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Love dark superhero movies? Thank Batman.

Batman Begins.
Batman Begins.
Warner Bros.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Though they both center on a certain caped crusader, Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins (2005) and Joel Schumacher's Batman Forever (1995) couldn't be more different. One is regarded as a cinematic treasure; the other is viewed as beautiful, colorful garbage. One did wonders for Christian Bale's career; the other sunk Val Kilmer's. One set the table for the greatest superhero movie ever made, and the other spawned a sequel that essentially killed Batman.

One of the few things these two disparate films have in common, however, is what they did for superhero movies. Both changed the genre, the way Hollywood visualized comic book stories, and what we thought we knew about Batman. And while Batman Begins earned more critical acclaim, Batman Forever was just as influential in altering Batman lore.

This week, Begins turns 10 years old; last week, Forever turned 20. Looking back at these two movies on their birthdays undoubtedly reveals a lot about Batman and his cultural impact over time, but the films also reflect the evolution of our own desires, our own tastes, and, ultimately, what Batman means to us.

How Batman Forever spelled the temporary end of a dark Batman

Batman Forever was the strange, knee-jerk reaction to what's largely considered one of the better Batman stories ever told on screen, Tim Burton's Batman Returns (1992). Returns had a spooky, languid quality to it. The image of Penguin's (Danny DeVito) death scene is still burned into my brain, complete with its dripping black ooze, as is Christopher Walken's mannequin-esque villain Max Shreck. And Returns' greatest gift might have been Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman, an iteration of the character that set the bar for female supervillains in cinema.

But movie executives actually wrote off Burton's dark tale as a box office disappointment, despite its earnings of $160 million in domestic gross. The thinking was that the film's unnerving premise was a turnoff to viewers; according to Mark Reinhart's The Batman Filmography, Warner Bros. was convinced it needed to make Batman fun and audience-friendly again.

The "fun" began with a director shake-up prior to Batman Forever, with the studio trading Burton and his macabre grimness for Schumacher's shimmering razzle-dazzle. Schumacher was the cinematic version of Lisa Frank, completely obsessed with cramming every scene full of neon and sparkles; his villains — Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones) and the Riddler (Jim Carrey) were draped in pinks, oranges, and greens:

(Warner Bros.)

Forever's Riddler and Two-Face were clowns compared to Returns' Catwoman and Penguin. Any true menace they might have possessed was belied by their costumes, their vamp and camp. You never really understood the logic or motives behind their characters, nor did Schumacher help viewers understand what was driving Batman. Everyone seemed like a bit player in the director's fluorescent fever dream.

Though critics panned Forever (the movie ranks 41 percent rotten on Rotten Tomatoes), it made about $20 million more than Returns, giving executives proof that making Batman more "fun" was a profitable enterprise.

But Forever didn't exist in a vacuum. It begat Batman & Robin (1997), another Schumacher acid trip — and another critically planned flop. The movie was awash with searing color, an irascible taunt aimed directly at your eyes:

All told, Schumacher and Burton's respective Gothams felt like two different worlds. Burton's was probably more in line with Nolan's eventual vision, but even if Burton had stayed with the franchise, I don't think he would've ever gotten us anywhere near Nolan's works. Plus, it's possible that Nolan's films wouldn't have been made if Burton had continued traveling the route he was on.

Instead, the backlash to Schumacher's glittery approach to Batman might have been the best thing that could've happened to the character. Batman & Robin made less money than Forever and was also critically eviscerated. It was evidence that Forever had been a fluke, and it gave studio execs and fans alike a crystalline sense of what they didn't want Batman to be. But it would still be a few more years until someone — Nolan — would figure out what viewers wanted from Batman.

The spandex backlash and the transition back to grit and grimness

Whoa. Mystique got stabbed. (Fox)

The decline of kicky, flashy, superheroes in film begins toward the end of Bryan Singer's 2000 film X-Men. The titular mutants, having worked out their differences and accepted Logan as part of the team, are gearing up to catch Magneto. But before they jump into the fray, they're presented with uniforms — and Logan voices his displeasure.

"What would you prefer? Yellow spandex?" Cyclops (James Marsden) jokes.

It's an Easter egg poking fun at Fox's animated X-Men TV series and '90s comic books. Back then, X-Men came in all shapes, sizes, and colors; the team was as diverse as it could be. But the one thing its members had in common, aside from their mutanthood, was their bright blue-and-gold uniform.


