Obviously, Christopher Nolan's third Bat-film, if it actually happens, stands a pretty great chance of being up there with his second. But since there's officially no word on that project right now, here are the superhero films that are actually in the pipeline:
The movie: The Spirit, Frank Miller's adaptation of Will Eisner's classic comic, coming this Xmas.
Why it could be Knight-ed: It's another off-kilter look at an old-school superhero. And the focus is very much on the dark, dystopian city. (Hence the ad campaign, "My City Screams!" Aaaa!) Frank Miller pretty much invented the Christian Bale/Chris Nolan version of Batman, with The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One. and now he's finally getting to make his own superhero movie.
Why it could fall short: The trailers look campy as hell. The Spirit is not really your "dark knight" kind of hero, and he lends himself more to a certain amount of goofiness. Instead of Heath Ledger's unnerving Joker, the Spirit will give us Samuel L. Jackson in eyeliner and a fur coat, chewing the scenery like never before.
The movie: Watchmen, directed by Zack Snyder based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.
Why it could be Knighted: It's another dark, twisted look at superheroes where the good guys are less than pure. In fact, there's a lot of ethical tangles that could remind people of Bruce Wayne's mass wiretapping in Dark Knight. The psychopathic vigilante Rorschach could be a bit like Heath Ledger's Joker. Nite Owl is like a Batman who can't get it up, according to director Zack Snyder. It'll be visually arresting, judging from the footage I've seen.
Why it could fail:Watchmen is trying really hard to capture the original graphic novel, keeping the 1985 setting and the Cold War themes. So it's more like an alternate historical epic. It's also more of a geek wet dream and less of a mainstream look at crime and retribution in a precarious society. Nothing in the movie will be that shocking or startling, because anyone who cares already knows what happens. I imagine most people's experience of watching Watchmen as being more like ticking stuff from the graphic novel off a mental checklist. One of the great things about Knight was that, even with all the spoilers I'd read, I still had no clue where the sequence with two boats and two detonators was going.
The movie: Wolverine.
Why it could be Knight-ed: It's another dark superhero-ish story that has connections to real-life issues like the War On Terror, thanks to a storyline about young Wolverine joining the military. Plus it includes creepy experiments and stuff, and Wolverine has to face Sabretooth, who's like his dark reflection. And it sounds as though Wolverine's girlfriend probably dies toward the end, if they're following the comics.
Why it could fall short: It's going to be as dumb as X-Men 3. We're already hearing whispers that Fox, the studio that messed up I, Robot, X-Men 3 and so many other movies, has been meddling with Wolverine as well, trying to make it less dark. Plus any actual character development or story has to make room for 1,000 cameos of X-favorites.
The movie: Green Hornet, directed by Stephen Chow and starring Chow and Seth Rogen.
Why it could be Knight-ed: Well, it's another movie that deconstructs the superhero mythos, using a hero who's sort of like Batman: a rich guy who fights crime in a mask. It'll feature a superhero (the Hornet) who's less famous than his sidekick (Kato, played by Bruce Lee in the 1960s).
Why it could fall short: Well, it's a comedy, so it probably won't be that dark. Rogen's co-writing the script, which means it could have some self-conscious superhero humor but it could also be a bit painful.
The movie: Green Lantern
Why it could be Knight-ed: Every DC Comics movie from now on is going to try and be like The Dark Knight. This one sounds like it'll be home run, in any case: a test pilot, struggling with his pain over the death of his father, gets a magic ring from space and gets thrust head-first into the battle against a superbeing named Legion, who's already killed several ring-wearers.
Why it could fall short: It's Green Lantern. It's supposed to be about the wish fulfillment of getting a ring that can do anything, wearing bright green spandex without looking like a doofus, and becoming the galaxy's greatest hero. And co-writer Marc Guggenheim already said it won't be a "dark" superhero movie.
The movies: A whole slate of Marvel comics vehicles, including Captain America, Iron Man II and The Avengers.
Why they could be Knight-ed: With Iron Man, Marvel proved it could make its second-tier characters fun and relatable, by giving them conflicts that connected them to the real world, like Tony Stark's weapons being used by the bad guys in Afghanistan.
Why it could fall short: None of these characters is really that dark, nihilistic or urban. If Marvel tries to make Captain America or the Avengers too much like Dark Knight, they'll just end up with a mess. Want a Marvel version of TDK? Make a new Daredevil movie. He's the other urban vigilante character that Frank Miller revitalized in the 1980s, and his best storylines are very Nolan-esque.
The movie: Superman: The Man Of Steel
Why it could be Knight-ed: See above, with Green Lantern. Warners wants all the DC Comics projects to be like its biggest hit. Warners execs have already suggested the next Super-film will be as dark as the character can get.
Why it could fall short: Come on, it's Superman. He wears bright colors because he's the most optimistic superhero. And the last Superman film, Superman Returns, was underwhelming in large measure because it was kinda dark.
The movie: Kick-Ass, based on the comic by Mark "Wanted" Millar
Why it could be Knight-ed: Wanted brought a kinetic, trippy action movie sensibility to the story of a super-assassin. More importantly, it was crammed with morally gray, self-centered characters and had a stark will-to-power sort of message. Kick-Ass, the saga of a wannabe superhero and a little girl who goes around hacking people to bits, looks like it'll be even more violent and nihilistic.
Why it could fall short: It's gritty, violent and amoral — but will it actually make you think, after you're done watching people get splattered? I'm not convinced there's a point to Kick-Ass, any more than there was to Wanted. (Other than, "People suck, and it's cool to be the baddest.")
The movie: Super-Max, aka Green Arrow
Why it could be Knight-ed: The pet project of David S. Goyer, who cowrote the two Nolan Bat-films. This is the story of a superhero, Green Arrow, who gets accused of a crime he didn't commit. And he gets locked into a super-prison that's chock full of supervillains who want him dead. He doesn't have his gear, and he has no special abilities without it. And he has to break out of this high-tech super-prison, teaming up with criminals along the way.
Why it could fall short: It could fail to get made for some reason. They could cast Hayden Christensen as Green Arrow. There could be an invasion of space monkeys that enslave us and force us to pick their nits.
Ding ding ding! I think we have a winner. If you're judging upcoming superhero films by the Dark Knight yardstick, the most promising of the bunch (apart from the hypothetical third Bat-Nolan outing) is Super-Max.