Regardless of whether you are a Marvel fan, a supporter of DC, or a critic of both studios, the cinematic and cultural footprints of two particular films are undeniable. Ron Ma takes a look at Iron Man and The Dark Knight and why they possess enduring legacies.
Ten years ago, Iron Man was released in April to widespread acclaim and transformed Robert Downey Jr. from actor to star. In July, The Dark Knight arrived in cinemas, bringing a darker take on the genre and becoming the first superhero film to surpass one billion dollars in the worldwide box office. Despite these exceptional results, I think few people could have predicted how rapid the rise of superhero films would be. If you told people back in 2008 that in merely a decade, superhero films would dominate the market and Marvel would produce a film that grossed over two billion dollars worldwide, would anyone believe you? An accomplishment that seemed unattainable then has become a reality now.
How did all of this happen? We can begin by examining Iron Man, the first entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Indeed, all of the trademarks of the MCU can be found in this film: post-credits scenes, a Stan Lee cameo, Easter eggs hinting at future characters. But that is not why Marvel films are so enduring. It is because, for better or for worse, Marvel has found a narrative structure that pleases audiences and suits the MCU’s grander objectives. Take a look at Iron Man. It is the story of Tony Stark becoming Iron Man and fighting those who clash with his beliefs, most notably Obadiah Stane. Before the final confrontation, he undergoes a downfall that seemingly allows Stane to win, but his previous arc reactor saves the day. An epic fight ensues between Iron Man and Stane and, of course, the hero wins.
If you remove all the specifics of this plot summary, the underlying structure is nearly identical throughout the MCU: a hero fights formidable forces, almost loses in the middle, then finally triumphs and restores order to the world. If this structure sounds familiar, it is most likely because it resembles the hero’s journey, a narrative template that goes all the way back to religious tales and ancient mythology. Admittedly, Marvel films deviate from this structure occasionally, the most recent example being the ending of Avengers: Infinity War. But the ending was shocking only because viewers expected a certain structure in Marvel films, one that was already established in Iron Man. From the very beginning, we see signs of a meticulously planned franchise.
The Dark Knight’s impact on the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) is harder to delineate, primarily because it meant something different to the studios behind it. Iron Man was intended to be the starting point of the MCU. The Dark Knight was intended to be the second film in a self-contained Batman trilogy. As a result, it feels as though films in the DCEU, especially Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, live under the shadow of Nolan’s dark and realistic approach to a superhero fantasy. The films replicate the aesthetics of Nolan’s work, but fail to replicate the thematic weight and complex characterisation. If anything, The Dark Knight’s legacy for the DCEU is to burden it with a constant comparison to Nolan’s film, a burden that has been somewhat alleviated since the release of Wonder Woman.
The strength of The Dark Knight as a standalone film is underlined by its influence on many films outside of the DCEU. In Logan, we see a despondent protagonist and a grounded approach to worldbuilding. In the 2014 version of Godzilla, we see fluid cinematography in a gloomy world. In Skyfall, we see a broken hero and a villain with fathomable motives. The Dark Knight’s influence even seeps into the MCU. Many argue that the villains in Black Panther and Infinity War reach the depth of Nolan’s writing and Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker. On the other hand, Iron Man does not have a comparable impact since its legacy is tied to Marvel. Blockbusters that exhibit a light and energetic atmosphere do not learn from Iron Man specifically, but the MCU as a whole. Such issues do not affect The Dark Knight. Although the film is part of a trilogy, it is not concerned with anything beyond its scope. It is its own film and its legacy belongs to itself.
However, I must give credit where credit is due. The Dark Knight is not the first superhero film to adopt a dark tone. A recent article from Forbes points out that films like Logan are simply continuing the approach of the X-Men films that preceded Nolan’s work. Indeed, I am not claiming that The Dark Knight was the first to demonstrate the value of a realistic superhero film. What I am positing, though, is that The Dark Knight proved the financial worth of this style. In the worldwide box office, the highest-grossing X-Men film is Deadpool, coming in at approximately $783 million, somewhat lower than The Dark Knight’s billion-dollar gross. The difference becomes greater when we compare it to the highest-grossing X-Men film prior to The Dark Knight’s release, which is just under $460 million for X-Men: The Last Stand. It is safe to say that although The Dark Knight is not the first dark superhero film, it is the first dark superhero film that made studios think differently.
Enough about the cinematic impact. Surely, the immense success of Iron Man and The Dark Knight has a cultural impact as well. The most obvious and concrete one has to be the uproar caused by The Dark Knight not being nominated for Best Picture at the 2009 Oscars. Although changes followed (the number of Best Picture nominees increased from five to ten, which was later revised to be between five and ten), the focus here should not be on the changes themselves since they reveal more about the Academy than the films. What is significant is that there was an uproar, that The Dark Knight sparked debates beyond pure film analysis, that this cinematic milestone became a cultural phenomenon as well.
Although Iron Man did not cause similar changes, it plays an equally large role in our everyday conversations. Both films have become common knowledge within a certain community, almost like a form of cultural capital. Saying that you know Downey’s Iron Man or Ledger’s Joker is implying that you are part of the present culture, that you belong to a certain group that can lay claim to these portrayals of these characters. Downey is our Iron Man. Ledger is our Joker. They are part of our society’s collective memory. Moreover, Iron Man and The Dark Knight are defining moments in cultural history because they initiated the superhero craze, bringing us the zeitgeist of our times. When people look back at the 70s and 80s, reminiscing about Spielberg blockbusters or Star Wars mania, I suspect the same will happen to us when we look back at superhero films decades from now. We will go, “Oh yes, Iron Man and The Dark Knight. They began an era for us that we shall never forget.”
Regardless of whether you are a Marvel fan, a supporter of DC, or a critic of both studios, the cinematic and cultural footprints of two particular films are undeniable. Iron Man will live on as the fun, beloved, adrenaline-pumping debut of the MCU. The Dark Knight will live on as the dark, realistic, widely debated film that made Nolan a household name. Where this superhero craze is going and when it will end, everyone has their guesses, but they will only be guesses for now. Time has cemented the place of Iron Man and The Dark Knight in history. Time will tell us what happens next.