Superhero films have been around in some form or another since the movie serials of the 1940s, but it's safe to say they've hit an entirely new level over the course of the last decade. The rise of shared universe storytelling has made Marvel Studios into a box office powerhouse, delivering hit after hit, while Warner Bros. has found success both in and out of its own cinematic universe designs with films ranging in tone from Joker to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice to Birds of Prey. Throw in Sony's recent efforts with Spider-Man-related characters, Valiant Entertainment's efforts to create their own cinematic universe, and the small screen successes of the Arrowverse, The Boys, and more, and it's clear that filmed superhero entertainment is bigger than it's ever been.
For Christopher Nolan, who helped herald this era with the billion-dollar success of his Dark Knight Trilogy in the 2000s, that's not necessarily a good thing, at least when it comes to reflecting on why his own films were successful. In a recent interview during a livestreamed 92nd Street Y event to promote the new book The Nolan Variations by Tom Shore, Nolan was asked about the secret to the success of the trilogy, which launched in 2005 with Batman Begins.
According to IndieWire, Nolan's first instinct was to chalk it all up to timing, and the ability to tell the kind of Batman story none of the other feature films released at that time had attempted to tackle in a full-length way.
“It was the right moment in time for the telling of the story I wanted to do,” Nolan said. “The origin story for Batman had never been addressed in film or fully in the comics. There wasn’t a particular or exact thing we had to follow. There was a gap in movie history. Superman had a very definitive telling with Christopher Reeve and Richard Donner [in 1978]. The version of that with Batman had never been told. We were looking at this telling of an extraordinary figure in an ordinary world.”
Though Batman's origin story had been addressed on a smaller scale in other films, most notably the Joker-centric spin put on it in Tim Burton's Batman, Nolan's attempt to root the Caped Crusader's beginnings in a semi-realistic world definitely captured the imaginations of moviegoers at the time. And of course, while there had been origin comics up to that point, most notably Batman: Year One, no one had ever combed the depths of Bruce Wayne's past to create the kind of cinematic journey through trauma, training, and arrival that Nolan aimed for.
In retrospect, Nolan's Bat-trilogy also arrived right in the middle of a transitional time for superhero films, one that it (knowingly or not) helped to build. Batman Begins arrived at a time when superhero franchises were still largely standalone affairs, but 2008's The Dark Knight was released the same year that Marvel Studios dropped Iron Man and teased the beginnings of its own shared universe. By the time the trilogy concluded with The Dark Knight Rises, it was competing for the top of the 2012 box office with The Avengers, the culmination of four years of Marvel's work to make that shared universe a reality. For Nolan, the success of his films came in no small part because he wasn't trying to go the same route Marvel was.
“The other advantage we had was back then you could take more time between sequels,” Nolan added. “When we did Batman Begins, we didn’t know we’d do one and it took three years to do it and then four years before the next one. We had the luxury of time. It didn’t feel like a machine, an engine of commerce for the studio. As the genre becomes so successful, those pressures become greater and greater. It was the right time.”
It should probably be pointed out here that superhero movies were "an engine of commerce" well before Nolan set out to make one, and we know that because by the time The Dark Knight was released — and the Marvel Cinematic Universe was still just a twinkle in Kevin Feige's eye — we'd already gotten a Spider-Man movie trilogy, an X-Men movie trilogy, a Blade trilogy, two Hellboy movies, and Superman Returns, most of which happened in the first eight years of the 21st century alone. There are definitely more superhero movies being made now than there have ever been before, but it's not like no one was making them before Batman Begins. That said, Nolan's point about taking time between sequels is an interesting one.
The shared universe movie machine often means (before the pandemic, anyway), marking a film's release on a calendar before a script has even been finalized, then hitting various production deadlines along the way to make sure you can hit those targets. That doesn't mean the filmmakers behind those projects can't be creative and successful, but given the way Nolan works with long gaps between projects to develop them, not having to be a part of that cycle of pressure has to feel like a relief.
The Nolan Variations is available now.