Twenty years ago, give or take a few weeks, I took a day off from work to see a matinee of Tim Burton's Batman Returns. This year I felt no need to take time off so I could go to a midnight show of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises. That's no reflection on Nolan. I'm eager to see the picture, but can't justify skipping work even if I'm entitled. I'll see it sometime this weekend, barring unforeseen circumstances, but the film is the real event, not the time you see it. If its arrival has the air of a historic event, that's not all hype. Rises is likely to be the last film of its kind: a big-budget brand-name superhero film that takes place in a director's "universe" rather than a comic-book publisher's. Between the premiere of Batman Begins in 2005 and tomorrow, Marvel Studios has changed the game for the genre and altered expectations for fans of comic-book movies. Warner Bros. is expected to emulate Marvel in the future when developing film treatments of its corporate cousins at DC Comics. Next year's Man of Steel will be transitional, brandishing the Nolan brand name while probably aspiring to transcend it.
The film Warners and DC really want to make, everyone believes, is Justice League, the super-team saga that, ironically enough, drove Stan Lee to initiate the "Marvel Age of Comics," including The Avengers, because Lee's boss wanted a similar book for his line -- he got The Fantastic Four. How soon Justice League will get made is unclear, but it seems more certain that the next film adaptation of a DC comic after Man of Steel will be set in someplace recognizable as the "DC Universe." Such a place will be defined by its multiplicity and diversity of superpowered beings, and as such it'll be the antithesis of the imagined worlds of Batman in the seven films made since 1989. The closest any of those movies has come to acknowledging even the possible existence of other superheroes is George (Batman) Clooney's crack in Joel Schumacher's Batman and Robin, "This is why Superman works alone." The irony, of course, is that it's Batman who's worked alone in movies, whose franchise has failed, or rather refused to fertilize a universe of crimefighters and superheroes. Superman has worked alone as well, of course, and much of this compartmentalization was a matter of rights, different producers like Michael Uslan claiming individual characters rather than seizing or receiving a universe. That situation has changed, but it's arguable that Nolan has held back the evolution of a cinematic DC universe by claiming auteurial rights over Batman. If so, he was only claiming his due, much as Tim Burton did. If neither was a household name at the time of his first Batman movie, by each man's sequel the director's personal vision had become a major selling point, and The Dark Knight Rises is being sold primarily as the climax of Nolan's vision. By comparison, how much of Iron Man was Jon Favreau's vision. Whatever the fraction, it was probably greater than Kenneth Branagh's visionary contribution to Thor, or Joe Johnston's to Captain America, or even Joss Whedon's to The Avengers. Marvel has embarked on another series of films, with none of the aforementioned directors returning -- except perhaps for Whedon down the line. Marvel does not want a Christopher Nolan, and while Warners seemingly offered the entire DC Universe to Nolan, one suspects that they wanted the name more than the man.
There really can be no place in the future of superhero movies for an auteur who balks in any way at his characters interacting with characters from other comics or their movie adaptations. Superhero cinema is becoming a corporate art in more than the obvious monetary ways. Making superhero movies will be a collaborative, editorially-supervised practice. The age of the auteur -- the Nolans, the Burtons, the Sam Raimis -- is almost certainly over. Some comics fans will welcome this. The multitudes of superbeings is an essential part of the comics reading experience for these people that only the Marvel movies have begun to translate into film. Even some admirers of Nolan protest that his quasi-realistic vision limited the cinematic possibilities for Batman compared to what can happen to him in comics -- that you're not getting the true Batman experience unless the more outlandishly powerful characters like Mr. Freeze of Clayface can cut loose, or unless Superman or Green Lantern can drop into Gotham for a visit and a team-up. A lot of Batman fans feel differently, but many DC fans are not so committed to Batman's isolation and would welcome a Justice League film. To be blunt, I see no artistic imperative to make that film, but there's nothing automatically preventing such a project from being at least as good as The Avengers. But why couldn't there be a Justice League jamboree and more individual films, in any sense of the word, at the same time? I can't help thinking that one option will preclude the other, however, in a way that makes another Burton or Nolan franchise unlikely -- and that would be a real loss. The imminence of that loss makes The Dark Knight Rises more of an event than it already is -- more than most people watching may realize.