David Cronenberg, director of the loose graphic novel adaptation A History of Violence recently sounded off on his disapproval of the recent fanfare and critical acclaim for Christopher Nolan’s Batman film trilogy saying “I think it’s still Batman running around in a stupid cape, I just don’t think it’s elevated.” He went on further to say “A superhero movie, by definition, you know, it’s comic book. It’s for kids. It’s adolescent in its core. That has always been its appeal, and I think people who are saying, you know, ‘Dark Knight Rises is, you know, supreme cinema art,’ I don’t think they know what the f**k they’re talking about.”
Now Cronenberg may be addressing the film adaptations of superhero comics, but that doesn’t prevent his comments from outright criticizing the artistic depths of the comic book superhero in any medium. I don’t find this criticism entirely well-founded in terms of the nature of superheroes and comics, primarily because he seems to label anything with a superhero a “comic” and everything else a “graphic novel.” He explains “Obviously a graphic novel where you’re inventing characters that no one has ever seen before is quite different than doing another Batman movie, or a Green Hornet movie, or a Superman movie.” Despite the mincing of words, Cronenberg’s comments do work to reveal the general stagnancy of the modern superhero and the public’s entire misinterpretation of it.
Something odd has happened with the superhero genre in general. After years of association with children, action figures, and lunchbox covers, it is now common knowledge that the superhero can be successfully depicted in a mature setting. The dark and brooding superhero is no longer a new sight. Though arguments still persist, it has become increasingly easy to argue for the artistic merits of superheroes on the common internet discussion board. For this, we can thank Batman.
In 1986 Frank Miller published Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, and the man in the cowl has never been the same since. Miller introduced a much darker story to the already shadowy world of Batman that explored an older, brooding Bruce Wayne. From there, Batman was forever a darker character in future publications, following with similarly mature storylines and themes. Though popular iterations of Batman came and went over the years following, they were never given true, popular recognition until the advent of Chris Nolan’s Batman film trilogy. Just three years after Batman Begins was released to media controversy over its decision to tell a dark, mature story, its wildly successful sequel, Dark Knight, was nominated for 8 Oscars and caused internet uproar over its exclusion from the best picture competition. Mature superheroes had reached the world of film.
While the graphic novel industry looks back on the advent of darker superhero comics as a landmark in artistic achievement, I wonder where the superhero genre is headed in general. Superman, perhaps the most original and iconic superhero, once filled comic books with fantastical colors and images woven together with rather light-hearted tales of justice and triumph over evil. In a few months, some of those behind Nolan’s Batman trilogy will release the newest Superman film, Man of Steel, complete with gritty, shadowy imagery and a strikingly humanizing image of Superman in handcuffs.
Frank Miller started something extraordinary with Dark Knight Returns, but I fear that, finally culminating with Nolan’s trilogy, the popular perception of the superhero genre has become a derivative, one-dimensional practice.
Prior to Nolan’s films, there hadn’t been much in the way of a true, dark, gritty superhero film. Perhaps Sam Raimi’s Spiderman films helped pushed the bar, but they are undeniably playful at heart. In the comics though, the superheroes had been dark and gritty for years. Nolan’s trilogy isn’t really all that new for superheroes in general, just for those who don’t read the comics. But just because it’s dark doesn’t make it more profound. Though Chris Nolan’s film presents mature themes, it’s still just doing the superhero thing, just not in a way it’s been done on film. It should be recognized for that, but it just isn’t the revolutionary piece of art that so many internet cinephiles will argue on for days on end. The films are, in their own right, solid, well-crafted, and uncommonly thoughtful actions flicks, but I have to agree with Cronenberg here. Those clamoring for the Dark Knight’s revolutionary, artistic prowess? “I don’t think they know what the f**k they’re talking about.”