Monday, October 27, 2008

Superhero Sophistication: Transcending Funnybook Status

In one of my cinema classes last week, I had the privilege of seeing a mostly unknown independent film called Special (pictured to the right). It was a moving story about a man who comes to believe he possesses superpowers as the result of an experimental antidepressant. I left the theater impressed by this more mature, realistic take on the conceit of the costumed crimefighter. More notable, however, was the fact that a superhero film was, for once, a low-budget indie endeavor rather than a multi-million-dollar Hollywood blockbuster, and based on an original concept no less. Unfortunately, the movie has had hardly any exposure, save for a few festival runs, and will only be released in a few select theaters in November. While I do not expect Special to perform exceptionally well at the box office due to the limited nature of its distribution, its mere existence reaffirms a suspicion that I have gradually come to harbor based on current industry trends, that superhero films are becoming respectable.

For evidence of this shift into reputability, look no further than to the critical and financial phenomenon that was this summer's The Dark Knight. The film generated Oscar buzz even before its release and will be re-released in theaters this January for the consideration of Academy voters. In addition, Warner Bros. has started campaigning for a supporting actor nomination for the late Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker (whose influence can be seen in the vandalized Oscar poster below), and there is talk of the film garnering support in even more categories. Can the latest Batman installment do for the superhero genre what Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy did for the fantasy genre and elevate costumed crimefighters in cinema to a level of prestige? Only time will tell. For now, it might be worthwhile to examine exactly how and why director Christopher Nolan's interpretation of Batman has gained such high esteem. First, Nolan's masterful casting decisions have contributed greatly to the growing respectability of the superhero genre. His two Batman films are replete with award-winners and nominees like Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Tom Wilkinson, Ken Watanabe, and of course, the aforementioned Ledger. Indeed, filmmaker Jon Favreau credits Nolan's Batman Begins with first showing "that you could bring an independent film sensibility and cast to a big movie and transcend it a bit." Favreau recruited equally reputable actors into his own Iron Man series, which was also a critical and financial success this summer.

Aside from the note
worthy talent involved, The Dark Knight and Iron Man share another element in common that has catalyzed the rise in cultural status for superheroes: sociopolitical relevance in a post-9/11 America. The two films deal with the current political climate in different ways. For instance, the villain of The Dark Knight, essentially an anarchist with no morals or motives, brings to mind the enemy in America's war on terror. Batman ponders to what extent he is responsible for the violence he has set out to stop in the first place. As some believe the U.S. has done in Iraq, Batman's war on terror has only fueled the fire, spawning even more radical and dangerous villains than before. In Iron Man, the actual war in Afghanistan is worked into the character's origin story, while the protagonist also battles over his own destructive contributions as an arms manufacturer for the military. In short, superhero films have moved out of the realm of escapist fantasy and started to confront real world issues through metaphor. As a result, viewers are able to take the genre more seriously than before.

Can superhero films keep up this trend of respectability? Well, since Warner Bros. has decided to try and replicate the "brooding tone" of The Dark Knight in future movies based on DC Comics properties, perhaps the studio will also continue to infuse significant allegory. For example, the upcoming Watchmen film, with its political overtones and alternate Cold War history setting, leaves plenty of room for commentary. The Richard Nixon of the graphic novel, who has managed to remain in office well after two presidential terms, could easily provide an opportunity to draw parallels to the current administration. Furthermore, the fact that the United States enlists the brutal aid of superheroes in the Vietnam War might also offer possible analogies for the Iraq War. In addition, the cast of relative unknowns makes the film seem more like an independent movie than a mainstream blockbuster, even more so than the The Dark Knight or Iron Man. The original limited series on which Watchmen is based is already a reputed work on its own as the only graphic novel on Time's 2005 Top 100 List of All-Time English Language novels. It remains to be seen, however, whether or not this high quality will translate in the adaptation from comic to film.

While The Dark Knight, Iron Man, and Watchmen share common political themes, I do not think their merit relies solely on the fact that they deal with current political issues. That is to say that reputability and political relevance are not mutually exclusive. Whether addressing grand issues of national security or the personal problems of a single man, as in the aforementioned film Special, costumed heroes have begun to enter a new stage of prominence in both Hollywood and independent cinema. It is my hope that the current surge in popularity of superhero cinema will inspire less adaptations and more original concepts as in past movies like Unbreakable, Hancock, and Special. One thing is certain, that the sheer volume of comic book adaptations being released in the next few years allows more than enough room for experimentation, and plenty of chances to wow casual fans, critics, and, the way things are going, possibly even the Academy. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before the token quirky indie comedy is replaced by the token superhero movie in the annual list of Oscar nominees. Move over Juno, here comes The Dark Knight.

1 comment:

Katie Webb said...

This is a well-written and provocative post Cam, and I think you have done an excellent job in both the selection and development of your topic. Not only did I enjoy reading your insights on the current and future trends regarding comic book movies, but you also inspired me to explore my own perspective on a subject I know admittedly little about. Your experience with "Special" as an example of a nontraditional though enjoyable superhero movie was a particuarly effective introduction to the thesis of the post.

While you suggested a variety of persuasive explanations as to why such films have recently enjoyed an increasing popularity with filmgoers (such as respected and venerated casts), your assertions have raised some questions for me. Although you claim that the summer blockbuster “The Dark Knight” was a boon for comic book movies, you also contend that its meticulously developed and overly sinister themes are a departure from the classic superhero film. Does this imply that the movie’s success was due to its comic book aspect, or in spite of it? I agree that the maturity of the themes explored in “Dark Knight” contribute to the increased gravity given to it by the American public, and somewhat improves upon the relatively simplistic message of “with great power comes great responsibility” that came from one of the biggest comic book movies of all time, “Spiderman.” Though the argument that the parallels to our post 9/11 society are perhaps the cause for increased audience favor is plausible, is there a limit to the public’s response to comic book movies as realistic and valid social commentaries? Isn’t the escapist aspect the entire appeal of these films? I for one was a little freaked out by the ominous foreshadowing of “Dark Knight,” believing the blending of thinly veiled political references with nihilistic villains and armageddon scenarios to be all too credible.

With this post overall, I thought you made an excellent argument as to why films such as “The Dark Knight” and “Ironman” (which I have not seen, and therefore neglected to comment upon) have resonated so successfully with contemporary audiences. Like you, I expect we will be seeing more motion pictures looking to capitalize on this latest Hollywood trend.

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