Thanks to his The Dark Knight saga, Christopher Nolan will forever be remembered as the man who saved the superhero movie and showed that it's possible to take a character study starring a dude in a bat costume seriously. But when looking at the superhero movies that came out after The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Nolan's choice to shine a more realistic light on comic book heroes proved to be more damaging than beneficial for some fans and their arguments are not wholly unfounded.
While Marvel was riding high on the success of its optimistic yet grounded superhero adventures in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), some people thought there was too much joy in superhero movies and decided to respond to this idealism with cynicism. Enter people who thought they could replicate Nolan's success even if they missed the entire fucking point of The Dark Knight saga's choice to base itself on reality, thus bringing in a short-lived dark age in the superhero movie that somehow made something as cluttered as The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) look like a masterpiece.
The Dork Age
In the wake of the MCU's success, the sound criticism that said Marvel movies felt as tense as a Saturday morning cartoon because they always ended with the hero saving the day somehow fell flat on some directors who took it as a challenge to make their stories even sadder than Schindler's List (1993) instead of taking it as a hint to simply make more adult superhero movies. At the forefront of this was Zack Snyder, who made two superhero movies for DC that were received so poorly that the once confident Warner Brothers started rethinking all of their strategies to combat the MCU's growing strength.
When Christopher Nolan retold Batman's origins in a more realistic manner, he did it to explore philosophical themes rarely seen in the genre while keeping audiences on edge. From the ideas of fear to the ensuing chaos Batman's vigilantism attracts, Bruce Wayne's story as both millionaire and caped crusader has never felt fresher. Even in its darkest moments, The Dark Knight movies were still superhero movies and Christopher Nolan never forgot this as seen in how he always balanced the dramatic tension with epic action sequences.
Contrast this to either Man of Steel (2013) or Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016): movies so grim that it was as if they were ashamed to be based on comic books. Unlike The Dark Knight saga, these movies went out of their way to apologize on behalf of their source materials that dared to be imaginative and even worse, happy. Large parts of their run times were dedicated to needlessly long exposition that explained things no one questioned before, like how Superman's flying is actually just an accelerated form of jumping or how his powers were more of a burden than anything.
Deconstructing superhero lore can work but it needs to have a narrative purpose other than knocking something off its pedestal. In Nolan's trilogy, Bruce Wayne's heroism is demolished when his choice to fight crime has painful ramifications that he overcomes through willpower and determination, showing that anyone can come back from their biggest defeats whereas Man of Steel and BVS: Dawn of Justice show a Superman stripped of his heroic boy scout attitude to have it replaced with naive stupidity that causes more harm than good and ultimately, his life. That would've been good for drama, if only Zack Snyder didn't waste a combined five hours or more to humiliate Superman over the course of two movies and show off how big an incompetent dumbass he is when compared to a murderous Batman. Add in misguided ramblings about the notions of power and authority and you're in for one fucking pretentious ride where characters aren't people living in a fantastical setting but are mouthpieces and targets of Snyder's elitist power fantasies.
The Myth of Deconstruction
The issue here was that Snyder confused "realism" for "fucking depressing," thus creating some of the most lifeless mainstream movies seen in a while but in an ironic twist of events, the man responsible for making deconstruction in comics hip in the first place doesn't like it all that much. Hell, he even regrets it.
From 1986 to 1987, groundbreaking author Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons created what many consider to be the most important comic book story ever made: Watchmen. Here, aging costumed heroes are forced deal with the complicated realities of an alternate version of the '80s where Nixon is still president, a literal superhuman has come to being and the world is getting dangerously close to nuclear war. After its critical success, and not too different from the fallout seen after Nolan's Batman movies ended, many imitators used the most basic elements of Watchmen to justify pessimistic rants against superhero mythology, humanity and society. In doing so, the initial impact these works could've had was lost thanks to saturation brought about my misinterpretations from inferior copies.
