For Treat 4 it's another article I wrote for Splice. My first written in 2008 or 2009. Quite a while ago. hope you like.
‘Is it a bird? No, it’s a psychopath.’ The Dark Knight and the New Superhero Film
by Robin Bell
I’d like to introduce this analysis with two personal memories which relate to the subject. A huge part of any student’s analysis should come from their personal consumption and feelings towards film, as I believe it heightens any analysis. Every person’s viewpoint comes from a specific angle which will reflect how each film is seen and read.
The first story goes all the way back to my childhood and the moment I received a batch of comics including The Beano and Dandy and many containing superheroes such as Superman, Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk and Batman. I remember how happy I was sitting on my bedroom floor reading all of these. The Hulk and Batman were my favourite. I re-read these comics again and again, devouring them for a whole summer. They were tattered by the end of the school holidays because I had handled them so much and, even now, reminds me of childhood.
Jump forward twenty years to summer 2008. I found myself in New York the week that The Dark Knight, the biggest film of the year, was released. That week it proved extremely difficult to get tickets to any screening of the film anywhere in Manhattan. Every screening was fully booked. With much persistence we managed to get two spare seats to a midnight screening on a Thursday night. We took our seats in a completely packed IMAX cinema and the excitement began.
Two hours later the film had finished and as we walked through the streets of New York I felt utterly shell shocked. The intense atmosphere of the film had really gotten to me, and I couldn’t believe that what I had just watched was, in fact, a mainstream superhero summer blockbuster.
To think that these two experiences come from the same source – the superhero genre – shows how much development has occurred within this genre. From generic codes and conventions through to the production side, distribution and exhibition and even consumption The Dark Knight has broken barriers, something I want to explore here.
Superheroes, The Origin Story – From Page to Screen
Before there were comic books, there were comic strips, the first of these appearing in The New York Sunday World in 1895. But it wasn’t until the 1930s that the comic book as a distinct medium became popular and this was mainly because of the rise of the superhero.
Superheroes were mostly strong, muscular men, who had an alternative identity. There were usually two sides to the superhero; the everyday person with a regular job and life, and the strong superhero who only appeared when there was an emergency, or a life threatening situation. It was what America and the world needed during this time of upheaval, from the Depression through the Second World War. And the three top selling superhero comics were Superman, Captain America and Batman.
Superman and Captain America are self explanatory, both being patriotic, straight-laced forces for good (‘Truth, Justice and the American Way’). Batman was different. From the start, Batman’s stories were grim and gritty – in the first episode, seen in Detective Comics, the villain fell into a vat of acid, which killed him. Not showing any remorse for causing his death, Batman observed "A fitting end for his kind”. Not what you expect from a wholesome superhero that kids might look up to. So Batman had already separated himself from the usual superhero formula.
What attracted the audience to Batman was the fact he was perfectly pitched between the noir, detective heroes of the time and the superheroes. He might not have had super powers but he had a great mind, and cool gadgets (the bat suit was something kids have always admired).
The next rung of popularity for the comics came through television. The Adventures of Superman starring George Reeves came to US TV in the 1950’s after a popular 15 part Columbia film serial. This series was hugely popular and paved the way for more superheroes on the television. One of the most popular was the Batman TV series from the sixties, featuring Adam West as Bruce Wayne/Batman, Burt Ward as his sidekick Robin and featuring a wide array of colourful villains. “They called it "Camp," ironic comic perfection. The key to Batman was in the lead actors playing outlandishly fantastic situations with a straight face, and the stunt-casting of hot TV personalities.” The success of this TV show contributed to the rise in sales of colour televisions, and also led to a feature length Batman film (1966).
The 1st Superhero film?
When looking at the origin of the superhero genre in film, there is some debate as to which film is seen to be the first, the one which established the conventions of the genre that we know today. Was it Batman, the movie?
Not many of the genre’s conventions are present in the film, especially compared to, for example, Superman: The Movie from 1978. Both films are brightly coloured, family friendly movies, featuring the titular superheroes in tightly fitting costumes. Both of them had simple good against evil storylines, and both of them had the hero saving ordinary civilians. The main difference is that Superman takes the material seriously whilst Batman parodies it.
