Comics and Film: The Popularity of the Dark Superhero

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.250px-Dark_knight_returns

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.man of steel

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.”

  7 comments for “Comics and Film: The Popularity of the Dark Superhero

  1. anthonyseippel
    January 31, 2013 at 11:31 pm

    I’d have to disagree in a slightly off argument way with this. I don’t think the internet people are right to proclaim that this dark take on the Dark Detective is anything new but I don’t think it is fair to say they don’t know what they are talking about either. I think what is so revolutionary and mind blowing is the simple fact that Batman and his stories and villains and even himself have never been something that could be taken as lightly as it was in the beginning. I agree that comics have a connotation of being for kids and it is for that very reason that Batman in those days just doesn’t sit right with me. We are talking about a character who witnessed the murder of his parents and who, unable to cope with that loss, literally split his personality between two persona’s, Bruce Wayne and Batman, to as Lucious Fox put it in The Dark Knight, “beat criminals to a pulp with his bare hands”. This character is exceedingly disturbed. He exhibits several traits of numerous psychological disorders ranging from Dis-associative Identity Disorder, with his persona’s, to Post Dramatic Stress Disorder, with his handling of the loss of his parents, to pure Insanity, described as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results with every time he locks up the Joker in Arkham just to have him break out and kill again, among many others. And on that note, the Joker himself should have been enough to pull this series from the comic stands low enough for kids to reach. Every time he is in a comic he kills someone. Nearly every frame he is in he is doing something horrible and monstrous. And he is just one of the many twisted villains Batman faces. So this notion that the Nolan trilogy is revolutionary is true in the sense that Batman has finally been given the perspective deserving of what he is, and that is one that is not kid friendly. Never has been, never will be, and THAT is what the trilogy has realized, and THAT is why it is so highly praised.

    On a side note, Superman’s back-story isn’t any brighter, his entire race was killed with the destruction of his planet. Talk about your PTSD. And he honors his fallen family and race by symbolically adopting Earth to fulfill the hole he has been left with, hanging out with other similarly distressed individuals such as Batman, and beating the crap out of monsters. None of these characters stories are really anything we want young children to be exposed too, so the recognition of that fact is what is finally being seen and appreciated.

    • Steve
      February 1, 2013 at 12:18 am

      Thank you for your reply. I’d respond by saying that many such dark character elements you mentioned were added in later editions of the comics after they had already become more mature. Just look at the original joker. He wasn’t a homicidal crazy man until much later. In fact, it wasn’t until 1988 when Alan Moore wrote Killing Joke that he was even given his proper, dark back story. I do agree, however, that Batman and Superman’s natures do seem inherently mature. There’s no definitive argument here.

    • February 4, 2013 at 2:05 am
      None of these characters stories are really anything we want young children to be exposed too, so the recognition of that fact is what is finally being seen and appreciated.

      You’re starting to sound like Fredric Wertham.

  2. Kelsey
    January 31, 2013 at 11:45 pm

    I think you make an interesting point in your article. There certainly has been a rise in “dark” superheroes in movies over the past few years, and I definitely think it started with Batman Begins. The Batman movies of the 90s, while often a bit twisted, also seemed far, far more goofy than Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy.

    I also don’t think it’s fair of Cronenberg to so quickly condemn superhero comics as something for children. Sure, there are plenty of children who enjoy comic books and superheros. But the idea of the superhero, the one who comes and saves the day, it’s a timeless sort of idea that goes beyond age range. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be a superhero? Ask any adult on the street and I think it’s safe to say they wouldn’t complain about being a superhero.

    I really wish you had delved a little bit more into the general stagnancy of superheros prior to Batman Begins and the dark superhero. I think that would have been intriguing to read about.

