How 2008 Set the Standard for Superhero Cinema


In 2008, two superhero films made the world sit up and pay attention. One went for awards and box office glory by moulding itself on a gritty crime film whilst the other set a formula for the biggest movie franchise ever to follow. What did the two films do so effectively?

When I was 10 years old I was introduced to Tony Stark, the billionaire playboy philanthropist whose alter ego is none other than Iron Man. I had watched Jon Favreau’s 2008 film Iron Man, starring Robert Downey Junior, and I still feel the personal impact that the movie engraved into me to this day. As a kid, I loved everything about Iron Man, from his ‘cool’ attitude to every new suit he created. The film itself simply felt good to watch and, as with many others, it made me crave more of it.

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Effortlessly cool. Marvel Studios

We were lucky then, when Iron Man spawned the Marvel Cinematic Universe: a series of movies all about superheroes, and just how great they could be. The film laid such a strong foundation; so strong that one could even put Thor: The Dark World onto it, and it would remain standing. Iron Man set the standard for what a liv- action superhero movie could be. In fact, according to Disney’s revenue from the MCU alone, which is a whopping $25 billion, it’s what a live-action superhero movie should be. I say this because it also constructed the light-hearted formula that would be used to create every other MCU addition. Iron Man is cinema’s earliest ‘theme park’ movie, according to Martin Scorsese.

I watched The Dark Knight when I was 15, and it felt like I had been tipped upside down, slapped in the face and laughed at. I had been reminded that superhero movies could be dark, menacing and downright cruel at times. Admittedly I should’ve suspected something, as there was a distinct lack of the protagonist making witty comments from the offset. I knew that this was not your average superhero flick.

Watching The Dark Knight midway through the MCU’s success gave me an interesting point of view. I truly did go in expecting a film that, whilst perhaps not as light-hearted, would remain true to the aforementioned formula, in some capacity. Delightfully, I was wrong and Christopher Nolan’s seminal piece on breaking down a superhero, is a joy to watch. In the movie, Batman, played by Christian Bale, is constantly pushed closer and closer to a breaking point by one of the most compelling villains of all time: Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning Joker. Every time you expect Batman to triumph, as he would in any other superhero movie, he is cleverly outwitted by his clown-faced nemesis.

The Dark Knight (2008) - Photo Gallery - IMDb

Warner Bros Pictures / Syncopy

Perhaps what The Dark Knight does best is pushing the genre to its absolute extremes, and in doing so it deftly tests the limits of what these movies can be. It is interesting then, that Iron Man brought the genre to life in spectacular fashion only 2 months before. Without the summer of 2008, the current cinematic climate would look very, very different.


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