Why Superhero Movies Are Headed in the Wrong Direction

Why Superhero Movies Are Headed in the Wrong Direction
The release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which was greeted with negative reviews, a huge opening weekend at the box office, and then a precipitous drop, has inspired a new wave of hand-wringing about the state of superhero movies. With that in mind, a refreshing cultural nugget surfaced online Monday: a conversation between two of the most influential comic-book directors, Richard Donner and Christopher Nolan, on the appeals and challenges of the genre. The easiest thing to take away from it? Hollywood’s superhero trend, like so many fads the industry previously embraced, is headed in the wrong direction.

Nolan, of course, directed three Batman films that helped revive critical interest in the comic-book hero (along with Bryan Singer’s X-Men and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man). But Nolan says his Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) were deeply indebted to Donner’s 1978 film Superman, a landmark work in the superhero genre. Their 25-minute conversation is an extra on the DVD box-set for Nolan’s Batman trilogy and is hosted online at Dailymotion. Most importantly, the two discuss the difficulty and rewards of shooting “practically” (with special effects largely done in-camera without CGI assistance), a method that’s been quickly abandoned in the new superhero economy, to the detriment of fans.

The parallels between the approaches of Donner and Nolan are fascinating, especially considering the vast time gap between their films. Donner worked in a pre-CGI world, where special effects had to be accomplished with miniatures, stunt-work, matte paintings, and optical effects that could insert stationary shots of the actor Christopher Reeve over moving backgrounds to make it look like he was flying. By Nolan’s era, digital effects were the norm, but he insisted on using them only to slightly embellish his visuals. “I looked back at the ’70s blockbusters like Superman and felt like there was a tactile quality to what you see that you could really believe,” Nolan says. “I just think that you can tell the difference between animation and real photography.”

In 1978, Superman was the most expensive film ever made, at a budget of $55 million ($200 million in today’s dollars). Donner’s innovations included realistic front-projection photography to make its hero soar through the sky—as the film’s tagline went, “You’ll believe a man can fly.” In Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, directed by Zack Snyder (at the cost of around $250 million), there’s hardly a minute that isn’t swept up in a cacophony of computer-generated effects, from apocalyptic dream sequences featuring giant dragonfly soldiers to an epic showdown with a gigantic alien monster called Doomsday that shoots lasers from his roaring face. When Snyder’s Superman (played by Henry Cavill) flies, he blasts into the air with a sonic boom; it’s all very impressive, but doesn’t land with much weight.

When one CGI creation (Superman) is doing battle with another (Doomsday) in a landscape that’s largely created in post-production, it’s hard to get a handle on what’s really happening on screen. There are some benefits though: CGI does make the movies easier to shoot, and places less strain on the actors involved, which is essential for the franchise approach that Marvel has pioneered and that Warner Bros. is now attempting to replicate with its DC-branded heroes. Batman v Superman will lead into a Wonder Woman and Justice League movie, both out in 2017, with several more films planned for the coming years.

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