The Superman producers – Alexander and Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler – bought the film rights for Superman from DC Comics. Tom Mankiewicz who was the film’s creative consultant gives the Salkind’s all the credit, stating “I guess they saw the future in making a film out of Superman... nobody thought this would make a very good picture. Everybody, I guess, had the memory of the Batman television series and they thought this is going to be campy, and you can’t have two and a half hours of camp.”
To get credibility for the film the producers had to get bankable names on board. They first enlisted Godfather writer Mario Puzo followed by star of that film and screen legend Marlon Brando in the role of Superman’s father Jor-El. Gene Hackman then joined as the villain Lex Luthor, despite initial reservations: “At first, I was afraid that my image as a serious actor would be tarnished. I had thought of it only as a cartoon character, and I recognised that I could make Lex Luthor into something that I could be proud of.” Through these people being involved the project gained legitimacy. The big names also gave the film makers freedom to cast an unknown in the lead role and still advertise the film using Brando and Hackman as the main focus. The focus was successfully moved away from Superman being a comic book, or a television show, to being a movie.
Even though the film lays down all the conventions of the superhero genre that are still adhered to nowadays, and became the first ever comic book superhero epic, it begins by using the conventions of science fiction.
The film opens with a prologue in which we see red curtains being pulled back to reveal an Action comics comic book, a neat juxtaposition of the two forms of media, which sets up that we are viewing a filmed version of the story of the comic book character. A caption reads June 1938 and a child reads from the comic book and introduces the Daily Planet. This is an important introduction to the main setting for the superhero and action elements of the film in its second half. After that the camera pans up into space for the title sequence, names whooshing towards the camera, before we arrive at the planet Krypton, where the opening twenty minutes of the film take place.
We are first introduced to Krypton by zooming through space and into the blue planet. Its surface is mostly ice and we keep travelling towards a glacier city which in the centre holds a white dome emanating with light. Pointedly, the first words spoken are “This is no fantasy, no careless product of wild imagination”.
These are science fiction conventions the audience would be used to, whilst also taking the material intensely seriously as outlined by the opening line of dialogue. By opening with familiar and respected actor Marlon Brando it perhaps assuages the fears of a sceptical audience that the film might be comic, childish, ridiculous and camp, it also provides the audience conventions they know and understand.
The first forty-five minutes track Superman, or as he’s named on Earth Clark Kent, through his upbringing, and how he deals with his powers during these years. Basically everything Smallville covers now. The main thrust of Superman: The Movie is the origin story, and this film can be considered the sine qua non of the genre. Every superhero has an origin story, telling how they gained their powers and decided to fight crime. It may be revealed in their first appearance, or not until an eventual flashback, but once established it sets ground rules for which tropes are applicable to that particular superhero. This itself has now become a narrative convention of the superhero genre.
The action then moves to Metropolis, and Clark’s adult life, for the first time. Metropolis serves as the film’s alternative representation of New York. The urban, capital city location is a hugely important aspect of the superhero genre. For one thing it represents America, the American way of life and the American Dream. Secondly it provides the film with the sense of scale required. Most importantly it gives the superhero the opportunity to save lives on a large scale, and it provides plenty of opportunities for action situations that a sparsely populated location wouldn’t.
The city portrayed through Metropolis in this film is very different to other cinematic portrayals of contemporary New York at the time. Sure, there is crime in the city as we see in Superman’s first hero montage; after saving Lois from her helicopter he goes to foil a comedic robber, what looks like a drug deal on a boat and then save a cat from a tree. But there’s no gang warfare or street violence in the clean, mostly friendly streets of Metropolis. When citizens meet Superman it’s always with a friendly smile, glance or witty one-liner. It’s a brightly coloured, vibrant place to live, and obviously a fantastical contrast to the New York that was being presented on the screen at the time. Compare this to Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece. Although only two years earlier Scorsese’s depiction of the city is far more squalid and depressing, showing a totally different side to the city. DoP on Taxi Driver Michael Chapman says that “Whatever else Taxi Driver is or isn’t it is a kind of documentary of what New York looked like. In the seventies New York was at its nadir. It was scummy and awful.”
