chris kilby -> Has The Super-Hero Genre Come of Age? (8/8/2012 7:55:00 PM)
Is it even a genre? Things have certainly changed. Time was anything to do with comics (movies especially) were considered a joke, kids’ stuff.
The very first screen Batman (Lewis Wilson, the father of future Bond producer, Michael G Wilson, useless fact fans) was a cheaper than cheap cliffhanger serial complete with baggy tights. And the Zap! Pow! Camp! Adam West TV show in the 60s was beyond a joke – Holy Shit, Batman! And as for the dreaded Joel Schumacher…
But nowadays the finest actors and directors of their generation are queuing up to make ‘em. I’m talking the equivalent of Stanley Kubrick and Robert DeNiro. And yes, I think Nolan and Bale are that good. That smart. Even David Fincher (another Kubrick acolyte) came close to directing Spider-Man once.
So what’s changed? Doubtless there are those who will insist that Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy being hailed as an artistic triumph if not a masterpiece in some quarters just proves how “dumbed down” our culture has become. But I’d say it’s the exact opposite. That the culture has finally wised-up to the fact that comics (and super-heroes) aren’t ‘just’ kids’ stuff any more - not that there’s anything wrong with kid’s stuff! And that has got to be down to the long-term influence of Alan Moore and, especially, Frank Miller. While Tim Burton’s Batman paid lip service to the superficial trappings of Miller’s seminal The Dark Knight Returns, in retrospect, it still owed more to the 60s TV show right down to a scene-stealing turn from a slumming movie star camping it up outrageously.
But the fact Burton’s film was inspired by Miller’s work at all, however superficially, shows just how influential The Dark Knight Returns was a mere three years after it was published. And for all its flaws, Burton’s Batman led to something of a comic book movie renaissance. Eventually. No Batman (1989) no X-Men (2000) – the Ground Zero of the current super-hero movie boom. So much so that rather being just another short-lived cinematic fad, the super-hero movie is showing remarkablesigns of becoming a genre in its own right, complete with as many subgenres as the western: Fun (Superman, Spider-Man, Iron Man, The Avengers); Dark (The Dark Knight Trilogy); Goth (Batman Returns, Hellboy); Camp (Batman (1966), Batman Forever); Emo (The Amazing Spider-Man); and Shit (Batman & Robin). There have even been spoofs (Super; Buckaroo Banzai; Mystery Men - which spoofed the X-Men before there was an X-Men movie!)
Which is kinda surprising. Cos for all the variations of style and tone (from Superman: The Movie to The Dark Knight – the bookends of the genre) super-hero movies tend to be a bit samey. Or rather the origin stories tend to be – traumatic childhood, inciting incident/freak accident, acquiring the costume/wonderful toys, the first-night-on-patrol montage, the final confrontation with the supervillain, to be continued… Sound familiar? Which is why super-sequels (X-Men 2, Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight) tend to be better once all that origin gubbins is out of the way, although there are exceptions (Superman II, Iron Man 2 – not necessarily bad films, just not as good as the originals. Well, Superman II, certainly.)
But if Frank Miller’s influence on Tim Burton’s Batman was superficial (like so much of Burton’s style-over-substance filmography), his influence on Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy has been immeasurable. For if Batman Begins (and to a lesser extent, The Dark Knight) was Batman: Year One, then The Dark Knight Rises is The Dark Knight Returns in all but (almost identical) name.
Frank Miller’s influence on the current comic book movie boom has been enormous. Not just The Dark Knight but Daredevil and X-Men/Wolverine to Sin City and 300. Alan Moore’s too, although his influence has been subtler and less direct. While direct adaptations of Moore’s work have rarely been as good as the (overrated?) originals – suggesting that Nolan’s less direct approach to comic book adaptation is the best option – he too has been incredibly influential - Marvel/Miracleman’s undeniable influence on The Matrix, for instance. And (as EMPIRE recently pointed out) The Incredibles is a better Watchmen movie than Watchmen was! (It’s the best Fantastic Four movie too – they just switched their powers around.)
