Saturday, July 12, 2008

Comic Book Movies: The Oncoming Darkness

In my review of All Star Batman and Robin, I touched briefly on the way that the Hollywood comic book film zeitgeist is about 20 years behind what’s happening in comics themselves. This is coming to the fore with the upcoming releases of The Dark Knight and Watchmen, the film successors to the two legendary comic book works that changed the medium, and may change the general public’s perception of superhero stories. But, the big names in comics are heading in a totally disparate direction. What does this disconnect mean for each medium, and where will comic book movies go in the future? Let us ponder.

I’ve discussed similar issues before, in the context of 300, a film I considered a failure. There are two kinds of comic book movies, ones that use the book as a jumping off point for the creator’s own interests, such as V For Vendetta or Batman Returns. Then, there’s the ultra-faithful slavish adaptation, like Sin City or the upcoming Watchmen. In the case of ultra faithful adaptations, I usually find the trailer more interesting than the film itself. In the case of Sin City, I was totally in love with the trailer, watched it many times and was eagerly awaiting the film. Then, the film itself was kind of a letdown. It wasn’t bad, but it didn’t give me anything that the book didn’t. It was just a straight adaptation, nothing was changed to make it specific to film. So, having already seen the film’s ‘gimmick’ in the trailer, the actual movie had nothing new to offer.

I think this gets to a deeper issue in both comics and films, which is the fact that writers/directors don’t make use of what the medium can do. So many comics today are clearly written as screenplay pitches, using the visual language of film, and doing nothing that’s unique to the comics medium. The very best comics usually do things that only can be done in comics, be it the complex juxtaposition of words and images in Watchmen and Flex Mentallo, or the philosophical/narrative interweaving in The Invisibles and Promethea. Even on a pure art level, a work like We3 is so alive and kinetic in a way only comics can do, using the panel layouts to construct atmosphere and make us feel things in a specific way. I want a work that really challenges me and makes me take my time reading the story.

Film is the same way, very few directors really use what the medium can offer to tell a story. I want a work that doesn’t feel like an adaptation, I want a work that you can’t imagine as anything but a movie. Think of a film like Irreversible or Terence Malick’s work, the use of camera movement and music creates a hypnotic atmosphere. An Irreversible novel would be pointless, but as a movie, it’s startling and powerful.

So, if a work is done well in its own medium, why do you want to adapt it any way? That’s how I feel about Watchmen, I don’t see anything that can be added, it’s like going to see a Beatles cover band, it might be cool for a bit, but it’s ultimately a hollow, non-artistic endeavor. I think characters like Batman and Superman are better suited to adaptation because they don’t have specific narratives. They are archetypal characters who can, and have been reimagined thousands of different ways. The 60s Batman and the Batman Begins Batman and equally valid visions of the character. My favorite superhero movie, and one of my favorite movies of all time, is Batman Returns, which exists at the intersection of classic Batman thematic interests and Tim Burton’s own thematic obsessions, producing a film that’s simultaneously distinctly Batman and distinctly Burton.

But, most comic book movies today require the director to have, or at least tell the media about his love of the source material. I’m sure we’ll hear countless interviews from Chris Nolan talking about how much he loves Frank Miller’s work. And yet, his film is totally out of synch with the kind of stories Miller is telling at the moment. That’s because superhero movies are still in the ‘dark age,’ while current comics have moved into an era that’s perhaps best known as the ‘prismatic age.’ We’ve still got a lot of that old angsty stuff out there, but even Frank is doing a more fun, over the top Batman. It’s the integration of everything that’s come before into a simultaneously dark and light storytelling, keeping the emotional weight of the dark age stories without sacrificing the fun of classic Silver Age stuff.

And, it’s that fun that I fear will be missing from superhero movies for a while. One of my major issues with Batman Begins was its relentless joylessness, from the gloomy brown cinematography to the angsty Christian Bale performance. I know Bale is beloved by all, but outside of his work in Velvet Goldmine, I’m not that big a fan. I can respect his craft, but I just don’t enjoy watching him on screen. He doesn’t love being the goddamn Batman, I can’t imagine Bale’s Batman doing the sort of crazy joyous stuff that even Dark Knight Returns Batman does, certainly not what we see from the Dark Knight Strikes Again or Goddamn Batman.

But, who am I to say that the Bale Batman isn’t a valid take on the character? Clearly it resonated with audiences. Why is it that people who decide to see a movie about a guy who dresses up in a bat suit and decides to fight crime also want it to be deadly self serious. I can understand wanting to engage with the fictional universe, but something in a movie should be fun, and I got no joy from watching Batman Begins.

So, you may say, you want your superheroes to be goofy and fun, why do you enjoy works like Miracleman and Watchmen? The short and snappy answer would be those works are just better. But, I think the real point is that those works are about something. The problem with so much of the dark, angsty superhero genre is that it’s not really about anything. The Dark Knight Returns is a meditation of the conservative movement and a deteriorating urban environment in the 80s. While the hardcore Batman action is the hook, it’s the political elements that give it substance. The same is true with Watchmen and Miracleman, they are incredible superhero stories, but also contain fascinating truths about the human condition. Miracleman is a philosophical parable wrapped up in a superhero story, and the last issue is one of the most exciting explorations of a fictional world I’ve ever experienced.

So, if we’re headed into the dark time of superhero movies, will we ever get out and see the light? Will audiences only accept the heavy intensity of The Dark Knight and Watchmen, or would they also be interested in some Silver Age style craziness? I think the general public is less inclined to like the sort of wacky stories that Alan Moore and Grant Morrison have come to embrace. People who don’t come from a comics background are going to find it easier to embrace a Batman who’s right out of a crime thriller rather than a Batman who goes into his sci-fi closet so he can insert the Ultramarines into an infant universe.

And, to be honest, I was the same way for a long time. That’s what Flex Mentallo is all about, the way that as adolescents, we only embrace the darkest stories and claim that’s what’s ‘real.’ But, I’ve come to embrace wackier stories now, be it Silver Age Superman or the Goddamn Batman. They’re out there, and a heavier Batman movie or Watchmen movie won’t take them off the shelves. And, considering how badly Hollywood messed up ‘fun’ Batman, perhaps it’s for the best that this current series of films are as heavy as they are.

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