Man, what if McCain gets elected? (Also, I listened to a Jonah Goldberg bloggingheads thing and it was terrible.) Oh, but I a had great idea for a superhero duo. There’s a terrible accident – a tornado rips through a trailer park – and this is, for some strange reason, the origin story for Double-wide (he’s a bruiser type) and Airstream (his sexy, flying partner). They fight crime in a small town in Georgia. Who should their arch-enemy be?
Right. The Dark Knight. My Valve colleague, Bill B., points me to David Bordwell grousing about superhero films, and generally saying smart things. Oddly enough, given my love of superheroes, I agree almost right down the line. Oh, I enjoyed Dark Knight well enough. But the ending was dumb, the Harvey Dent subplot handled clumsily. The only reason it made sense to me that he was Two-Face was that he was clearly named Harvey Dent and had half his face melted off. Other than that, I didn’t see the resemblance. Ledger’s Joker was, as all sensitive souls agree, vastly entertaining. I would have watched him read the phonebook. Well, for a few minutes anyway. But, while I doubt anyone else would have been better for the role, I don’t actually think it was such a tremendously impressive outing. it isn’t that hard to prance around in clown make-up, barking mad. Insane clowns could be the new Rain Man prestige role. Oh, it takes physical presence and a certain bone structure and face-to-lip ratio. I’m glad someone finally decided to put Frank Miller’s joker up there on the screen. And, of course, the Dark Knight is Miller’s, too.
Everyone knows that. But certain things follow which, it seems to me, have not been noted. First, the praise of Nolan has been a bit off-target. He does deserve praise for doing a lot right. A lot of other stuff was sort of by-the-numbers, as Bordwell says. But the way a lot of these reviews read … well, it would be like praising
Frank Peter Jackson for inventing hobbits. How does he think of these things? And that’s a very apt analogy, actually. Because not only is the Dark Knight a quarter-century old aesthetic, it’s an aesthetic that was pretty much done to death – run straight into the ground in the 90’s. We all loved Frank Miller’s Dark Knight, at least I did, but the vein was quickly exhausted. An evolutionary dead-end, really. (‘Good soldier, good soldier.’) And so all this excitement? This sense that Dark Knight opens up new possibilities? To complete my analogy: it would be like coming out of Frank Peter Jackson’s trilogy and saying ‘now we can see that it would be great if lots more people told stories about elves on quests.’
It’s this damn confusion that somehow gritty, grim superhero pics are more ‘realistic’ – hence more morally relevant, more able to engage our moral imaginations in the post-9/11, GWOT era. (It’s like someone said: finally, a realistic round-square. They made it grim and gritty. So it must be realistic.) Superhero stories are not just physically unrealistic, in lots of impossible-to-miss ways. They are inherently morally unrealistic. Somehow it is ‘good’ to do things that, in the real world, would be morally idiotic: like dress up like a bat and fight crime. There just isn’t any way to comment ‘realistically’ on issues of terror and crime via stories about Batman. Well, that’s not quite right. It is highly relevant that we are drawn to such stories, find them compelling. (Wouldn’t it be awesome if it made sense to wear your underwear on the outside and punch people in clown make-up all night long? Wouldn’t it be great if that were a tough, but noble – with a touch of personal tragedy – moral decision?)
So, frankly, the answer to David Bordwell’s question – “Why so serious?” – is: no reason. The only superhero stories with any right to take themselves seriously are the reflexive, comic books about comic books ones. This doesn’t preclude them being ironic as well, obvously. This hurts the odds for the films. Because it is harder to make a good film that gets the right sort of self-reflexivity about the comics medium. But not impossible: The Incredibles is good that way. As is Unbreakable, in my considered opinion. (And, of course, only the latter takes itself seriously.)
There was actually a pretty good bloggingheads episode a couple weeks ago, between Yglesias and Douthat, in which they hashed out Dark Knight stuff. One thing Yglesias said which is wrong is that it’s a mistake for comics to get stuck in the comics-about-comics rut. Because that will lame itself out in some Nostalgpalypse Now fanboy-style. To the contrary, the comics-about-comics genre is surprisingly resilient, for fascinating reasons I won’t go into right now.
Anyway, I agree with Bordwell that Hellboy is a much more promising franchise than Batman, at this point. Even if Golden Army was not quite what it could have been. That’s enough comics for now.