But their goals and approaches were worlds apart. The obvious thing to note, besides The Dark Knight being a sequel to Batman Begins (2005) and Iron Man being an origin movie, is that Iron Man had an slyly hilarious sensibility, and The Dark Knight fancied itself an allegory about post-9/11 America. The former’s success was engineered in large part by Downey’s gift for comedic improvisation and freestyle. Indeed, co-starthat he, Downey, and Favreau were essentially improvising their scenes from scratch every day during primitive rehearsals. “They had no script, man,” Bridges lightly complained with his Dude diction.
By contrast, The Dark Knight appears at a glance to be an exercise in self-seriousness and lofty ambition. Every scene, written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan Nolan, appears like a chess move, and each character a pawn or knight who’s been positioned to put contemporary audiences in a state of pure anxiety with War on Terror imagery and dialogue. Of course this clocklike presentation is itself another Nolan illusion, as smaller players like Michael Jai White, who portrayed gangster Gambol in the movie, have been quite candid about. As with almost every film, there is still aand workshopping on Nolan’s set.
Ultimately, the bigger difference between the Nolan and eventual Marvel approach is what each is hoping to accomplish with the film they’re currently making. More than just offering a “realistic” vision of Batman, The Dark Knight attempted to tell a sweeping crime drama epic that would stand alone, separate from its status as a Batman Begins sequel. Rather than being “the next chapter,” The Dark Knight was meant to be a cinematic distillation of Batman and Joker’s primal appeals writ large. With this approach, the film also broke away from the superhero movie template Batman Begins followed three years earlier, and which nearly all superhero films still walk through the paces of.
In essence, The Dark Knight showed that superhero movies could be dark and mature, yes, but they can also be subversive, unexpected, and genuinely surprising. Nolan’s previous superhero movie, as good as it is, followed the beats set down by Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie nearly 30 years earlier. They’re the same beats trod by Iron Man and pretty much every other superhero origin movie, including a large bulk of Marvel Studios’ output. The Dark Knight, by contrast, reached for a cinematic vernacular separate from its specific genre. The movie’s not subtle about it either. The opening scene of Nolan’s epic wears its homages to Michael Mann’s Heat on its sleeves, and the story’s structure has more to do with Jaws than Jor-El.
The approach shook audiences in 2008 after they’d come to expect a certain type of movie from masked do-gooders. In The Dark Knight, superhero conventions could be subverted or obliterated when love interest Rachel Dawes is brutally killed off mid-sentence, or stalwart Batman is forced to claim a pyrrhic victory over the villain by entering into a criminal conspiracy and cover-up with the cops. The thrill of novelty was as breathtaking as the movie’s allegorical elements about a society on edge.
And even with The Dark Knight’s open-ended finale, it stood as a singular cinematic experience, complete with then-groundbreaking emphasis on IMAX photography. Nolan was so adamant about making this as self-contained an experience as possible that he jettisoned his co-story creator David Goyer’s idea of setting up Harvey Dent’s fall from grace for a third movie. Dent’s fate, as that of everyone else’s, would be tied strictly to the events of the movie you’re now watching.