What makes a movie profitable? Why is it that, for thousands of years, humankind had the same appreciation for fiction that we have today -- even when they didn't have CGI?
I remember way back in the olden days when Joseph Gordon-Levitt was rumored to be cast in the Dark Knight Rises. Speculation immediately followed as to which character from the Batman mythos he would be playing. Would he be playing someone from Tales of the New Batman Special Edition #4, or Tales of the Dark Knight Tales? No one really thought of the possibility that, as a big-name actor, Gordon-Levitt would play a no-name character that nobody had ever heard of. Or, to be more precise, no one wanted Gordon-Levitt to be a nobody: he had to have a funny costume. However, massive disappointment swept as it was announced that Gordon-Levitt wouldn’t be playing anyone from the comics after all.
Riots on the streets, major public discontent, strongly worded letters to the editor; none of that happened, but people, nonetheless were quite let down by that bit of sad news. They were even more let down when they learned that the villain in the film would be Bane, a character from the 80’s not nearly as emblematic as The Riddler or The Penguin.
Well, it’s two years later and no one is complaining now. The film is awesome, and no one was even thinking about The Riddler or The Penguin as they watched "Che Gue Bane" laid down the law (quite literally) in Gotham, after fiercely kicking on those dark Batman buttocks. And no one was thinking about Mr. Ghost Picle from New Tales of Batman the Dark Tales #72 as they watched Gordon-Levitt..
This circuitous path I took, is to arrive at the conclusion that all the bells-and-whistles and fan-service and canon are all well and good. But, if that's the case, then why didn’t Green Lantern make the big bucks? Why didn’t Daredevil?
It’s because spectacle will only take you so far. Images alone may stimulate certain parts of our brains that release the appropriate chemicals to convince you that the ticket was worth it; but without context, images are just flickering lights pounding at your eyes. If those flickery lights don’t connect in a way that stimulates production of the chemicals that will urge you to buy the ticket, and tell people how awesome it was afterwards, the chemicals that convince you the ticket was worth the price may not even get a chance to do their magic.
Star Wars may have been the first big special effects blockbuster, but what made it memorable, what made it an infinite source of money with which George Lucas can buy all the sweet rolls in existence, is the actual drama taking place between the characters – and the characters themselves, who are well-crafted and identifiable and make us relate to them.
What I’m getting at is this: Good drama is a good product. Special effects are just the seasoning.
It must be said that some movies do get to make a lot of money without delivering on the sweet roll. Transformers, for instance, or, say, Star Wars Episode I, but remember, they always have something else on their side. Franchise is usually the responsible element for their success, but, in the case of Transformers or Star Wars, they also benefit from a healthy dose of nostalgia. Batman, on the other hand, has the franchise, but it didn’t help much in 1997 with Batman & Robin, and who is nostalgic about Batman?
With The Dark Knight Rises, they didn’t have that nostalgia crutch to lean on, so they did the smartest thing they could: hired one of the most talented directors available. Oh, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.