The Event Horizon of Boring

Having seen the recent Batman movie trailer, I have to say this film looks like a stone cold bummer.  I realize I stand on the wrong side (culturally) of this struggle, but I just didn’t care for The Dark Knight at all.  It struck me as a combination of the worst elements of superheroes, realism, and melodrama.  I won’t try to convince you of this, dear reader.  You most likely already know how you feel about this subject.

Still, the new Batman film looks like it’s even more unpleasant, more full of itself.  If this is what passes for “great” superhero films, I guess you can count me out.  I’d much rather watch Green Lantern fight giant yellow fear monsters or Captain America punch Nazis than have to sit through a movie that is this determined to be mature and intelligent.

In a recent episode of The Office, a character classified the music group The Black Eyed Peas as “Pop for people who don’t like pop, Rap for people who don’t like rap, Rock for people who don’t like rock.”  While I kind of see where he’s coming from, I’m not going to bash the Peas.  They clearly have appeal, even if I don’t really get it.  Not that I dislike them.  Just put me as resolutely neutral.

But it does have me wondering about the evolution of genre and media.  I’ve long felt that the comic book superhero genre has run into this problem.  It seems like most writers and fans would rather read stories about talking, brutality, and gray-and-gray morality than about good guys punching out evil.  I wrote an article for SF Signal a while back suggesting that comics have trouble maintaining their audience because they don’t have enough punching and alien invasions and would much rather devote themselves to obscure continuity nods and some strange integration of realism in universes populated by wizards and flying robots.

Honestly, I’m not so sure I’m right about that.

If The Dark Knight Rises scores as much popularity and commercial success as its predecessor, it’ll just be one more giant step toward superhero movies that take all the fun out of superheroics.  And I believe it’s very possible this will be the future.  Comic book superheroes are relentlessly boring and steadfastly unpleasant at this point.  So why shouldn’t movies eventually follow?

In a way, it could be the very same pattern established with comic book superhero history.  Stories like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns came along and redefined expectations for a generation now in charge of writing superheroes.  And what we’ve gotten is more of the same, an often slavish devotion to recreating and imitating these groundbreaking stories to the point that if a comic book superhero doesn’t have swearing, hints of sexual violence, and some gore, it’s considered a “kid’s comic” by most of the audience.

If The Dark Knight Rises has the same affect on up and coming filmmakers, we can look forward to more of this in the future.  And while I’m in the minority in thinking of The Dark Knight as one of the worst superhero films ever, I still can’t imagine a world where people will flock to see film after film that makes superheroics depressing.

But aren’t we kind of already there?  How many shows on television are about bad people?  How much of our entertainment is devoted to the most unpleasant aspects of who we are?  From Breaking Bad to The Walking Dead to Mad Men, we seem more and more like a culture more-than-happy to wallow in the darkness of our natures.  And put me down as someone who doesn’t like it.

This is not to suggest that these shows are bad.  Taste is such a subjective thing.  Still, whenever I bemoan not having a show I can watch on television, someone will inevitably bring up something like these as examples of how intelligent and deep television can be.  I don’t mean to imply that these shows aren’t intelligent and deep.  I’m just wondering why this is more and more our ONLY version of intelligent entertainment.

It’s why my favorite superhero flick remains The Incredibles.  It’s a beautiful and thoughtful film about what it means to be a hero and a villain, about family, about our own desires versus the desires of the society, and of everything that makes being human both transcendent and difficult.  It’s also has two amazing giant robot fights.  It’s a movie that is about people AND about superheroes, not just about people with some superhero stuff tacked on as a concession.

Part of me assumes that this is merely a phase that we’re going through.  Culture follows trends, and trends rarely stick around forever.  I can weather boring Batman and unlikable protagonists for a few years.  But another part of me worries that there’s no going back.  Once you cross that bridge where a man in a batsuit who fights crime is no longer fun, you have passed the event horizon and there’s only one way to go.  Darker and grimmer and grimdarker until eventually, all our stories are about drug dealers who eat babies and feel miserable while doing it.

