Given that Christopher Nolan wasn’t exactly a ‘comic book geek’ out to make a comic book movie, the decision was made early on to not adapt the heightened reality of the dark knight’s comic book world and respective Rogues Gallery. Instead, the serious themes of anger, resentment and vengeance were emphasized, in order to tell a story arguably more about Bruce Wayne than Batman’s gadgets or suits.
Injecting fantasy into that world would stick out like a sore thumb, so Nolan and Goyer decided that to keep their world internally consistent; no element of the comic book’s fantasy could be adopted without being made to fit the onscreen world that more closely resembled our own.
The central antagonist of Batman Begins was Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson), leader of the League of Shadows, a mercenary group bent on Gotham’s destruction. Gone were the comic villain’s Lazarus pits, along with Joker’s acid-spitting boutonniere, and Bane’s rage-inducing ‘Venom’; the bad guys in this world are people no more insane or fictional than any extremists or radical terrorists in our own.
While the ‘serious’ tone and events of Marvel’s films existed within their own fiction and circumstances, the ‘serious’ events of Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy were portrayed in a more realistic light, and were made to appear more relatable to an audience – along with everything else in the movie, by design.
The approach worked for Warner Bros. and DC Comics, since the decision to tell a Batman story that did away with fantasy instead of embracing it (like Joel Schumacher and Tim Burton’s installments had) led to a bigger box office take, and even Oscar nominations. The message was clear: audiences wanted superheroes they could relate to, living in a world inhabited by people like them.
Lest anyone assume that DC or Marvel’s decision was the ‘right’ one, it warrants mentioning that Batman Begins made sure to keep humor intact – not through unbelievable walking jokes, but normal people with developed senses of humor, including Bruce Wayne. The people could be funny, but no more than seemed believable. With The Dark Knight, Nolan and Goyer went head-first into the dark story of loss and insanity that would, for many, come to define the trilogy as a whole.
“Dark, gritty and grounded” is all well and good for Batman – but Superman? He’s the personification of comic book fantasy. So when the creative team of Nolan and Goyer were announced to be providing the story and production oversight on Man of Steel, Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot, all hell broke loose online.
Immediately, those who felt that Christian Bale’s Batman was an insult to the comic books worried that the same de-powering and grounded approach would kill everything that made Superman important, while those who loved Nolan’s trilogy hoped the team could work the same magic, and create a Superman cleansed of the silliness of the comics.
The filmmakers immediately went on the defensive, as Nolan explained that Man of Steel was Zack Snyder’s film – a claim since reiterated by star Henry Cavill. But as we mentioned above, Goyer and Nolan didn’t just write a new take on Batman for their film series (any comic fan will tell you that there are serious parallels between the comics and Nolan’s films), they emphasized what they felt were the most fundamental elements of the character, and removed or changed everything that didn’t fit within a world audiences could recognize as their own.
From the first trailers for the film, it was obvious that Man of Steel would be a serious movie – but that doesn’t mean it’s a dark one. The argument may be easy to make, but there’s no real proof that Batman’s story of loss and darkness will resemble Superman’s tale of optimism and hope in any meaningful way. Even if they are told by the same people, with a commitment to realism as the driving force behind each.
Is that a serious take on the character? Absolutely. But he’s still wearing a bright blue bodysuit and wearing a red cape. Not to mention defending Earth from invading Kryptonians also gifted with similar superhuman abilities. Making that kind of action and fantasy still remain grounded in our world is a tall order, and one Goyer already claims was much more difficult than with Batman. The solution? As the action gets bigger, make the story even more personal.
Man of Steel‘s mix of a man with two fathers and an extraterrestrial invasion sounds like the kind of blend of serious and fantasy that led Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006) astray, but Goyer and Nolan seem to know that the same rules apply here as with Batman. Mainly: keep it consistent.
If Superman is being approached as if the entire story were really happening in today’s world, then the conflict from Krypton has to be made to fit. Is it a coincidence that Michael Shannon has said from the beginning that his General Zod is no more a villain than any modern general? That far more time will be spent on Krypton to explain what will be driving the conflict between Kal-El and Zod, instead of simply jumping into combat?
Some might claim that a Superman story should be about escapism, not a serious look at the world as it really is; that lowering Superman to our earthly troubles is an insult to the character’s history. In all honesty, the readers who first made Superman a success would likely disagree, since the big blue Boy Scout spent most of his early years as a crusader for social justice, fighting wife-beaters and criminals, not Brainiac or Doomsday.
Snyder would disagree too, since he doesn’t believe that Superman is about heights people could never achieve, but a story about hope. And one that Goyer believes the world is in need of now more than ever.