Zack Snyder’s Watchmen was OK if a bit too stiff and reverential. As if fawning adoration for Holy Scripture (and fear of its frankly rabid fans) literally petrified both film and filmmaker. But it was probably the best direct adaptation of that comic which could have been made and certainly better than a lot of ungrateful, impossible-to-please fans deserved. (The Lord of the Rings was another one. A “travesty,” apparently. Go figure.)
I would have loved to have seen the Paul Greengrass version, though. It was to have been set in an alternate present extrapolated from Moore’s 1985! And it came so close to getting made too – sets were built and actors cast. (Jude Law, Hilary Swank and Paddy Considine as Rorschach!) Even if Watchmen is still basically unfilmable. The whole point of Watchmen is it’s supposed to be a comic. It is a super-hero comic about super-hero comics. As Moore will never tire of saying, turning Watchmen into a movie rather missed the point. But then watching the finished film, which I enjoyed incidentally, I still can’t help feeling that, slavishly faithful though it was (HERESY ALERT! - the much better ending notwithstanding), that Snyder just didn’t get Watchmen. Rorschach should have been grating and monotonal not a snarling, Clint Eastwood toughguy. He was meant to be pathetic not “cool.” Completely missing the point about sad sack Rorschach was, notoriously, one of the biggest problems Moore had with his own fans at the time, contributing to his eventual withdrawal from fandom - and who could honestly blame him?
But another, even more fundamental (fandamental?) problem with Watchmen as a film, indeed with a lot of screen adaptations of Alan Moore’s work, is that it does rather cruelly expose just how silly (and overrated?) Watchmen was in the first place in a “You can type (and draw) this shit but you can’t say it,” sort of way. Watchmen stood out cos, then as now, 99% of super-hero comics were crap - Sturgeon's Law still applies! But what might seem “realistic” in a comic appears less so on the big screen. It’s one thing having a bunch of superannuated super-heroes confined within the frames of a comic book where they belong. But it’s something else entirely putting them on the big screen where (if it was done “properly”) it would just be a bunch of fat, middle-aged actors in tights. Like Adam West! (Or an anarchist terrorist in a Guy Fawkes mask for that matter – like that would ever happen. Er…)
Putting Watchmen on screen was akin to Toto pulling back the curtain to reveal The Wizard of Oz is just a cantankerous old bloke in an Old Testament beard who believes his own hype. I think no-one is more painfully aware of this than Moore himself and it’s part of the reason he is so bitterly opposed to the idea of film adaptations of his work. (He’s changed his tune, BTW. He was as excited as Dave Gibbons was at the prospect of a Joel Silver-produced, Terry Gilliam adaptation of Watchmen possibly starring Schwarzenegger as Dr Manhattan back in the early 90s. True.)
Frank Miller’s work has proved more adaptable to the screen. I think The Dark Knight transfers better to the big screen cos, from Daredevil to Sin City, Miller has always owed more to the inherently cinematic hard-boiled noir tradition than Moore’s super-hero comic tradition. Super-heroes have always proved a tricky proposition to adapt – great fun as The Avengers is, there’s simply no escaping the fact that Captain America’s costume looks silly. You only have to look at the pained expression worthy of Harrison Ford on Chris Evans’ face throughout!
Ultimately that is why Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy has proved so successful, artistically and commercially. They are hardly super-hero films at all. The Dark Knight especially, which is just Heat with Pacino and DeNiro incongruously dressed as a bat and a clown! You could actually argue that for all their supposed “realism” (and Alan Moore himself has pointed out that “realistic super-heroes” is the biggest oxymoron there is - and he should know) that this makes The Dark Knight Trilogy very silly indeed when you think about it. I always wondered when someone would finally say: “Hang on a minute. You’re Bruce Wayne in a gimp suit putting on a silly voice.” (I think Richard Donner got it about right almost 35 years ago when he spoke of Superman: The Movie’s “verisimilitude.”)
