When Tim Burton set out to create the first Batman movie that adults could enjoy, screenwriter Sam Hamm recalled recently, studio executives were stunned that he intended to make a comic-book film in which people would suffer severe injury or actually be killed when they were shot, stabbed, poisoned, gassed or crushed.
What a difference two decades make! For the new Batman film, The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan was able to snuff cops, goons and crime bosses without any fuss. His Joker (Heath Ledger) even pushes a pencil into the brain of a mob bigwig, then flicks him away as if swatting a fly.
"You know a genre has become established when it's well-known enough to parody," Hamm says, "and if the box-office results of the last few years haven't already told you that, a cheap burlesque like Superhero Movie and an expensive one like Hancock show that comic-book films clearly have arrived."
With a half-dozen superhero movies packing houses so far this year, along with others that have comic-book elements (such as the Indiana Jones films), I'd say comic-book films aimed at teens and adults have not only arrived but also become a staple like cop movies or teen comedies.
T he Dark Knight might signal that the genre is entering its decadent phase.
Up to now, it's been a great year for comic-book films. Iron Man and Wanted brought original humorous tones to superhero fare, The Incredible Hulk returned with gusto to the comic book's Jekyll-and-Hyde roots, and Hellboy II spilled over with visual invention.
But familiarity has become a problem. The gargantuan battles in city streets are becoming as obligatory as showdowns were in Westerns. Filmmakers who aim to insert complexity into their heroes' journeys have made it de rigueur to portray any Hercules in tights as a brooding super-antihero who longs for gratitude from normal humans and the ability to lead a simple life. Part of what made Iron Man refreshing was how much delight Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark took in his burgeoning powers. These days, it's the rare superhero who isn't conflicted.
I thought the X-Men movies exhausted the possibilities of depicting superheroes as freaks; the Joker's taunting of Batman in The Dark Knight dips into a well of alienation far too often.
Still, what's decadent about The Dark Knight isn't how it runs certain themes into the ground or introduces unprecedented levels of sadism for a PG-13 release, but the way it ignores the usual demands of art or entertainment, confident that its fan base will embrace a glum new chapter in Batman's mythology. Nolan's Gotham City is just a barely veiled Chicago.
And his characters often speak in New Age bumper stickers or upscale cartoon captions. When the Joker borrows from Nietzsche and quips that whatever doesn't kill him makes him stranger, we know we've entered the era when comic-book movies become fodder for doctoral theses. Indeed, the director smothers the Caped Crusader in so many layers of cultural references and abstract philosophy that he becomes impenetrable. It's easier to connect to the Joker.
For old-school comic-book fans like me (my first published piece was a letter to the editor of DC's Hawkman), there used to be a thrill to seeing each new comic-book movie attempt to capture the excitement that superhero stories generated on the printed page. Even before Burton's Batman, movies such as Mike Hodges' Flash Gordon (1980) and Richard Lester's Superman II (1981) caught the liberating energy that comics can have when they gleefully mix moods or ride the edge between camp and great adventure. It's a shame that when movies like the first Fantastic Four attempt similar combinations today, they're derided for lacking what comic-book fans used to mock - the pseudo-depth now known as "gravitas."
In the most unpretentious and essential of all comic-book commentaries, The Great Comic Book Heroes, Jules Feiffer argues that comic books have to be appreciated as "junk" - and he uses the term affectionately. "Junk," he writes, "like the drunk at the wedding, can get away with doing or saying anything because, by its very appearance, it is already in disgrace. It has no one's respect to lose; no image to endanger. Its values are the least middle-class of any media. Thats why it's needed so."
The Oscar campaign for The Dark Knight shows that comic-book movies have become prestigious. This follows what Feiffer saw as the sorry fate of comic books if they ever became respectable. Better, he thought that they "knew [their] place was underground, where [they] had no power and thus only titillated." If The Dark Knight breaks box-office records and wins awards, the result may be depressing in ways that Nolan never intended.