Did Marvel "Beat" The Dark Knight?
2008 saw another seismic event in superhero movies with the release of the original Iron Man, which launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe. At first, Marvel's plan for an interconnected film franchise seemed overly ambitious, but it's now the biggest brand in film, earning $17 billion combined at the worldwide box office. In the wake of the MCU's success, other studios tried to launch their own shared universes, but nobody's truly been able to pull it off. That includes Warner Bros./DC, whose DC Extended Universe has several critically-derided movies, such as Justice League (a real killer).
While other studios are learning the wrong lessons from Marvel (crossovers do not equal blockbusters), the MCU is actually demonstrating the "right" lessons to be gleaned from The Dark Knight. Especially recently after restructuring their hierarchy and disbanding the infamous creative committee, Kevin Feige has been willing to allow unique voices like Ryan Coogler and Taika Waititi the leeway to make films that fit into the larger framework of what's been established, but still have the stamp of their director. While some Marvel movies are more serious than others (Infinity War is an obvious example), there is a mixture of tones that allows for a proper balance and ensures each sub-franchise thrives. Black Panther was a political thriller while Guardians of the Galaxy is a space comedy. That variation allows Marvel to stay viable even with multiple releases per year.
Of course, seeing different superhero characters interact with each other onscreen is a big part of Marvel's appeal, but Marvel knows it takes more than that to sustain a film series longterm. Much like Nolan, the filmmakers of the MCU aren't afraid to treat their characters with the reverence needed to establish an emotional connection with the audience. Even the funnier MCU installments, like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Ant-Man and the Wasp, have solid moments of drama that underline the stakes of the story. Yes, humor is a main ingredient of the MCU formula, but James Gunn made viewers misty-eyed because a talking tree was sacrificing himself for his friends. A director can't pull that off unless he or she takes the material "seriously," regardless of how many jokes are told.
The MCU followed Nolan's path to become the top dog in Hollywood, but a case can be made they've never truly eclipsed The Dark Knight. Despite an unprecedented string of consecutive Certified Fresh hits on Rotten Tomatoes, the MCU is traditionally shunned from the more "prestigious" awards categories and bodies. Their various technical Oscar nominations have amounted in zero wins, while Heath Ledger's posthumous Oscar victory in Best Supporting Actor showed what was possible when a comic book movie transcends its genre and reaches another level. In this respect, Logan is the closest thing to a Dark Knight heir apparent we've gotten, evidenced by its Best Adapted Screenplay nomination. Time will tell if Marvel can ever soar to those heights (many are hoping for a Black Panther Oscar push), but right now, The Dark Knight still stands in a class of its own.
Every game-changer in Hollywood comes with its own set of takeaways, and it's paramount for those looking to ride the wave learn the right lessons. Just like Deadpool didn't succeed because it was R-rated, Dark Knight was more than just a "gritty" superhero movie. It told a thematically rich story that deeply explored its characters, offered sly commentary on the current political climate (the George W. Bush parallels), and represented one of this era's best craftsman at the top of his game. Studios looking to make the next Dark Knight need to look past the superficial elements and allow passionate, creative storytelling to flow. Regardless of what the current trend is, that seems to be the proper solution.