Much as I love Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy (which along with Richard Donner’s Superman are the greatest super-hero films of all, representing both ends of the super-hero spectrum – the dark and the colourful) I think I’m beginning to tire of all the angst-ridden, black-clad super-heroes bequeathed by Miller and Moore. And I suspect audiences just might agree with me. Which is why it’ll be interesting to see how The Dark Knight Rises ultimately fares against The Avengers at the global box office. While I’m sure it will be huge, I doubt it will be that huge. The Dark Knight caught a bleak, post-9/11, post-Credit Crunch wave four years ago. But I think that wave and The Dark Knight’s moment have passed and he will never be quite that big again. Think The Matrix and its sequels.
I thought at the time The Dark Knight marked something of a turning point (I still can’t believe that a film so relentlessly bleak - the hero fails and the girl dies! - was so phenomenally successful) and the subsequent Watchmen was something of a full stop on the whole “realistic” super-hero genre. These knights couldn’t get any darker, surely. It’s always darkest before the dawn. The only way is up, up and away…?
This was only confirmed for me when Watchmen’s snot-nosed, punk kid brother, Kick-Ass, burst onto the screen like an obnoxious teenager pissed-up on cheap cider not long after. Sure, it might have underperformed (so did Watchmen) but it was a loud, brash, less po-faced sign of things to come. This has already reached it four-coloured apotheosis with the fun (and funny) Avengers, the unparalleled success of which I think The Dark Knight Rises will struggle to match. Batman may have won the box office battle of 2008, but it looks like Iron Man’s going to win the war.
And no wonder. Comics themselves have changed too. After more than 20 years, the dark influence of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns is finally starting to wane. Super-hero comics are fun again – thanks in no small measure to another Miller – Mark. (The new Alan Moore? Like his ego needs any more inflating!) It’s only natural that super-hero movies should follow suit and embrace the silly. Or is that “follow cape…”?
So it’ll be interesting to see how Christopher Nolan (as producer) tackles The Man of Steel next year. He has already stated that he wants to make Superman “real” the same as his Batman. But this doesn’t necessarily mean “dark” – look how well that worked out for Superman Returns which couldn’t have got The Last Son of Krypton more wrong, portraying him as a mopey, lovesick teenager creepily abusing his powers to spy on his ex like some flying super-stalker. Bryan Singer is a great director when it comes to dour ensembles like X-Men and The Usual Suspects, but he was the wrong man for that particular job. [SACRILEGE ALERT!] Superman Returns and X-Men 3 would both have been vastly improved had they swapped directors, I think!
Where Batman lurks in the shadows, Superman should soar through the clouds – they really are night and day. Which is why it is reassuring when Nolan talks about getting the essence of these characters right. I think The Man of Steel is in safe hands. If Zack Snyder can resist overdoing the slo-mo for once, that is - he's supposed to be faster than a speeding bullet!
And something else has changed. The most “revolutionary” thing about Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy is it has completed a process which began with Star Wars 35 years ago. While The Theatrical Knight, Alec Guinness, was clearly miffed (if well-reimbursed) that Obi-Wan Kenobi ended up overshadowing the rest of his distinguished acting career, he made it acceptable for ac-tors of the calibre of his fellow Shakespeareans Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen to appear in films like this.
To the point that Batman is now played by an Oscar winner and helmed by a director who has rightly been compared with Kubrick. We’ve come a long way from Adam West. It only took about 50 years. And just 25 years to catch up with Miller and Moore. Sir Alec might have thought he was slumming it, but Christian, Patrick and Ian (and Michael, Robert, Mark and Andrew) clearly don’t. Like a reformed vigilante, super-hero movies are respectable now. Being a geek, generally, is more socially acceptable now. I remember when openly discussing this stuff in public with “normal” people was like talking about pornography. Now with high-profile geeks from Tarantino to Whedon, Pegg to Tennant (with girlfriends and everything – I went to school with Pegg’s missus!) geek is now chic. The geek really has inherited the earth!