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Killer Croc and the end of the Christopher Nolan era

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DC Comics

Killer Croc. Killer Croc! Yesterday, The Wrap’s Jeff Sneider wrote the words “Killer Croc” in a headline, claiming that Lost star (and Thor 2 Thankless-Role Henchman) Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje would play the giant human crocodile in next year’s villain-mash superteam movie Suicide Squad.

Warner Bros. had no official comment on whether the character will appear in the film. (ASIDE: Warner clearly wants Suicide Squad to be what Future Past was for SDCC 2013, and what Avengers was for SDCC 2010. Pause to imagine the onstage group picture of beloved movie star Will Smith, beloved TV star Viola Davis, 30 Seconds From Mars frontman Academy Award Winner Jared Leto, buzzy next-big-thing Margot Robbie, John Green dream girl Cara Delevingne, alleged human Jai Courtney, and bald Jesse Eisenberg. END OF ASIDE.)

But let’s just acknowledge, for a moment, that we have reached the point in the history of superhero movies when Killer Croc’s presence in a film is highly likely and feasibly sourceable. Suicide Squad will star Joker’s crazy girlfriend. Batman v Superman will definitely feature Aquaman, will probably feature Robin, and might feature a cyborg named Cyborg. Killer Croc is a large man who looks like a crocodile, because of evolution or something. He is either an example of everything wonderful about comics or everything terrible about comics; his name is Killer Croc. And his potential bigscreen introduction implies that we are approaching the end of one era, and the start of something new.

When Christopher Nolan became the prime steersman of the Dark Knight ten years ago, he explicitly set the character in a world defined by realism. “Realism” is a hazy word when it applies to superheroes, but you know it when you look at any Batman movies Christopher Nolan directed versus any Batman movies he didn’t direct. Realism means characters who aren’t supernatural or space-age science-fictional; realism means the Joker kills people with bombs and pencils instead of laughing gas; realism means Bane doesn’t have superstrength juice and Ra’s-al-Ghul isn’t actually immortal.

Nolan drew much of the foundational aesthetic for his Dark Knight trilogy from the work of Frank Miller. This is barely noteworthy now, because pretty much every superhero movie made in the last ten years by anyone besides Marvel Studios looks and feels like Frank Miller. At the time, though, if you were any kind of comic book fan, it was like seeing all your dreams made manifest onscreen. The tank batmobile, the mournful tough-guy soliloquizing, the notion of Gotham as a city constructed entirely from steam pipes and back alleys: This all comes from The Dark Knight Returns. Certain origin-story elements come straight out of Miller’s Year One, his less fantastical and vastly better Batman story.

There’s nothing “realistic” about Illuminati ninjas weaponizing the sewer system into fear-fog. But Nolan’s biases shined through. He didn’t want Mr. Freezedidn’t want the Riddler; it’s impossible to imagine the words “Killer Croc” were ever even mentioned in his presence. Which is fine: Batman Begins is great, and The Dark Knight is greater. And everyone who digs superheroes goes through a Frank Miler phase. Hell, Miller himself went through a few different Miller phases. His early Daredevil work is a light-on-its-feet kung-fu noir-romance; his sequel to Dark Knight Returns features Batman punching Superman with kryptonite boxing gloves. Still, it was possible to feel an overwhelming conventional wisdom that Batman Is Better When He’s “Realistic.”

This isn’t true, has never been true, and wasn’t even true in the last decade. While Nolan sent Batman down a gritty-realistic hole in the ground, Grant Morrison sent Batman on a time-travel death-resurrection trip. The recent “Zero Year” arc by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo reimagined Batman’s origin story as a full-blown sci-fi action-adventure, complete with a post-apocalyptic Gotham and a magic weaponized bone toxin that makes your bones grow in weird un-bone-like ways. (“Zero Year” is, among other things, one of the great Riddler story arcs.)

The tide has been turning slowly, gradually, over the last few years. There’s an ongoing comic called Batman ’66 which tells new stories from the high-camp Adam West Batman-verse; West himself will be voicing the character in some kind of animated movie. He’ll have to compete with the Lego Batman movie, which will give the Will Arnett-voiced blockhead caped crusader his own movie. (The Lego Batman is, pretty clearly, a specific parody of the Christopher Nolan Batman; the Lego Batman Song is a great bit of intra-corporate self-parody, right up there with anytime 30 Rock mentioned NBC.) The Arkham video game series has sold well and earned great reviews while grafting the Nolan grimdark aesthetic backwards onto the more unabashedly out-there elements of The Animated Series.

Conversely: Sad Batman. Without quite realizing it, the Frank Miller-ification of superhero cinema played equally well to a couple different demographics: studio executives who thought the Penguin sounded pretty lame, and non-comic book fans who thought the Penguin sounded pretty lame. Man of Steel was Frank Miller unbound, right down to the weird Catholicism and the neck-twists.

Batman v Superman might be more of the same. Some people will dig that. It’s possible that Suicide Squad‘s Killer Croc will be a Nolanized version of the character; a realistically strong criminal with a crocodile tattoo, say, or a former Special Forces soldier with burn scars that make him look reptilian. Maybe Suicide Squad won’t even feature anybody named Killer Croc, just a badass bad guy named Waylon “Croc” Jones. Notably, none of the other characters confirmed for Suicide Squad are talking-crocodile crazy—unless you count Delevingne’s Enchantress.

But it’s exciting, the idea that superhero movies are reaching the point where multiple styles can co-exist, where Frank Miller’s Batman and Grant Morrison’s Batman can both get their day in court. When “Killer Croc” is becoming something people say out loud, you have to marvel at what a seismic psychic effect Guardians of the Galaxy is having on the landscape. “I mean, Marvel did a talking tree,” you imagine a studio executive shrugging. “So sure, whatever, talking crocodile, fine.” Killer Croc!

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Counter-arguments? Email me at darren_franich@ew.com, and I’ll respond in next week’s edition of the Geekly mailbag.

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