompanied by a lack of enthusiasm for whatever superheroic properties they're discussing. Sure, superheroes are big right now, but not every superhero movie is a huge hit, and characters like Superman and the Fantastic Four have fallen squarely into the second or third tier of big-screen spandex-flexers in the past decade or so.
Execs cast about for ways to make those lame fillies run again, and the "dark" thing is one of the ideas they hit on. But at this point, nobody seems to think "dark" is a cure-all for tired superheroes. At least, let's hope not.