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.
Oh, well, never mind then. Game over.
Congratulations, boring Batman. You win.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,