Friday, July 25, 2008

7/25/08 - How Dark is Too Dark Oh BTW I'm The Dark Knight

This certainly feels like the summer when the superhero movie finally got stretched to the breaking point, like so much taffy. The beauty of the superhero myth is that, like taffy, it's equally flexible and delicious, but still, after seeing The Dark Knight shortly after the rapture that was Iron Man, I am starting to wonder if some sort of saturation point is being reached.

I mean, obviously, it's coming - Hollywood specializes in finding a lucrative formula and grinding away at it, summer after summer, until a succession of jumbo flops slaps back the greedy hand. It's happened to animated musicals, buddy action movies, M. Night Shyamalan movies, Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, Batman movies, etc., etc...

I remember wondering, before the tidal wave of CGI, if there would ever be a good superhero movie that felt like a comic book, that captured the stylized mythology feel of a well-written and well-drawn superhero comic book. My knowledge of comic books is limited, as everything I read in middle school/high school was whatever comics my friend Chris bought, but when reading his X-men or Spiderman comics I had that aha moment that comes with exposure to a medium's inherent and unique strengths. Still, I never thought that movies could pull it off- the special effects were too difficult. I pretty much made my piece with the fact that comic book and fantasy movies would be animated, or not at all.

Then, a trio:

2000 - X-Men dropped, and suddenly it looked like CGI was going to be the key to it all. This was a movie that was close to the comic book I saw, and it looked like maybe it could be done after all.

2001 - Lord of the Rings, to me, was what flung the gates open wide. This was what I had deemed in my head to be the unfilmable fantasy epic; sure, it contained elements that would find fine and epic expression on the widescreen, but the filmmaker would have to pull off things like sorcerer's battles, a giant flaming demon with a whip, walking, talking tree-men, a wizened Gollum, an army of dead men, and battles formed of large armies of orcs. And that's just the beginning, really. So when Peter Jackson pulled it off, really pulled it off, and made the Lord of the Rings movie that I had always dreamed was possible, it was clear that the tools were now there to plunder Marvel and DC's rich stable.

(A quick aside re: Tim Burton's Batman - Batman has always been easier to capture without CGI - he's basically James Bond dressed up as a bat. He's not rocking any supernatural powers - he's got a lot of cool gadgets and operates in the shadows. He's uniquely film-able for that reason. Same with someone like the Punisher - Hollywood can do gunfights).

Sure enough, Spider-Man hit the following year, and it was off to the races. The deluge proceeded, and now pretty much all of DC and Marvel's A-list superheroes have had their moment onscreen, with even some time for the B and C-listers to find themselves in a feature film or two. What all of this has done, though, is to reveal some of the limits of the superhero story format.

One limiting factor is the Manichean nature of so many superhero heroes and (especially) villians. Good is often Ultimate Good and evil is often Ultimate Evil in the superhero universe. It's no surprise, then, that filmmakers gravitate toward the more classically tragic supervillains, representing them as fallen creatures of ruined ideals - they are more recognizably human, this way. Examples - Magneto's scarring from the Holocaust driving him toward genocide, Doc Ock's roots as humble scientist, the Green Goblin's spectral presence of a good man (and poor father) gone mad. But these only go so far - no matter how much you turn Magneto into a real and wounded person played by Sir Ian McKellan, he's still going to wind up wearing a metal helmet and purple suit, raising his hand and throwing metal arond. The Green Goblin is still going to ride around on a metal surfboard throwing bombs that look like pumpkins. The cartoon stylization is endemic to the form - it only stands up to so much psychological realism before seriously challenging suspension of disbelief. There's a little bit of the Uncanny Valley at play - the further we as an audience sense that the superhero universe is actually our own, the more we start to question the logic of what we're presented with - like, why exactly would someone whose m.o. is fast and agile wear really bright blue and red?

One tactic for filmmakers to take is to return comic-book movies to the ragged, pulpy, and charming tone that they often lose when being turned into $200 million tentpole movies. This was the road Jon Favreau took with Iron Man, with (I would argue) great success. By dramatically lowering the stakes, he brought the comic book superhero movie back into the adoescent wish-fulfillment realm that it's always found its most natural home in.

The grim and naturalistic thrust of Nolan's Batman movies come at the opposite end of the spectrum. If Favreau is interested in lowering the stakes, Nolan is interested in ratcheting them up to the highest level possible. The Dark Knight does a lot to take the escapist fun out of the comic book movie - it's much more akin to a dark action drama with political/philosophical overtones.

The trouble is, it's not much fun. It's very intense, and well-made, and well-acted, but, like earlier Nolan movies, is quite grim about the human condition, and makes that quite clear by having the characters periodically talk to each other in essays about the human condition. It's an effort, clearly, to raise the superhero movie to the realm of High Art, but the grimness and joylessness and unremitting intensity just move it sideways into a bizarre high/low hybrid. Like The Prestige (also adapted from other source material), it's chiefly concerned with the human ability to be inhuman, but that's a tricky theme when working with mythic archetypes like Batman and the Joker.

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