Imagine being a nerdy film student in the late 2000s when Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was released, and you might get a taste of what it was like to be Black Panther director Ryan Coogler at the University of Southern California. After Nolan’s masterpiece shattered our expectations of what a superhero movie could be, Coogler spent a lot of time analyzing the film with fellow film student Michael Shawver, who went on to be the editor on all of Coogler’s features, including Creed and Black Panther.
In an interview, Shawver tells Inverse about his experiences working with Ryan Coogler over the years, especially on Black Panther which received seven Academy Awards nominations. Even then, it turns out The Dark Knight was still a regular topic of discussion, and an influence on the Marvel movie.
“The last time we really talked about a Batman movie was before Panther,” Shawver says. “I think the last time the last couple times I asked him what he would do with his version of Batman, his answer was, ‘I don’t know if I want to take on that canon’ or even ‘I don’t think I can do a superhero movie.’”
Did Coogler channel all of that creative energy into making Black Panther instead of a Batman movie?
“The only time we ever talked about Batman on Black Panther was talking about the differences in the characters,” Shawver said. “Mainly, why is Batman appealing to people? Because they do kind of get compared sometimes.”
He’s got a point. Both superheroes assume animal-based personas with dark costumes and wield high-tech gadgets that they purchase with their incredible wealth — though Bruce Wayne probably has more in common with Marvel’s resident billionaire playboy superhero Tony Stark. Still, it’s interesting to think that Coogler had the Dark Knight in mind when he created Black Panther.
Here’s what Shawver had to say when we asked about his and Coogler’s shared love for The Dark Knight, starting with which Batman story they’d want to turn into a movie, given the chance.
“It’s mostly been like, what Batman story would you tell? Would it be Year One? Something like The Dark Knight Returns? What kind of story would fit our times right now? Who would you cast? What’s the best Batman villain that we haven’t seen before?
“I was reading the New 52 a couple years ago when they kind of rebooted Batman a little bit and they did like the Court of Owls storyline. I thought that was an awesome story because it’s about an elite society that is controlling things throughout the history of Gotham.”
Shawver and Coogler also obsessed over the Nolan movie when it first debuted, and even honed their favorite fan theories about the Joker’s mysterious origins.
“We were obsessed with The Dark Knight. That came out our first year of film school. We’ve always been obsessed and talked a lot about that great fan theory that might actually be true about how Heath Ledger’s Joker was war veteran who felt like he was screwed over by by the government. That’s how he got the scars and why he talks about a caravan of soldiers getting blown up and nobody cares.
“That’s why his strategy is so great — it’s his military mind. That’s why he knows how to use firearms, how he’s able to use a rocket launcher hanging out the side of the truck.
“In that way, we learned about how you can ingrain certain stories and histories into characters to make them feel real without actually ever explaining anything outright.”
But their love for Batman didn’t stop with the movies. It turns out Coogler was also hooked on the popular Arkham video games from Rocksteady studios.
“Then, of course, there’s also me every couple weeks telling Ryan he has to play the Arkham games because they’re friggin’ incredible. But he’s like, ‘I can’t do it. I know myself and I’ll just play it non-stop, and I need to work!’”
For most Batman people, an obsession with the Dark Knight never went much further than late night discussions and countless rewatching, but for Coogler and Shawver, it also laid the groundwork for a string of celebrated movies that show the many forms heroism can take.
“Discussions of who we are and our place in the world, find their way into the movie, whether specifically or unconsciously. One of the first things I ever learned when I started studying filmmaking was that movies reflect the world we live in, but they also help create it. That’s a pretty big responsibility to have as a filmmaker.
“As an editor, we’re the first audience and the gatekeepers for every other department. Most people don’t know what editors do. They just cut out the bad stuff, right? Whatever! Who cares?
“We are the first audience and when when you laugh, you cry, you walk out of a movie, feeling like you went through something that’s us. That’s what we do. We make you feel excited, happy, sad, all those things. Because if it weren’t for us, it would just be a series of images.”
The Dark Knight helped both Coogler and Shawver realize that lesson in film school, but we still can’t help but wonder what Ryan Coogler’s version of Batman might look like.
Black Panther is up for 7 Oscars, including Best Picture. The awards ceremony will be held February 24 at 8 p.m. Eastern.