The joke in Singer's X-Men was that the movie and its characters were too cool for the cheesiness that the bold, stretchy outfits conveyed. They were swapped for fitted black leather getups that were allegedly tougher-looking and hipper than capes and Technicolor.

Ultimately, people wanted "cool" heroes. A seething hate for Schumacher's Batman butchery might have been one reason for this, but then there was also 9/11 — the latter haunts comic books and superhero films to this day (the Columbine shootings had a similar effect on pop culture and art). Eventually, the economic collapse of 2008 would help further the idea of ordinary people dealing with real-life problems and needing real-life heroes who weren't birthed from a wish and a prayer.

Cool heroes are dark and anti-establishment, and they play by their own rules. Cool heroes would cuss if comic books would let them. Cool heroes might not kill people, but they aren't afraid to bloody their opponents. Cool heroes are dark and real — and the realer they are, the cooler they are.

Each superhero movie that followed X-Men was faced with the task of grounding itself in reality, lest it risk failure (see: 2011's Green Lantern, which crumbled under its own cheesy earnestness). Fifteen years later, we're still feeling the effects of this movement.

The color palettes of both movies and comic books began to change, bending toward darker, more muted tones. Uniforms were revamped. But perhaps the most fascinating move came from Marvel and DC Comics and their respective marketing arms, as both companies shifted their heroes and movies around to fit this new model. That's why Wolverine became more of a celebrity than Cyclops or Storm, why Iron Man is seen as the life of the Avengers and a counter to Captain America's stiffness, and, of course, why Nolan's Batman became the cornerstone of DC and Warner Bros.' canon.

Nolan didn't reinvent the wheel with Batman Begins — he simply helped Batman return to his roots

Batman Begins

Batman Begins. (Warner Bros.)

What makes Nolan's work so good is that a lot of it alludes to some of the most compelling Batman comics. Batman Begins borrowed from stories like The Man Who Falls (1989) and Batman: Year One (1987)comic book arcs that came after Frank Miller's iconic The Dark Knight Returns, which itself came after Miller's noir run on Marvel's Daredevil comic. Alan Moore's nihilistic tales The Killing Joke and Watchmen were also published in that same window of time.

The common themes among those comics are a lack of dazzling superpowers, a pervading sense of realism and consequence, and a pessimistic, even fatalistic feel. Their superheroes were "good," but that goodness didn't come naturally. Comic books with hard edges and noir themes thrived in the late '80s, which ultimately helped launch the current trend of hyper-realist of superhero movies. And though Batman Begins might have felt like a reinvention of Batman when it was first released, especially in the context of the rainbow orgy that was Batman Forever, Begins merely returned the character to his roots.

Nolan traded flash for shadows and glitz for gloom and doom. He transformed bright sunlight into a rare commodity. And in doing so, he crafted a fearsome world where Batman and, more importantly, Batman's villains, could conceivably live. There wasn't anything fantastic or super about Nolan's Gotham, and that's what made it so compelling.

Batman Begins was terrific, but not all superheroes have to be dark

Batman Begins' greatest achievement is the way it sets the table for The Dark Knight — a superhero movie that's so good it's impossible to replicate. Of course, that hasn't stopped others from trying, biting off the most obvious pieces of Nolan's deft style and incorporating them into their own films.

For example, when you watch the grayed-out bummer that is 2013's Man of Steel, you can almost hear the producers asking themselves, "What would Nolan do?"

In the years since Batman Begins and its sequels were released, Nolan has become so iconic that every "dark" superhero movie that comes out, and even individual scenes that count darkness among their characteristics, are seen as references to his work. For instance, if you look at reviews of Netflix's new Daredevil TV series, Nolan is seemingly name-checked just as frequently as the director and the other creative minds behind the show.

It makes me wonder when, if ever, Hollywood will finally break away from the dark and gritty superhero. Too many brooding stories can get exhausting, and I miss the awe and hope that superheroes used to have.

But a few recent glimmers suggest we're ready for a change.

There were hints in 2014's X-Men: Days of Future Past that it wanted to break the mold by leaning into its '70s setting. That same year, Guardians of the Galaxy brought a newfound lightness to what could've been a depressing tale about a space orphan. This year's Avengers: Age of Ultron gave us our first pink-skinned hero (and caped too), Vision, in a while. And in the television sphere, I'm constantly in awe of how much fun The Flash is having.

Therein lies what is perhaps Batman Begins' second-greatest achievement: challenging creators, writers, and directors to push against it, by setting out to make a joyful superhero film that's every bit as good as Nolan's dark works.

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