A key scene to examine when looking at Superman the Movie is the confrontation between Superman and arch enemy, Lex Luthor. The scene begins with Superman burrowing down into Luthor’s underground lair. He bursts through an iron door and steps into Luthor’s office with commanding power. Luthor unveils his plan, to make money through real estate by blowing up the West Coast creating a coast line out of the apparently worthless desert land he owns. Superman’s reaction is restrained, never rising to all out violence. He calls the plan a ‘sick fantasy’, until realising that two rockets are already in flight. Lifting Luthor up by his collar is the only physical threat Superman offers. This is followed by Superman labelling Luthor a ‘diseased maniac’ and throwing him, non-threateningly onto a cushioned sofa. The film does not dwell on violence, and no physical harm comes to anyone. Also notice in this sequence there is no grey area – Superman is unconditionally ‘good’ and Lex Luthor is unambiguously ‘evil’ (if charming). Superman does nothing that a true hero wouldn’t do. When Luthor overcomes Superman with the aid of some cleverly hidden Kryptonite, he claims he is better than Superman by outsmarting him with “mind over muscle”; but Superman actually escapes through the compassion of Luthor’s maligned assistant Miss Teschmacher. This showing that humanity can be a force for good is another theme and convention of the superhero genre.
In being the first of the genre, Superman was a successful endeavour for all involved, not only in box office terms with a $300 million worldwide intake, but also in paving the way for the genre with a raft of new conventions. From the brightly coloured tightly fitting suit worn by a character with a dual personality who hides his superhero side by living his daily life as a well-meaning citizen, mirroring the humanity as a force for good message that prevails throughout the genre. The dual worlds are also explored through the mirroring of superhero and villain, which in their basest sense portray a battle between good and evil, but can represent much more.
They follow a simple pattern in terms of narrative, the audience realising that by the end the superhero will overcome the villain and equilibrium will be restored, the evil plan thwarted. Audiences would also become used to the origin story, that particular narrative device being used ad infinitum with regards to the superhero genre. These conventions jumped straight from the page of the comic book, as did the look of Superman; bright colours, comic book panel framing of scenes, events culminating in the unbelievable and the fantastical. For example, the climax of the film features the titular character flying around the Earth so fast it begins to spin backwards upon its axis to reverse time, so Superman can save Lois’s life.
Superman proved this fantastical quality need not lead to parody, a la the Batman TV series. Audiences began to embrace the fantastical elements, they wanted to believe a man could fly, and not laugh at the suggestion. They wanted superheroes and escapism. It was just the right time to capitalise upon it also, as the dawning age of the blockbuster had begun a few years earlier with the double whammy of Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977). The rise of the blockbuster picture came after years of Hollywood having to turn to independent producers as they had become out of touch with their audience. This allowed directors more control, which was then taken away as through the above films Hollywood found a way to regain control through these ‘event movies’, thus leaving the landscape ripe for the release of a superhero film, and Superman was perfect to be the first of these.
Things are very different in the present. X-Men, Spider-Man, Iron Man, The incredible Hulk, the Fantastic Four have all graced the big screen in recent years. Marvel Comics have their own production company now, with Captain America and Thor films planned. Every summer the multiplexes are full to the rafters with superhero films. And in 2008, the biggest and highest-grossing (so far) of all was released.
The Dark Knight
The Dark Knight was released 24 July 2008, the sequel to the critically and commercially successful Batman Begins (2005) again directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Christian Bale in the dual role of Bruce Wayne and Batman. Expectation was high and a lot of the hype during pre release focused on the Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker. This was heightened by the tragic death of the star months before release.