There’s a way to things, a certain natural order that seems to pop up.  For example, men’s names can become women’s names over time.  Eventually, those names stop being men’s names all together.  Men’s names can become women’s names, but it is NEVER the reverse.

I worry that the FUN to BORING path is similarly irreversible.  Once the Joker shot Barbara Gordon, he signaled the beginning of a brave new world, one we can never escape.  My only solace is that as long as Batman: The Brave and the Bold exists, there’s always hope for tomorrow.

What?  Canceled?

Oh, well, never mind then.  Game over.

Congratulations, boring Batman.  You win.

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

Lee

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12 Comments

  1. Posted December 20, 2011 at 4:26 am | Permalink

    I have to say that I’m straddling both worlds. While I do love the dark [what can I say, I'm a deeply disturbed person] I also enjoy the fun in super heroics. This is why I had such a blast with the cheese that was Batman: The Brave and The Bold & that is why I still watch Shounen Anime, where the dramatics are combined with such innocent goofiness and fun. On the other hand, watching these labels me immature and people just don’t get it. I’m sad that they don’t get that this kind of FUN doesn’t mean that they have a low IQ, which is what all this is about. The sign of an adult is the ability to watch a serious movie… Appearances, appearances.

    Though as I said, I love the dark and the twisted and I think that right now we seek realities which are more fucked up that ours, so that we can relax about the issues in ours.

  2. Alberto Lara
    Posted December 20, 2011 at 5:55 am | Permalink

    Ah, a soulmate who hates The Dark Knight as much as I do! I’m not alone after all…

  3. Scott D. Parker
    Posted December 20, 2011 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    Ah, someone who mentions Brave and the Bold! Here’s a dichotomy for you. I loved The Dark Knight in 2008 when it debuted but I also fell in love with Brave and the Bold a few months later. And, as in the intervening years, have grown to love the now-cancelled cartoon more and more. The best thing about Batman is that the character can believably have both versions and they can co-exist. Sure, some folks don’t think it’s possible, but it is. I completely agree with you regarding the funness of comics and it’s one of the reasons why the new Frankenstein: Agent of SHADE is among my favorites of the new DC line up (and why Detective Comics, with its gore and over-brooding, while having some interesting stuff) immediately turned me off. BTW, have you seen the final episode of B&B? It has Bat-Mite becoming bored with the lightness of B&B and he tries to sabotage the cartoon so the network will cancel it and make a new, darker Batman cartoon…which they are doing.

    What worried me most about The Dark Knight Rises trailer is that my immediate reaction was not overt joy. The trailers for The Dark Knight, with Ledger’s Joker doing the voice over, was utterly thrilling to me. TDKR will likely be my favorite film of 2012 and I’ll be there opening day, but I wonder if I’ll enjoy it.

    The Dark Knight is to superhero films what The Wire is to TV cop shows. As good as they both are, I still tune in to CSI: Miami every week (and Brave and the Bold before cancellation) and enjoyed the heck out of all of them.

  4. Posted December 20, 2011 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    This reminds me a little of the demise of the westerns in the late 70′s and 80′s. I was just a kid, so I wasn’t analyzing cultural trends in films, but I do know that over a few years, westerns went from being a staple at the theater to being non-existent or fodder for mockery.

    Part of this was a Star Wars inspired Buzz vs. Woody transition, but I also think that westerns became so popular that they lost their way. Much like it seems that superhero films are losing their way. If so, their popularity will wane, and people will wonder why we watched them all in the first place, and then years down the line, a true believer will come along with a Pale Rider or Unforgiven. Except, of course, it will have volcanoes, and collapsing bridges, and probably a giant robot or two.

    So keep the faith in the meantime. Who knows, you just might be that true believer who will rescue the genre in 2023.

