Ten years on, and The Dark Knight is still the benchmark, the superhero movie directors are desperate to live up to or rebel against.
It changed the game back in 2008. Plagued by paranoia and ethical impasse, Christopher Nolan’s gloomy Batman sequel was lauded as the first ‘post-9/11’ blockbuster. For the first time in a long time, a super hero film was actually taking itself seriously. It won two Academy Awards and made a bona fide legend of the late Heath Ledger, whose depiction of the Joker was widely championed as one of the greatest villains in cinema history.
But above all, it ushered in a tsunami of big screen comic book adaptations that still shows no sign of rolling back. For that, it can never truly be forgiven. There have been 40-odd superhero movies released over the past decade, and that is obviously far, far too many superhero movies. Even Jonathan Nolan, brother of Christopher and co-writer of The Dark Knight, thinks that the "glut" should come to an end. "I certainly hope we get sick of comic book movies at some point," he told Digital Spy earlier this year. " I'm not terribly sure how well that genre will age. There's some weird subconscious stuff informing a bunch of actors dressing up in tights beating the crap out of people."
There's still such an appetite for comic book adaptations that even Ant-Man—Ant-Man!—got the treatment eventually. But the worst of it came in the summer of 2016, when the true victims of The Dark Knight’s inescapable legacy stepped up to bat.
We’re talking about Jared Leto and Ben Affleck.
Both actors were coming off the back of huge wins when they entered the DC cinematic universe. Affleck had earned plaudits for Gone Girl and Argo, while Leto recently bagged an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for his role as a transgender woman in 2014's Dallas Buyers Club.
Still, even in that kind of afterglow, it was ballsy of Leto to take on the Joker in David Ayer's Suicide Squad. It was widely seen as an impossible task, or at least a thankless one. Nobody disputed his ability, but how could he top Heath Ledger? The Australian actor’s Oscar-winning performance and untimely death had seemingly, charitably, put the Crown Prince to rest once and for all.
Most actors would shy away from such a challenge, but Leto–with the matchless confidence of a man who wears capes and ages backwards–had the perfect solution…
He got the word “Damaged” tattooed on his forehead.
And why not? As the old acting adage goes: show and tell. It was just one of many ™-able tatts scrawled over Leto’s body in the film’s pre-release promo shots, alongside a neon green dye job and some overzealous fillings.
If the new-look Joker already felt like the most exasperating villain in cinema history, then stories leaking out of production only confirmed it. Leto’s infamous method acting process led him to play endless pranks on his co-stars, like that guy you flat out refuse to share a room with on a beach getaway with the boys.
Suicide Squad got the trashing it deserved upon release—and while Leto was widely commended for trying really, really hard, it was still the contrived, cringe-worthy Joker everyone expected. Director David Ayer was clearly inspired by Ledger's performance, but could only muster a kooky, cackling caricature. It didn’t help that Leto's dialogue solely consisted of toothless threats and the kind of lines you'd usually find on office coffee mugs (“If you weren’t so crazy, I’d think you were insane!” etc, etc).
Ben Affleck’s portrayal of the Joker's arch-nemesis in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice didn’t fare much better amongst critics. Early promo shots—showing our hero sulking at the pavement, too-old-for-this-shit stubble sprouting out of his cowl—indicated that director Zac Snyder's reboot was sticking to the gritty path laid out by Christopher Nolan.
The film bombed, and The Dark Knight is mostly to blame for that. Not just because Dawn of Justice was terrible by comparison, but because Nolan clearly inspired its worst qualities. Bat-fleck’s world is a relentlessly grim, nihilistic and joyless one. The bloated storyline tries to pitch profound moral quandaries at every turn, like The Dark Knight, but the only shades of grey Snyder can provide are the relentlessly dour backdrops of neo-noir Gotham.
Like Suicide Squad and many franchises that drew influence from Christopher Nolan's masterpiece a decade ago, DoJ took the film at face value and confused darkness for deepness. Can big-screen Batman eventually escape the shadow of The Dark Knight? Not as long as directors keep paying tribute to it, that's for sure.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.