Being the blockbuster hit of the summer and also obtaining widespread critical praise, The Dark Knight took over $1 billion worldwide box office, only the third film ever to do so. Was it because it was good timing, being released at the peak of the superhero boom? Was it because it’s dark themes struck a nerve in these modern times? Or was it because of the audience’s morbid fascination with seeing a dead actor play a raving psychopath so convincingly? Whatever, it was it is obvious that The Dark Knight is a film that needs to be explored to see how it relates to the times we live in; how it has changed the superhero genre, and also how it adheres to its conventions also; and finally how it has changed the genre and maybe even modern mainstream cinema.
The first aspect to look at to see how far the superhero genre has come is the director. Christopher Nolan, was a strange name from leftfield to come in and make a superhero film in the first place. But also the first sign that this version of Batman was to be more complex.
You could argue that Batman has already had an auteur behind its reigns with Tim Burton directing the 1989 version of Batman and its sequel Batman Returns (1992). For me Burton is a more visual and stylistic director whereas Nolan is more technical, story-based and complex. So whilst Burton’s gothic Gotham looked great, arguably it lacked substance and corporeality. This is something which Nolan doesn’t lack. He also brings a clinical eye and a complex take on character and story to the superhero genre. All which add to how the genre is taking a different shape, and how it is moving away from the fantastical elements or blending them in more with the world and environment of the film.
There is no better place to start to examine all of these facets of The Dark Knight than from looking at its opening sequence. Within an opening sequence a lot of exposition needs to be done – it’s an introduction to main characters, the environment and world of the film and also the tone of the story.
The Dark Knight opens with ominous clouds, billowing out in explosion, and the faint outline of the bat symbol heading towards the camera through the blue flames, but only briefly. It’s a matter of seconds before we are plunged into events. The opening shot is of a pale white cityscape, we are surrounded by mirrored buildings and the aerial camera zooms us towards one building in particular, until we’re uncomfortably close. There’s an eerie calm on the soundtrack achieved by Hans Zimmer’s score which is an ascending violin note stretched out, whining and grating.
As we arrive at the window it is shot out from within, and a quick edit takes us to a side on mid shot of the gun-man who is wearing a grotesque clown mask. After firing a cable out of the window, we are quickly taken to a corner of a street somewhere in the city of Gotham.
The camera tracks slowly to the back of a figure waiting on the corner of the street. He is framed centre of the screen, with a holdall bag over one shoulder and a clown’s mask hanging loosely from his other hand. He stands inanimate and hunched. The camera zooms in upon the mask and its empty eye holes. Tyres screech, a van pulls up, and the figure we’ve been watching draws the mask up to his face and enters the van. The music picks up a pace as we are taken back to the two masked people who are travelling down the cable across to the other building. The martial-sounding music is what you might expect from a crime film, as is the muted colour scheme. The city is alabaster white almost the only colour comes from the hideous clown masks. Aerial shots follow their descent, with a very dramatic vertiginous viewpoint, constantly moving and then swiftly editing back to the van. The camera sits in medium shot in the back seat of the van, as if the viewer is part of events. Conversation in the van regards the plan, which we now discover is masterminded by someone called ‘the Joker’, and there follows some speculation as to why he is so named. But as the action is happening at a hurtling pace the dialogue doesn’t feel like exposition.
We’re whisked along into the action with loud gunfire and screaming as their target, a bank, is held up by the criminals. A man is violently thrown over the counter, before a close up of a woman who works at the bank as one of the clown criminals moves swiftly towards her. We cut to the roof again, with a close up of the clown silencing the alarm. Once he has done so, he is shot by his accomplice, and so it is unveiled that the Joker’s plan involves members of his gang killing each other after their specific function is completed. A harsh loud drumbeat kicks in propelling the action, people are given live grenades to hold and beaten with guns as the safe cracker begins his job. Resistance comes from the bank manager who fires a shotgun at the criminals. It doesn’t take long before he is shot in the leg. As the plan comes to its end we see the back of one the criminals stalk the bank, before we’re down to just two surviving clown criminals. One is tricked to stand in just the right place as a bus comes crashing through the wall to take him out.
