How did this happen?

A big part of it is crummy luck. The Dark Knight had the good fortune to follow a well-regarded sleeper hit in Begins and be opening at a moment in time when it was the unquestioned Big Dog of the superhero genre. The Spider-Man films had just come to a somewhat problematic end, the X-Men movies had become a joke, and the only other big entries in the genre that year were Iron Man (well liked, but no Batman) and The Incredible Hulk (largely seen as an apology for an earlier installment.) And, of course, it had the unquestioningly loyal fanboy set as its champion. Here was the prayer to exorcise the ghost of Joel Schumacher - and maybe also the horse that gets us to the Oscar finishing line.

But the fanboy set is nothing if not fickle. While Christopher Nolan's genre legitimizing gritty realism was giving them goose bumps back in '08, the intervening years have seen the rise (irony intended) of Marvel Studios' ambitious Avengers experiment, which - along with putting out a steady stream of good-to-excellent individual films - has been hitting every positive button there is to hit in terms of fan management. Marvel (now Disney, too) isn't stupid - they've been selling this stuff for a long time, long enough to know that fan candy like comic-accurate character designs and inter-film continuity threads pay big dividends when executed properly.

Simply put, I think it's fair to posit that Marvel/Disney has spent four years giving genre fans page-to-screen translations that actually worked, and as a result the Nolan Batman aesthetic - handily summarized as "bare-minimum-of-what-we-can-get-away-with-in-a-realistic-world" - now looks (somewhat unfairly) wanting in contrast. This is definitely the case with the pre-release hype. On the same movie blogs where fans are frantically cropping and contrast-correcting photos to try and find some evidence that Anne Hathaway's Catwoman might at some angle look remotely like Catwoman you'll find similar set photos depicting over-the-top brawls between Captain America, Thor, Iron Man and more versus Loki and who knows what else, altogether looking like a splash-page - or, more accurately, an Alex Ross print - come to life.

Christopher Nolan, in other words, may or may not end up making the superior film overall, but his vision of Batman simply isn't built to generate this type (or even level) of excitement in pre-release. In the upside-down world of marketing-via-publicity-still, "The God of Thunder and The First Avenger exchanging a 'brofist' in the middle of an urban war zone" handily trumps "Lady wearing goggles on a motorcycle."

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