  5. Posted December 20, 2011 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    I think because you read comics and watch films that you see some correlation between the evolution [or de-evolution] of the two in concert, but I don’t see it. From a non-comic reader point of view, there are plenty of comic based movies that are fun, adventurous, and have a real sense of wonder: Ironman, Captain America, Thor, Spider-man 1 & 2 (3 was a hot mess), and the latest Superman. Now they might not be great films, but they fulfill the criteria of being good popcorn entertainment. So what if one or two film maker wants to take things in a different direction? It’s not going to kill Batman. They’ll make another version of it in 8 years anyway. Who knows, maybe this one will wear a satin cowl, sport a yellow utility built, and regularly correct his young ward. I don’t mean to sound dismissive, because what I’m trying to say is not to worry, Batman will outlive Chris Nolan.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted December 20, 2011 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

      I hope you’re right, Shawn. It’s only my opinion, and perhaps I’m only seeing a pattern I’m expecting to see.

      But I do remember that there were plenty of fun, cool comic book superheroes in the 80′s too, even while darker stories were going on. I’m less concerned with Nolan than with a generation that comes after him that might view The Dark Knight as the definitive superhero film, rather than a contribution to a rich, varied medium.

      But only time will tell.

  6. Posted December 21, 2011 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    Personally, I’m not as in love with the Nolan Batman Trilogy as most people. I still prefer Burton’s two films. Only time will tell if the default superhero movie becomes Nolanesque or not. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if Nolan has only a limited influence. In five years we’ll likely be talking about the new Batman reboot with its new director and new Batman.

  7. Louis Arico
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    Putting aside the story, the Nolan, the whole persona of what we think the bat may or may not be. It looks like we have two mission impossible movies coming out, or is that the bat with a dragon tattoo? All of these movies have dark undertones, but do we not have to have hardships? All be it mature ones, but thats the audience they are searching for. If you want your kid to watch superman or batman, watch the wonderful cartoons of the early ninties and today. These are movies specifically to intrigue me to watch and see if they will even come close to running with Sherlock Holmes. Man, Guy Ritchie gets my money every time. Hope things are fun lee and getting more fun.

  8. Tom D.
    Posted January 9, 2012 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

    With all due respect to the mythos of good conquering evil in superhero comics, Batman is a grey area. Batman has to blur the line slightly between good and evil to make a dent. Of course he’s going to have some kind of psychological issues; he dresses in black rubber and fights clowns…two fetishes not terribly uncommon today. Moreover, he is the only superhero devoid of superpowers constantly surrounded by “demigods”, for lack of a better word; Green Lantern has a magic, omnipotently-useful cosmic piece of jewelry, Wonder Woman has super-duper golden bracelets and a truth serum laced lasso (in addition to being a powerfully built feminine specimen), Superman…need I say more regarding the Man of Steel? Batman has cleverly designed toys to fight against superpowered villians nearly twice his strength and a powerful intellect constantly put down and underestimated. Wouldn’t that make you want to sulk in the dark all brooding and depressed?

  9. Tom D.
    Posted January 9, 2012 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

    Also, Mr. Martinez, your right: The Dark Knight Rises trailer did hint at boredom and monotony. Not to mention a scene akin to “jumping the shark”, not to blur the line between TV and film, in terms of the Batman film legacy. What was that thing chasing the bat-tank…a hovercraft? So much for realism.

  10. Roth
    Posted March 5, 2012 at 3:24 am | Permalink

    A little late to the discussion, but for what it’s worth.

    I look at the Batman franchise as if it’s akin to Ninja Turtles.

    Both series, movies, comics, and television, have had various portrayals. I am both a fan of their ‘campy’ versions and more ‘serious’ versions, and their ‘in-between’ versions.
    They all have their uses and appeal, and there will always be ‘Flavor of the Decade’, so to speak.
    What will hurt them the most, is when people stop appreciating the differing styles for what they were, or are, and when the earlier versions get little to no exposure when a new twist comes out. It doesn’t help that there is the ever growing generational gaps between fans, but more often I see both newer and older generations are growing more and more stubborn about which ‘version(s)’ should be the standard to which all other variations will be judged against.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted March 5, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

      A good point. If Nolan’s dull Batman is just one of many added to the cultural mix, I’m okay with it. I only worry because I’ve seen this pattern before in the original medium, where slowly, the dull “mature” version eclipses and eventually overwhelms all other versions. I’d hate to have that happen to movie superheroes too.

      But we’ll see what the future holds. Hopefully, I’m just being paranoid.

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