At the end of the scene there is some key dialogue as the bank manager states that criminals in the town ‘used to believe’ in such things as honour and respect, suggesting that the bank had criminal ties. The Joker answers that everything that doesn’t kill you ‘makes you stranger’, before revealing his scarred and painted face. He drives away from the bank and blends in with the traffic in a school bus.
The degree of violence in this opening sequence is astonishing, especially when considering that generic conventions dictate this is a film most people would assume is aimed at a family audience. This sequence and quite a lot of the film have the look and feel of a stylish crime film, perhaps Michael Mann’s Heat. We are introduced to the world of film in a number of ways in this opening sequence. Firstly the camerawork highlights the epic nature of what lies ahead, constantly zooming into the city, drawing us into the action. This is heightened by this sequence being filmed on IMAX cameras specifically for the IMAX experience. Nolan states on documentary Shooting Outside of the box, that “opening with an IMAX sequence seemed a terrific way to make an impression upon the audience, and really throw them into the action.” [Robin – reference for this quote?] He also states that the IMAX cameras were intended as dramatic tools, with a higher resolution and more sound the IMAX sequences were reserved for big, important moments in the film.
We’re economically introduced to the Joker and the chaos that ensues around him. The violent nature of the film is heightened by the swift edits, and the fact that everyone is a victim – the helpless functionaries in the bank, the manager who tried to fight back and also the criminals who helped the Joker carry out the job. Many facets of the Joker are introduced also, from the snippet of dialogue that introduces how he looks to the fact that he leaves the death of one person to chance by waiting for a bus to crash through the wall and hit him, and also his sadistic nature in how he kills the bank manager. It is this exchange which is in fact most intriguing in the information it reveals about the setting, tone and characters within the film. Firstly with the bank manager revealing that criminals used to ‘believe in things’, he also reveals that he has worked with them, this bank probably held mainly criminal money. The assumed good of humanity that is a convention of the superhero genre is subverted here, bringing a grey area to proceedings; there is no division between good and evil people, life in the real world is not that simple. The Dark Knight thus takes a step away from the fantastical world of the superhero genre almost instantly. The line the Joker delivers back says a lot about his character, that he’s seen the dark side the world has to show, and survived it, but has been affected by it and continues to be. The only way he has managed to survive in this world is to slip into anarchic psychosis. Not really a family friendly theme for the film, then.
The last shot of the Joker getting away in a school bus is also a subversive image. The school bus is a symbol of innocence and hope for the future, in that our children are being taken to school to be educated. Does this symbolise the Joker’s regression to childish ways; or is the metaphor in this shot that in all good there is something dark creeping in? Is the Joker the thorn within the roses? Later in the film the Joker will pass himself off as that most trusted of public servants, a hospital nurse – before blowing up the hospital. By the film’s end, the viewer may believe that no area of society can escape being sullied by the darker shade of humanity.
To truly analyse how a genre has developed, it is necessary to compare specific aspects. The scene from The Dark Knight that would best illustrate this is the first confrontation scene that the Batman and the Joker share, this can be found one hour and twenty three minutes into the film during chapter 23. This is after the Joker has allowed himself to be captured (it transpires) and has been placed in a holding cell as the police try to extract information. This is the first time the opposing forces come face to face to share dialogue, much like the first time Superman meets Lex Luthor in his extravagant underground bunker/home that we discussed earlier, occurring during chapter 33, one hour and forty seven minutes into the film. The difference is quite extreme.
For a start the Superman scene is played in a brightly lit, spacious setting, with extravagant decor. The Dark Knight’s setting is the dull, drab concrete and glass of a container cell, plunged into darkness. The opening dialogue in The Dark Knight scene concerns the whereabouts of Gotham District Attorney Harvey Dent. The Joker questions who Commissioner Jim Gordon, Batman’s main ally on the Gotham police force, can trust on his team. The theme of corruption immediately becomes the focus. Behind the Joker is only shadow, his painted face the only thing visible on screen. As Gordon leaves he switches the light on to reveal Batman standing behind the Joker, with the Joker unaware of the situation.