  3. edreher
    February 1, 2013 at 2:57 am

    I absolutely agree with you that the idea of a dark, brooding superhero shouldn’t be considered new and amazing just because it’s in films and has a bigger audience. But you say that the movies have led to “the popular perception of the superhero genre [as] a derivative, one-dimensional practice,” and I have to disagree with you there. I think the movies have really added a three-dimensionality to superheros, and the farther we come from the first Nolan Batman movie, the broader we let superheros become. Before the movies I think it’s safe to say a lot of people thought of superheros as very flat, either good-guys who fight the bad-guys for citizens everywhere, or pitiful people overwhelmed by their tragic backstories. The new superhero movies, I think, do a great job reaching past both of these stereotypes. These movies give us lots of heroes with vastly different personalities that reach well past dark and brooding. Iron Man is a selfish, silly drama queen, Captain America is a serious, honest guy who does what needs to be done and doesn’t let self-pity get in the way. Even the new Spiderman reaches past brooding and into awkward, sarcastic teenager. Dark heroes like Batman bring issues that let their less-super audience identify with them through pity and sympathy: but there are just as many moments in the new, huge genre of superhero films where we bond with them over a joke or an awkward moment. Not to say these qualities are new in these heroes or unique to the movies and not the comics, but to say I think the movies are expanding the common perception of superheroes, not forcing them into a set mold.

  4. cottontail
    February 1, 2013 at 7:48 am

    You make a great point in saying that “just because [a comic is] dark doesn’t make it more profound.” It is possible to create a narrative work, such as a comic or movie, that uses violence and trauma to tell a story that is deeply emotionally affecting or thought-provoking, but violence and trauma themselves do not create those qualities. My personal feeling is that Nolan’s Batman trilogy has very little emotional depth – less than many contemporary Batman comics, actually. (Granted, a lot of comics today do emphasize darkness and edginess for their own sake. As you pointed out, Nolan didn’t invent this idea; he only brought it to the medium of film.)

    I also agree that they are well-crafted films, though, and I think discussions of “artistic merit” raise questions about genre and authorial (or directorial) intent. Some writers and artists want to create comics that say something profound about the human condition, whereas others primarily want to entertain. (They’re not mutually exclusive, of course, but works tend to emphasize one over the other.) I don’t think either of those types of narrative works is objectively better, but it can be frustrating to want intellectual stimulation and instead get fast-paced action scenes, or vice versa. I imagine that most people who watch superhero movies are looking more for action than for philosophy.

    When you say that Nolan’s Batman films are “still just doing the superhero thing,” with the implication that this means they lack intellectual and emotional depth, I wonder if you consider the subject matter of superheroics to be inextricably linked to the kind of pulp-style works that are derided as non-artistic. Would it be possible for a superhero-centered comic or movie to do something that wasn’t “the superhero thing” – i.e., to be meaningful or profound? I think it’s completely possible, but hard to execute with commercial comics and (especially) movies, which are expected to stay within certain boundaries of genre.

    However, I do think Marvel’s recent superhero movies have been more thoughtful and emotionally resonant than most action movies, superhero-based or not. The Captain America film, for example, had a lot of violent and fast-paced action, particularly in its second half, but it was also (in my opinion) a very effective character study of young Steve Rogers, whose sense of powerlessness and desire to protect others drove him to extremes. Within the world of superhero comics themselves, there are some truly poignant moments. If more of these are translated to film, I think public perception will expand beyond the idea that superhero narratives are always dark and edgy with no artistic concept at their core.

  5. February 4, 2013 at 2:04 am
    Prior to Nolan’s films, there hadn’t been much in the way of a true, dark, gritty superhero film.

    I don’t have time to list examples, but I’m just going to go ahead and disagree with you on this one. Comic-based movies have been plenty dark for many years before Spider-man. Moreover, I don’t think “darkness” or “grittiness” are what distinguishes Nolan’s films, nor do I think they owe anything important to Frank Miller, which is part of why I think I enjoy them so much, honestly.

    It’s easy to make Batman dark and gritty because he’s been that for a long time. What’s more interesting is to make Batman into a supporting role (via his obvious morality) as part of a broader political commentary.

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