Why So Serious?


With fans now citing The Dark Knight as being both dark and realistic, it seems that superhero movies are trying their darndest to grow up…but in doing so they can evolve into a very different type of movie.

(Note: I’m gonna pop up the Top 10 Superhero Movies yet to come…but after that, there won’t be any more superhero posts for a while..I think we all have enough! However, don’t forget to read Fiona’s other Batman article here.)

“…Nolan’s follow-up to Batman Begins is a dark, complex and disturbing film, not the least of which because it grafts its heroics onto the blueprint of actual reality rather than that of spandex-clad supermen.” Todd Gilchrist, IGN Movies.

The above is just one of the many quotes by critics and Batman fans alike on ‘The Dark Knight’. Nolan’s Batman movies have been described in many ways, but dark, gritty and realistic are some of the most common adjectives used. Realistic? Personally, I think that a man in a batsuit flinging himself off a building is anything but realistic. The darkness, however, I can comprehend. The film is, often, visually dark aside from some of the Joker’s daylight robberies and the theme (that of a cities’ inability to deal with rising crime) is rather dark and depressing too.

Batman has taken on a new image that is very different from that of his fellow superheroes

Batman has taken on a new image that is very different from that of his fellow superheroes

Why this sudden eagerness to describe the movie as dark, above anything else? Countless films over the years have embraced the dark side, if you like: even Walt Disney darkened our cinema screens with the death of Bambi’s mother. It was a justifiable darkness; it was necessary to the storyline and most people agree that the best children’s stories contain moments of sadness or fear. Outside of the animated sphere, film noir introduced darkness to the movies on many levels, as did many other classic films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’.

Yet, this new praise for darkness seems to be currently reserved for superhero movies and other films in the sci-fi/fantasy genre. I admit that I’m also guilty of using ‘dark’ as a description when attempting to coerce people into reading Harry Potter books and the like..”I know they’re for kids, but I swear they get darker the more you read!” Herein, perhaps, lies the answer: countless adults who revel in the world of Batman and other comic book adaptations, use ‘dark’ as a term to justify an adult interest in what could be perceived as a children’s past-time. Here are a few more quotes to back me up:

“Sensational, grandly sinister and not for the kids, The Dark Knight elevates pulp to a very high level”.-Michael Philips, Chicago Tribune

and

“It is the adult tone of The Dark Knight — arguably the first comic-book movie whose PG-13 rating should be taken seriously — that is likely to fuel its popularity at the box office.”-Rene Rodriguez-MiamiHerald.com.

I think it’s a pity that children under 13 risk nightmares due to a Batman movie, but in many viewer’s eyes, this makes the new instalment all the more sophisticated. Rene Rodriguez of the Miami Herald goes on to say that Nolan has “salvaged the durable Batman saga from the pop-culture junkyard of passé camp and made Gotham City hip and menacing”

But wait a minute…what about Burton’s Batman?! Are we forgetting all about that wonderful mixture of darkness and fantasy? Tim Burton’s Batman made the caped crusader cool again, after the camp Adam West movie of 1966. Burton added darkness in bucketfuls, capturing a Gotham that was dreary and fog filled, yet his films contained a fairytale element that reminded you that it was all in good humour. Oddly, when you compare them, Burton’s movies are visually darker; Nolan’s sleek city landscapes are full of shiny skyscrapers with none of Gotham’s old fasioned alleyways and warehouses. So, if Burton’s movies already offered the darkness that Batman fans crave, (and so did the WB animation of the 90s btw), what is it that makes Nolan’s films, apparantly, so much more mature? Here we come back to the realism argument..

‘The Dark Knight’ crew shot on location in Chicago for four weeks, so that Gotham would be a recognisable city landscape. In a discussion about the film, Chris Nolan stated that “This one is more of a crime epic that sprawls across an entire city, like Michael Mann’s Heat. That’s the feel we were going for.” And really, when you think about it, if you take away the batsuit and the other crazy outfits, you’re left with a thriller, but not so much a superhero, movie. Batman is bound to be the hero who comes closest to being a regular guy because he doesn’t have any particular power: He can’t fly like Superman or climb walls like Spidey. There’s nothing supernatural about him. I’m not sure that Nolan could have achieved ‘Heat’ like status with Wolverine or even Ironman as his protagonist. In fact, with his supply of high tech gadgets and with Lucius Fox playing the ‘Q’ role, this Batman was reminiscent of James Bond. Nolan’s, and the fans’ eagermess for realism in the Batman movies means that this new version of Bruce Wayne is pulling away from the superhero genre. People want Batman to be all grown up, but that inevitably means leaving the fun and fantasy element behind. ‘Ironman’ succeeded in the cinemas without having to dip its toe into too much doom and gloom. Robert Downey Junior’s cheeky playboy may have had a serious side but not to the extent of Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne.

Striving for realism, Nolan left behind many Batman associations. There’s no cartoon violence here: the Joker uses machine guns during that over the top bank robbery. Batman also leaves Gotham on a mission which brings him to Hong Kong. I’m not sure that this was totally necessary: I suppose  it’s just another way for Nolan to prove that this Batman is not a character resigned to Gotham City but a man of the real world. The problem is, the more that Nolan moves away from the old fashioned Batman ideals, the less his film fits the superhero genre. At Film.com, Christine Champ raises a similar debate in her article ‘Why so Gloomy, Hollywood?‘ Of ‘The Dark Knight’ and other superhero flicks, she wonders:

“Is this Hollywood’s attempt to make superheroes (and superhero films) more realistic? In an era where reality shows rule the TV networks, how close to reality do we want our heroes?”

Exactly how close to reality do we want our heroes? Isn’t ‘going to the movies’ all about escapsim and entertainment? It can depend on what you are viewing, but with superhero movies, at least, forgetting about our worries for a while should be garaunteed. Some will say that ‘The Dark Knight’ is in tune with our ever changing zeitgeist, or some malarkey like that. In respose to Christine Champ’s article, one reader (by the name of RobGrizzly) stated that “Life reflects art, art reflects life. Yes, superhero movies are so pessimistic because that’s what we have become as a society”. If that’s what he believes, fair enough, yet surely a pessimistic society is all the more in need of a superhero who provides enjoyment and escapism.

David Ansen sums things up in Newsweek when he says:

“You may emerge more exhausted than elated. Nolan wants to prove that a superhero movie needn’t be disposable, effects-ridden junk food, and you have to admire his ambition. But this is Batman, not “Hamlet.” Call me shallow, but I wish it were a little more fun.”

All in all, Nolan’s realism approach to Batman has zapped it of the unique Gotham experience which Burton’s movies offered and turned it into a much more serious look at the world of crime. The ‘Why so serious’?’ tagline is almost ironic. In what I promise will be my last quote(!), RR in his MiamiHerald review says:
No one doubts The Dark Knight is going to be really big, because it looks less like a superhero movie and more like American Gangster — cops versus robbers led by huge stars. The excitement around that movie almost has nothing to do with Batman himself.”

I rest my case!

If you still don’t have enough of the Caped Crusader, you can go read Fiona’s review of The Dark Knight here or her earlier Batman article here. That’s it, I’m all batted out.

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