Batman doesn’t even allow the Joker to speak before smashing his head against the table – hardly the even-handed, measured approach the generic formula would have you expect of a superhero film, the sort on display in the Superman–Luthor confrontation. Later in the scene, the Joker tells Batman, “You complete me”, quoting a line from the American romantic comedy, Jerry Maguire (1996), a sly reference of subversion that exemplifies the twisted love story the Joker thinks he shares with Batman. The generic tradition is to suggest that hero and villain are mirror images of each other, similar but intrinsically different. But the power of The Dark Knight lies in the subtle undermining of this convention in that the differences between ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ are not binary, but matters of degree.
Can we describe as the Joker as ‘evil’? He’s certainly sadistic, an anarchist, probably psychotic ¬– but ‘evil’? Can he help what he does, or is he, as he repeatedly implies a product of a twisted society? Similarly, Batman’s behaviour, as the scene continues, is an erratic performance of violence, itself bordering on the psychotic – but this border is critical. He insists that he has ‘rules’ and the Joker knows there is one that he will not knowingly break. That is to kill, and he will always stop short of it. But the Joker doesn’t have any such boundaries and, it is implied, it is this distinction alone, the one between limits and chaos, which separates them.
While formally the action in this scene is quite similar to that in Superman, the execution (pardon the pun) here is more violent. Firstly Batman pulls the villain up by the collar, but instead of the hollow threat from Superman, the Joker is dragged along the table, before being slammed into a wall. In Superman, Luthor is tossed almost playfully on to a sofa, but in The Dark Knight the Joker is slammed onto a hard table then head first into the glass window (this brutally reinforced by the crunching sound design), which fractures under the force of the Jokers skull. Are these the actions of a modern hero? It should be noted that even though Batman has a ‘secret identity’, he has never been a conventional superhero. For one, he does not have any super powers. His power comes from money to pay for weaponry, his armoured suit, and innovative gadgetry. Batman is essentially a vigilante, therefore more identifiable to an audience, as he has no supernatural, alien powers that put him on a higher plateau. He is perceived as a superhero because of his comic book background and because of the presence of the convention of saving humanity. In this sequence we are not seeing conventional superhero behaviour but instead seeing a more human side to the character, resorting to criminal behaviour to try and bring the Joker’s reign of terror to an end.
In the scene discussed above there is dialogue that forms the centrepiece for the exploration of one of the key themes within The Dark Knight. The Joker says “The people need you right now, but when they don’t they’ll cast you out, like a leper. You see, their morals and their code, it’s a bad joke. You’ll be dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. They’ll show you, when the chips are down, these civilised people, they’ll eat each other.”
This speech yet again focuses on humanity. Is society bigger and stronger than base human urges? Are people inherently good, or evil? What effect does society have on affecting people’s choices? These are serious philosophical themes being explored by what was once routinely regarded as a children’s genre. But The Dark Knight has moved the goal posts on what a superhero film can achieve.
This theme is fully exemplified by the climax of the film. The Joker organises two boats to carry people away to safety from Gotham, now a city in crisis. One is full of prisoners, the other full of normal civilians, and each has a detonator for the other boat. The Joker believes that the panic of the citizens will result in a crumbling morality that will result in them blowing up the prisoners’ boat to save themselves. And on the other side are the criminals, who are supposedly not to be trusted and, knowing that the citizens will be thinking of killing them, will act first and blow up their ship.
The Joker’s experiment collapses when neither of the boats explodes. But this doesn’t prove his argument false. The character who is the spine of the whole film, and who personifies this theme is District Attorney Harvey Dent. Dent begins the film as the saviour of Gotham, even being referred to as the White Knight of Gotham. He is eventually, through the death of Rachel Dawes and the manipulation of the Joker, corrupted to do evil. Could Dent even be ‘the Dark Knight’ of the title? Dent’s story shows that, under the circumstances, even the person most committed to the law might be driven to lawlessness. Morality, in the modern world, is in constant flux. Dent says early on in the film ““You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” In his case he becomes the villain but with Gordon and Batman’s connivance, he is hoisted up as the hero whilst Batman knowingly submits to become the hunted. The ending echoes the Joker’s words from the interrogation scene.
