When one reviews the immense and growing pantheon of superhero movies, there’s a single question that can separate the good (because, let’s face it, all superhero movies are at least a little bit good) from the great: Does the director take the premise seriously? If he does, then the movie has a chance to be great. If he doesn’t—if he subtly or not-so-subtly makes it clear that we’re on the cinematic equivalent of an amusement park ride—then he’s capped out at good. He’s made movie cotton candy, something that tastes just fine but has no lasting substance.
For some time we’ve placed superhero movies and television shows in a different mental category from high fantasy. At first glance stories of elves, dwarves, and magic rings are no less ludicrous than stories of alien superbeings or Greek gods, but when you take a premise seriously, build a world with rigor, and connect the story with human experience, you have a chance to make something transcendent.
Lord of the Rings achieved transcendence. At its peak, Game of Thrones was arguably the best show on television, ice zombies and all. But how many superhero movies have reached those heights? How many have even tried?
The short answer is that Christopher Nolan achieved it. His Batman trilogy is so good that it’s almost not even perceived as a superhero series. They’re just great movies. Full stop. The longer answer is that Zack Snyder tried, and while he didn’t reach Nolan’s heights, he created something truly distinct—a universe that took its premise seriously and explored the world that superheroes would create.