Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Dark Knight - This Changes Everything

Dark Knight might be the comic book film that changes everything and allows comic books and comic book ideas to be taken seriously. Since the dawn of superhero movies, we've been given a steady diet of the same thing, time after time. Some sort of origin story (either the hero, or the villain if it's sequels) coupled with some sort of plot to destroy/conquer the city/world. For the origin movie, it's almost always where the villain and hero are created from the same source, or are otherwise tied together somehow. Insert incredible action sequences and give the hero some sort of dramatic crisis for the climax. Wash, rinse, repeat.

That's not to say that past comic book movies have been bad. Spider-man 2 was my favorite film of 2004, while Iron Man was easily one of the best films this year so far, superhero or otherwise. Batman Begins, while really good, left me a bit flat because it still followed all the required superhero beats (ultimately). But at least it was trying to do something different. Iron Man also injected a bit more effort into the story to make it 'about' something.

But all that was setup for The Dark Knight. I think we needed all of those adaptations to where we got to the point where the superhero movie is ingrained in the national (or even worldwide) psyche in a way where it isn't just viewed as a geeky genre, but just as a type of film every bit as valid and encoded into our DNA as westerns or war films or detective thrillers. Watchmen director Zach Snyder has been talking about this very thing as now being the exact right time to finally release a Watchmen film. Watchmen deconstructed comics for those that were familiar with its rhythms. Now the public is at a point where they are so familiar with superhero tropes that a similar film deconstruction of comic book movies can be accomplished.

However, while Snyder was expecting that cultural shift to occur with the relase of his film, I reallly think it's happened this weekend, with The Dark Knight.

Dark Knight wasn't telling a superhero story. It was telling a complex crime story, but completely grounded within the Batman universe, pulling the best elements of both, and ramping up the drama, the stakes, the themes to levels you can only achieve with something like a comic book story. This was a crime drama overlaid with a brilliant examination of the extremes of good vs evil, black and white, with every shade in between.

Hopefully, this will signal a sea-change in the types of stories that movie studios feel can be told within the framework of a superhero story. I fear that because of the budgets and the need to make these types of films EVENT films that we'll not be able to get the nuance and subtlety that you can get from a great comic book story told over the course of a dozen or more issues. How many times can characters be put through the wringer at these escalating stakes and it not become even more repetitive and dull?

The Watchmen film is telling a specific story that has been proven to be effective and multi-layered. Dark Knight, while not based on any paticular piece of comic literature, definitely was born from an IDEA, not simply the desire to make a sequel and feature the next villain out of Batman's Rogue's Gallery. But I don't know if other comic properties will be able to be about something more than being a sequel.

Iron Man has a good head start in that there is an established comic story arc where Tony Stark battles alcoholism. That, when layered into the next Iron Man sequel, will make for a compelling, 'on purpose' sort of story.

Spider-Man 4, on the other hand, is going to be just the next sequel. Some themes and ideas might be able to be tacked onto it, but we're already beyond that with this franchise. Incredible Hulk tried to sort of be about something, but I felt it ended up a bit flat. I can't imagine how a sequel will be any more compelling. However, with all of these Marvel films, they're all leading up to an eventual Avengers film, which could be something really amazing if done right.

A future comic book film that could definitely be 'about' something is Captain America. I think there's never been a better time to do a film that allows this country to reflect on what it once stood for, and contrast that to what it does now. How America interfaced with the world 60 years ago, and how much it's changed today. If they just make Captain America a fun, superhero film, I think they'll have missed a chance to do something special. They can and should reach for a cross between Dark Knight and Saving Private Ryan.

In any event, superhero films now have a chance to reach for epic concepts and themes, not just epic special effects. Let's see who chooses to take up that challenge.

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