With the successful opening weekend of The Dark Knight, the Batman franchise has returned with both popular and critical acclaim. Perhaps the memories of the final Joel Schumacher-helmed, George Clooney-starring Batman & Robin can now be safely tucked away. It’s been a rollercoaster ride for The Batman to be sure. An iconic comic book that became a campy TV show, only to be resurrected in the mid-80s by Frank Miller and his seminal Dark Knight graphic novel. Yes, let’s remember that it was Frank Miller’s genius that set the stage for the Tim Burton/Michael Keaton/Jack Nicholson movie. But Batman soon found himself the object of scorn once again as the movies became charicatures.
Now Batman seems to have returned to its darker side, a more serious, more violent persona. This character/franchise arc reminds me of another iconic hero – James Bond.
Bond started out as a truly unique character that defined a genre, and an era. But as the Roger Moore-Bond faded into the sunset the franchise seemed done. It bounced back with Pierce Brosnan, only to once again lose its way as the gadget and stunts overwhelmed what had always been the real source of the Bond franchise’s strength – the villains (and sidekicks). Blofeld, Jaws, Odd Job, Pussy Galore, Goldfinger. All more memorable than Timothy Dalton’s Bond (or George Lazenby’s for that matter).
But once again Bond is back thanks to Daniel Craig and a return to a grittier, more violent Bond.
Which brings us to Superman. Every bit as iconic as Batman and Bond, if not more so. For many (most?) people in the world, if they were asked to name one superhero, it would be Superman. The Christopher Reeve-Superman reintroduced the character (much like the Keaton-Batman) but it too devolved into camp and parody (Richard Pryor?), again much like the Batman movies of the 80s/90s and the Bond films of the late-90s/early 00s.
But here’s where Batman and Bond made a critical choice. Those franchises were reimagined to be grittier, more real and more authentic feeling. Perhaps it is because these two characters are human and could therefore return ‘to their roots.’ The change was dramatic. When you see the Dark Knight or Casino Royale you realize you are seeing something clearly different from what you had seen before. With Superman Returns the change wasn’t great enough. It wasn’t that it was a bad movie, but you don’t hear anyone talking about the Superman movie franchise. What could they have done? Well, it wouldn’t work now because of Hancock, but what about making Will Smith Superman? Here’s a guy who is box office gold internationally and could have completely re-invented the character. That would have been a really bold move and totally broken away from all the baggage of the Superman character.
Another example: Star Wars. The three prequels made money, but in many ways hurt the creative integrity of the franchise. I’m very interested to see how the animated Clone Wars movie will be received. This is a dramatic change and clearly a departure from the previous theatrical efforts. Grant McCracken posted today about the X-Files movie (yet another example of a franchise with a challenge). He sees the history of the X-Files as a burden that has stultified the creativity and freshness of the franchise. I agree with him and would have like to have seen a dramatic change for the new movie.