I think that what a lot of people saw when they read Watchmen was a high degree of violence, a bleaker and more pessimistic political perspective, perhaps a bit more sex, more swearing. And to some degree there has been... an awful lot of the comics field devoted to these very grim, pessimistic, nasty, violent stories which kind of use Watchmen to validate what are, in effect, often just some very nasty stories that don’t have a lot to recommend them. And some of them are very pretentious… The gritty, deconstructivist postmodern superhero comic, as exemplified by Watchmen… became a genre. It was never meant to.
For Alan Moore, exposing heroes in capes as retards was never his goal, but rather, it was to use a popular fictional genre to express the fears and concerns he had during the turbulent '80s:
It was the 1980s, we’d got this insane right-wing voter fear running the country, and I was in a bad mood, politically and socially and in most other ways. So that tended to reflect in my work. But it was a genuine bad mood, and it was mine... It’s not even their bad mood, it’s mine, but they’re still working out the ramifications of me being a bit grumpy 15 years ago.
Keeping that in mind, it's easy to see how Zack Snyder could look to Christopher Nolan's Batman movies for inspiration and still end up with a pair of pointlessly bleak movies that aimed to deconstruct a new Superman myth that had yet to be constructed in the first place. Unlike Nolan who understood the responsibility he had when translating Batman for an older audience, Snyder was obsessed with adding darkness for darkness' sake, letting his characters go unchecked and murder everything in their path without a single fuck given because they were above the law. This ended up making both of Snyder's Superman movies look like self-insert edgy fanfictions written by moody teenagers when compared to Nolan's Batman movies that felt like proper graphic novels written by someone who actually gave a shit about the characters. He may have been the perfect guy for a Watchmen movie adaptation but that doesn't make him the right guy for a character who embodies everything about hope.
Just like how imitators mistook Alan Moore's magnum opus as an attack on superheroes instead of seeing it as both a product of its time and a mature yet restrained story, Snyder thought Nolan's style was the perfect starting point for a mean spirited "fuck you" aimed at someone as idealistic as Superman, who he described as stupidly naive in an interview where he compared BVS to Watchmen:
Superman is the dream of a farmer from Kansas. Righting wrongs for a ghost. It's sort of the Kansas morality, that black and white, unrealistic morality of fighting crime.
Snyder wasn't the only one guilty of this need for grit, as Josh Trank would follow suit and make the universally hated Fant4stic (2015), which somehow managed to be even more morose than a movie where Superman's foster dad Pa Kent (Kevin Costner) tells a young Clark that it's okay to let a bus full of kids sink in a river as long as his powers are kept secret. In this retelling of Marvel's first superhero family, Josh Trank manages to suck out any sense of enjoyment anyone could derive from the titular heroes and delivers a movie more concerned with being "realistic" instead of being engaging, where almost all of the dialogue is made up of exposition and the comic book part of the story is just a nagging afterthought. It's a fucking insult to anyone who loves the idea of seeing superheroes on the big screen that should never even be given the time of day.
If there is a silver lining, it's that studios seem to have quickly learned from these mistakes and have vowed not repeat them, with DC promising that future DC Extended Universe (DCEU) entries will not be as depressing as BVS: Dawn of Justice and any hopes of a Fant4stic sequel have been shut down. Only time will tell if they really learned from this colossal fuck-up but it's good to know that they're trying to get back on track and regain fans' trust. There's nothing wrong with darker superhero stories as proven by the positive hype surrounding the gritty action movie Suicide Squad (2016) and the success the X-Men films enjoyed despite having some weak entries and strong themes of social racism but when the job of maturing heroes is left in the hands of asshats like Snyder who think sex and murder are what make a good superhero comic, only self-indulgent bullshit can be expected. It should say something when the fucking Justice League cartoon from back in the day is not only more grown-up in tone, but is also an infinitely better story than anything Snyder made with some of the same characters.
As simplistic as it sounds, superhero stories resonate with people because they have a message that speaks to them: one that says that anyone can win the day as long as they fight the good fight. Snyder's Superman and other immature takes on the words "realistic reimganinig" are the kind of stories that tell audiences that the only way to inspire anyone is to kill or be killed.