The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) awarded The Dark Knight a ‘12A’ certificate, a decision that some found inappropriately permissive, considering the tone of the film. The BBFC has this to say about the decision “The key classification issues noted were violence and threat, though the examining team felt the violence was, in line with ‘12A’ guidelines, both impressionistic and bloodless. Examiners noted some scenes of strong threat when The Joker menaces other, sometimes innocent, characters. The strongest of these include sight of The Joker touching a gangster’s mouth with a knife before killing him (off screen) and a scene in which he presses his blade into Rachel's cheek. Examiners also discussed the film’s tone which included some dark and adult moments.” But still felt it was suitable for a 12A citing these as the reasons for why, “In the case of The Dark Knight several factors were noted which supported a ‘12A’ certificate. These included the film’s comic book style, the appeal of the work to 12 –15 year olds, the clear fantasy context and the lack of strong detail, blood or gore.” I would argue with a few of the BBFC’s conclusions here (without getting into a discussion on censorship per se). Citing the film’s ‘comic boom style’ and ‘clear fantasy context’ is to misunderstand the film. As we have discussed, it is actually a contrast to comic book style and a fantasy context of its predecessor, moving away into a more realistic and disturbing setting as outlined in the analysis above. The question is, why does it?
Firstly, comic books aren’t what they were when first launched. The original superhero films were based on comic books of the 1930s–50s (hence the prologue to Superman opening with the caption ‘June 1938’). In the 1980s the medium of the comic book changed with two important comic book publications. These two releases were Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. These releases broadened the range of what the comic book could do, and widened the audience of readers for ‘graphic novels’, as they came to be called. The characters in these were human, multi faceted and were not good or evil, black or white, they were characters who had killed in Vietnam, bombed campaigners on the streets of New York, incited violence, even raped women. The old conventions of the superhero comic book had been discarded. Aimed at children these most certainly were not. The film of Watchmen was faithful to the source in that it is set in the 1980s allowing it a sense of distance that The Dark Knight doesn’t permit. There have been a few superhero movies that have had 18 certificates, such as The Crow or the Blade films, but none that have truly presented the superhero world with such a realistic edge.
Why do film-makers want to use the superhero genre to make social comment? That is the main question to ask when looking at why The Dark Knight has begun to move the genre away from the fantastical to more reality-based representation. Could it be the delicate balance of political debate in America since the events of 11 September 2001? The first film to be affected by the disaster was, famously, a superhero film. Spider–Man (2002) originally had a trailer sequence that took place between the Twin Towers which had to be removed in respect of events. Since then, mainstream Hollywood film hasn’t exactly been prolific in its exploration of serious contemporary issues. Perhaps, then, a safe place to explore modern fears of terrorism is through the superhero genre, one step removed from reality so as to give the audience just enough distance to deal with the issues, themes and events presented. Hollywood pictures which have tried to deal with it have proved to be commercial failures, Lions for Lambs (2007) could be blamed on Tom Cruise’s poor image at the time of release but negative press and no appetite for films concerned with political issues are a more likely explanation as other films such as Rendition (2007), The Kingdom (2007) have performed well. This could also be the reason that recent Oliver Stone films such as World Trade Center (2006) and W (2008) have stayed away from the controversial aspects and been watered down, even neutered versions of what the audience is used to from Oliver Stone. Politicised fare is all over the television screens be it the news or intricate dramas like The West Wing, maybe audiences are voting with their feet in making the big screen the place for spectacle and escapism over political and social depth. Hollywood has answered by adding that depth to the spectacle, which is a tough balancing act but one that has certainly worked with The Dark Knight.
Maybe over time the wounds of that awful day and the international conflicts that followed will heal and the boom of the superhero genre will run its course. Or maybe, with such talented film-makers and such great source material that is coming from the comic book world, the films will delve ever deeper into the human psyche and society.