I once again find myself at odds with one of Roger Ebert’s Far-Flung Correspondents. Omer Mozaffar recently wrote an article entitled “The Dark Knight Rises, an American genre falls,” which you can read here. I wrote this piece in direct response to Mr. Mozaffar.
This was a very astute assessment of the Dark Knight trilogy – Mr. Mozaffar succinctly summarized the main themes in each film and gave it a greater context as one, long, contiguous story. And I agree with the idea that The Dark Knight Rises thankfully gives more context for the confusing ending of The Dark Knight. This is a well-written and well-thought-out piece.
However, I must raise a hand in protest to what seems to be Mr. Mozaffar’s primary assertion. I may be wrong, but he seems to be saying that for the genre to move forward, radical genre-challenging films must constantly be made. That for a superhero film to really stand out, it must embrace things that are inherently contrary to the nature of superheroes. And that an antihero like Nolan’s version of Batman, or the characters in Watchmen, are in some way superior to characters like Superman or Captain America. This follows a trend that I have seen several times now in articles similar to this around the web.
It seems to be the desire of so many critics, and even some directors, to alter what is fundamental to the comic book genre. Much like any big-budget summer popcorn film, comics are, and have been since their inception, a mode of fantasy escape for the reader. When graphic novels like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns appeared in the 80s, they did indeed give us a darker look at the comic book world. And in the long run, they probably helped the superhero genre intensify in complexity and gravitas.
Still, the nature of the superhero world is really quite simple: give common, everyday folks the means to be transported into a magical world, and live vicariously through some man or woman dressed in a ridiculous outfit who fights crime. That’s really all it is. On occasion, some more intricate themes like racial/religious/ethnic persecution (X-Men), feminism (Wonder Woman), or anti-war sentiments (Iron Man) make their way into the narratives and generally improve the impact those stories have on the viewer. But at their core, these icons are all vehicles for enjoyment.
Let’s look at Peter Parker. Reportedly the most popular of Marvel’s extensive arsenal of heroes, Spider-Man really isn’t the most powerful or most complex character Marvel has ever produced. He is, however, a geeky teenage boy who happens upon some pretty cool powers and manages to date two of the most attractive girls in his school.
Sound like a fantasy to you? Because it does to me, and to so many other people in the demographic for whom that storyline was developed. And thus, there is no need for complex anti-hero mentality to achieve a convincing, engrossing comic book tale in the Spider-Man universe. The daily trials and tribulations of a typical kid were more than enough to keep generations of readers glued to the pages.
And yet, I admit that I liked The Dark Knight Rises quite a bit – I think Nolan finally captured the character of Batman, offered some admirable fan service, and just generally operated on a tonal note far above that of the very depressing The Dark Knight. Messages of hope were rampant in Rises, and the final epilogue scene was a clear indication that Nolan had accepted that he was directing a guy who runs around in a bat suit; he realized that it’s impractical, it’s silly, and it’s exactly what people want to see. Taking cues from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he treated it with heart and a generally positive outlook. And more than that, he acknowledged that we as the audience want to see this “lunatic” succeed – something that The Dark Knight Rises managed to compellingly convey where The Dark Knight did not.
So in the end, while I am always sad to see such formulaic, conventional, conservative films like Captain America and Thor hit the screen when we know that making a film like Iron Man is fully within Marvel’s capabilities, I do not think that a wave of films giving the proverbial finger to the genre are what we really need.
What we really need are heroes – heroes are the pop culture phenomenon which have sustained us for a century, and they are the phenomenon that will continue to do so if we let them.