How 'The Dark Knight' completely changed superhero films

Film buffs debate the lasting effects of the acclaimed thriller 10 years later.

July 18, 2018, 4:10 AM

"The Dark Knight" came out 10 years ago today and whether or not superhero films are your jam, one thing is clear among all movie goers -- the acclaimed film sure supercharged a growing superhero genre, resulting in dozens of movies that have tried to emulate or expand on the project's brilliance.

Before Christian Bale and Heath Ledger faced off in Christopher Nolan's "dark" take on the Batman saga, films like Tim Burton's "Batman" in 1989 or "Spider-Man" in 2002 were ripped straight from the iconic comic book pages from which they began.

Who can forget the outlandish laughter of Jack Nicholson's Joker or the cartoonish mask Willem Dafoe wore in "Spider-Man," playing Peter Parker's nemesis, the Green Goblin.

But after "The Dark Knight," things really started to change. This is not to say that "Knight's" predecessor, "Batman Begins" three years earlier, didn't already lay the ground work for a "realistic" superhero film, but that the acclaim and reception that "The Dark Knight" received had made filmmakers everywhere stop and say, "How do I do that?!"

They all wanted to jump aboard what Nolan was able to accomplish, grounding Batman in the real world and taking on layered issues, where there is no clear-cut good or bad guy. Then there was Ledger's Joker, a masterpiece character, which was not only a colorful kaleidoscope for the eyes, but a mental exercise in being an evil genius.

PHOTO: Christian Bale, as Batman, back, and Heath Ledger, as Joker, in a scene from "The Dark Knight."
Christian Bale, as Batman, back, and Heath Ledger, as Joker, in a scene from "The Dark Knight."

And here we stand a decade later, with successes like "Logan," a 2017 film that is far more a Western than a superhero flick, focused on the sad, but true reality of aging and losing all the abilities (not just the heroic kind) that people hold near and dear to their hearts.

Wolverine loses his sight and his healing ability, but realizes what true love is while he cares for a 90-year-old Charles Xavier, along with his sorrow and regret of old age.

But we've also got films like 2015's "Fantastic Four," which made less than $170 million at the box office and was completely panned by the critics, or "Dawn of Justice," which featured Ben Affleck's Batman and Henry Cavill's Superman, but was dinged by critics for being too gritty and too dark. The film's follow up, "Justice League," received better reception with a lighter tone and less depth to it.

So, is there a right way to approach these films now? Should filmmakers try to emulate "The Dark Knight"? Or should they take an entirely new direction altogether -- like "Wonder Woman" or "Black Panther," films set in their respective universes, but clearly unique in their own right?

"GMA" sat down with critics and superhero pundits to talk about the future of these films, while also looking back to acknowledge Nolan's powerful influence.

First, we take a look back.

'Why so serious?'

PHOTO: Heath Ledger, as Joker, in a scene from "The Dark Knight."
Heath Ledger, as Joker, in a scene from "The Dark Knight."

It's hard to think of a more respected pairing of talents than when Ledger teamed up with Oscar-winning makeup artist John Caglione Jr. to create the look and the tone of the mysterious Joker in "The Dark Knight."

What the audience was left with was the stuff of "Knight-mares" -- the classic facial scars with no clear-cut explanation of how the Joker got them, along with no idea where this mastermind came from or what he really wanted. All the audience knew about the guy was that he was the Yin to Batman's Yang.

"After the film came out and with how well it did, you got to realize, yeah I got to work on something very special," Caglione Jr. told ABC News for the film's 10th anniversary.

"I think for sure, that'll be in my obituary, 'The Joker makeup guy died today,'" he continued, laughing.

That's a bold statement from a veteran artist that has worked on films like "Friday the 13th," "Dick Tracy," "Chaplin" and "Donnie Brasco," just to name a few in his 30-plus-year career.

But what wasn't a laughing matter was the work and the painstaking effort that he and Ledger put into even the tiniest details of the Joker's image.

"I have nothing but very fond memories of that experience in every way," Caglione Jr. said of working with Nolan and Ledger.

"Chris, he's just a gentle soul, who has a great vision. And Heath too, the same thing ... and for my money, [in the film] you just can't wait to see Heath come back on camera. He's just so many different things, each and every scene with the character."

Caglione Jr. said it was a privilege to force himself to steer away from the "clean" make-up jobs that past audiences were used to seeing on clowns.

Instead he and Ledger designed a disturbing image, with cracks and crevices where the white make-up would give way to the natural tone of Ledger's skin. Caglione Jr. described working with Ledger as "a dance," with the duo fully intertwined, fully in sync, for as long as it took until they were both satisfied with the result.

"It was a real collaboration to make that make-up look the way it did ... I had to learn to let my hand go," he explained. "And let it be messy and distorted. And it worked! It went against everything I've been trained to do ... that make-up is so messy. Like that quote, 'imperfection is perfection,' any drips or things that happened in the chair, that was the blueprint to follow."

"It's just a whole different universe they created," he said of the filmmakers. "They took it out of the comic book and they made it it's own film."

Caglione Jr. can clearly remember key scenes in the film, such as the one with the disappearing pencil trick and the thugs.

"I think we shot it in 8 or 10 hours ... all the actors that were standing around the table gave Heath a standing ovation, they just applauded him, I think he did it like 10 different ways and every way was beautiful," he said.

But, was it too good?

Scribe and editor Richard Newby investigates the lasting repercussions of the film in a column for The Hollywood Reporter titled, "The Complicated Legacy of 'The Dark Knight.'"

Yet, despite acknowledging the film's "unequivocal greatness," Newby says the film's legacy might be the "so-called dark, gritty, and grounded reboots that followed in its wake."

But while the film was brilliant, was it too good -- spawning all these movies that tried to be like it, but inevitable failed because no film can be "The Dark Knight" other than ... well, "The Dark Knight"?

"It definitely helped give comic book adaptations, particularly superhero movies, a higher profile and prestige that goes with them," Newby told "GMA," along with "attracting bigger names to these films."

But Newby notes in his THR piece that "[i]t’s easy to misremember 'The Dark Knight' as a superhero movie."

Instead, Newby sees it as a completely different entity, more a crime thriller-drama that happens to have characters like Batman and The Joker within its very exciting 150 minute running time.

"I think that's part of how comic book movies are going to be kept alive, by approaching them through other genres," he said. "Superhero fatigue gets thrown around a lot ... but when you have movies like 'Logan,' approaching it through a Western perspective or 'The Dark Night,' which is very much a crime movie in the vain of Michael Mann's 'Heat,' that's what helps keep these properties alive."

PHOTO: Maggie Gyllenhaal, as Rachel, and Aaron Eckhart, as Harvey Dent, in a scene from "The Dark Knight."
Maggie Gyllenhaal, as Rachel, and Aaron Eckhart, as Harvey Dent, in a scene from "The Dark Knight."

If you look at "Thor: Ragnarok," "Wonder Woman" and "Black Panther," those are all technically superhero movies, but could be also considered a fun space fantasy flick, a war period piece and a film on social injustice, with dialogue-starting themes.

"When superhero movies first had their boom in the early 2000s, all of them were very much rooted in what's the original comic book idea," Newby said. "With Nolan, he's not necessarily a comic guy. I think he was more interested in taking his characters and looking in our world, and 'how do you express this idea of vigilante justice and terrorism?'"

The downside, Newby stresses, is when someone creates something so new and successful like "The Dark Knight," imitators follow closely behind. Instead, creators should try and imitate the creativity and also come up with something truly original, not a copycat.

One film he brought up in his piece was the reboot of "G.I. Joe" in the late 2000s.

"They had the all-black costumes and they tried to make Cobra Commander all serious," he said. "I think it steps away from the inherent ideas of who those characters are."

Where there are outlandish characters in films, Newby suggest embracing "that ridiculousness."

A silver ... or 'Black' lining

Legendary Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers said that while others think "The Dark Knight" has a complicated legacy, he believes it's a great legacy, one that may result in an Oscar nod for this year's superhero sensation "Black Panther."

Back in 2009, when "The Dark Knight" wasn't nominated for Best Picture, the backlash was so severe that the next year they doubled the number of nominees from 5 to a possible 10. Now, "Panther" may reap the benefits of such a move.

"Everybody was angry that 'The Dark Knight' wasn't nominated for Best Picture when they thought it should be," Travers told "GMA."

PHOTO: Chadwick Boseman in a scene from "Black Panther."
Chadwick Boseman in a scene from "Black Panther."
Marvel Studios

But Travers adds that game-changing films like 2016's "Deadpool" still haven't been nominated, even with the larger field. So, the Academy is still hesitant about bringing this kind of acclaim to a superhero movie, but they may have trouble ignoring a movement like "Panther."

"I think it's a great legacy, it says you can do something artistic with these films and still be accepted," Travers explained about the doors "The Dark Knight" opened up.

"Because the thought was if you did something artistic, it would fail at the box office. Well it didn't."

He continued, "The best inheritor of that legacy is going to be 'Black Panther.'"

PHOTO: Letitia Wright in a scene from "Black Panther."
Letitia Wright in a scene from "Black Panther."
Marvel Studios

Travers said that "Black Panther" is the first comic movie that has been taken seriously since Nolan's masterpiece 10 years ago.

"I think 'Black Panther' has the best chance of any one of these movies ever [at the Oscars]," he said. "It's come at a time, where that kind of film and kind of identity is something that resonates for them and that they are going to want to say they recognize. Could it win? I don't know."

Marvel and ABC News are both owned by parent company Disney.