Friday, 27 July 2012

If you don't like The Dark Knight Rises you are WRONG!


The Dark Knight Rises has been out for a week now and I've already seen it twice. I absolutely love it. It's getting generally good reviews (it's average rating on Rotten Tomatoes is 86%) but there have been a few dissenting voices on the the internet. Now, normally I have no problem with opinions that differ from my own and I'm always eager to hear views that challenge my way of thinking. But here's my problem. The majority of people complaining about The Dark Knight Rises are wrong. Objectively, categorically and absolutely wrong. 

I've narrowed down most of the criticisms of the film that I've come across so far to four common complaints. I will now list those complaints and explain why those making them are wrong, wrong, wrong. I would like you to imagine that each complaint is being said in the voice of Droopy.

1) "I couldn't understand Bane's voice!"

I don't get this criticism at all. If anything I'd say that Bane's booming, theatrical voice is clearer than anybody else's in the film. In fact a friend of mine recently made a far more accurate criticism relating to Bane's voice, when he compared it to The Voice from Seinfeld. So is it over the top? Yes. Hammy? Perhaps. But difficult to hear? If you think so, perhaps this is the link for you.

For me, the over the top nature of Tom Hardy's performance as Bane is part of the film's appeal, and this leads us nicely to our next complaint....

2) "It's too realistic!"

I've seen a lot of people around the 'net complaining about director Christopher Nolan's decision to ground his Dark Knight trilogy in something resembling the real world. I often get the impression that fans who make this complaint feel that Nolan's toned down the more 'comic-booky' elements of the Batman myth to make it more palatable for a wider audience. They perhaps feel that Nolan is embarrassed by his source material and seeks to distance himself from it. I get the impression that this notion has put some fans on the defensive and led them to be more inclined to dislike the trilogy. It's certainly true that parts of the trilogy resemble a crime thriller more than a superhero movie. Indeed Nolan has cited Michael Mann's Heat as "sort of an inspiration" for his second Batman film, The Dark Knight. But I personally wouldn't go as far as to say that the films are "too realistic".

For a start, let's remember that at the core of each of the three films we have a man in a giant bat-suit. In the third film he has a flying car. It's not quite Mean Streets is it? And while there are parts that are grounded in 'reality', they're only there to make the more absurd parts more effective. For example, part of what makes The Dark Knight so brilliant for me is that you've got your average Hollywood cops 'n' robbers movie and then all of a sudden these two costumed nutjobs are plonked down right in the middle of it! Neither the cops nor the robbers know what to do or how to react in the face of Batman and the Joker. They don't understand them or their motives. This is because two comic book archetypes have just sprung straight off the page and into the 'real' world, and the 'real' world is changed because of it.

And what about The Dark Knight Rises and it's villain, Bane? As I mentioned earlier he is possibly the most campy and over the top villain of all three films. Even his evil scheme is straight out of a superhero comic or a Roger Moore Bond film. Holding a city hostage with a nuclear bomb that's going to blow up anyway? It's crazy! And his decision to keep Bruce Wayne alive in the Pit? What is that if not a variation on the old easily escapable death traps from the sixties Adam West TV series? I'm not criticising here, I loved all of this. But it's hardly "too realistic" is it?

I would argue then that Nolan's films don't feature realistic heroes and villains at all. They feature proper, genuine, bona fide, comic book super-heroes and super-villains and they're the better for it!

3) "It's too different from the comic!"

The Dark Knight Rises is a film that features scenes and themes that are inspired by or reminiscent of such classic comic tales as The Dark Knight Returns, The Cult, Vengeance of Bane, Knightfall, No Man's Land, and A Lonely Place of Dying, and yet there are still those who complain that it differs too much from the comic. One complaint I've heard far too much of is "Why didn't they just name Robin Dick Grayson instead of John Blake?" I find this complaint ridiculous to be honest. In the comic there have been four male Robins and I saw at least three of them reflected in the character of John Blake. Blake's father was killed by a gangster and he grew up in poverty, just like Jason Todd! Blake deduced Bruce Wayne's secret identity and earnestly believes that Gotham needs a Batman, just like Tim Drake! Blake showed himself to be more grounded and sociable than Wayne, and with his distaste for Gordon's compromise he may even be more inherently noble and heroic than Wayne, just like Dick Grayson! To me Dick Grayson has always been Bruce Wayne without the grumpiness and the hang ups. He's a natural leader and understands and gets on with people better than Wayne. These are the qualities that could possibly one day make Grayson a more effective Batman than Wayne. These are also qualities that were abundantly evident in John Blake throughout the film. When you have a character who embodies Robin in so many ways you have to ask yourself, seriously, what's in a name?

Another common complaint is "The Batman in the comics wouldn't give up like the movie Batman did!" Well yes, there's a certain interpretation of the character featured in certain comics that would never hang up his cape for good. For example, Frank Miller's grim, obsessed soldier version of Batman would never end his war on crime. Even The Dark Knight Returns, Miller's ending for the Batman legend, has a sequel. But Batman is over seventy years old and there are many versions of the character. What about the Batman of Earth Two, who retired to marry Catwoman and raise a daughter? It took the death of his wife, his own impending death from cancer and an unstoppable, magically powered foe to tempt him out of retirement. What about Batman #131 (1960), which features a retired Bruce Wayne who has married Kathy (Batwoman) Kane and left the crime-fighting to Dick Grayson and Bruce Wayne Junior? What about Robin #7 (1994), in which Bruce Wayne is prepared to retire and leave the mantle of the Batman to Azrael, until he finds out that Azrael is a murdering psychopath? Given that all these different interpretations of Batman exist, couldn't we just allow Nolan to show us a version of Batman that would be driven to eight years of solitude by the death of the woman he loved? Couldn't we allow Nolan to provide us with at least one more universe where Batman can give up all the pain and struggle in order to marry Catwoman and have holidays in Florence for the rest of his life?

Can't we just let Batman have one more happy ending?

4) "It's too dark and depressing!"

No. It isn't. It really, really isn't. Granted, it's quite violent and a lot of people die, but personally I find the whole trilogy to be uplifting, optimistic and inspirational. It's basic message is, people (specifically the people of Gotham City) are inherently good and worth saving. In Batman Begins we meet Thomas Wayne, a man who believes in Gotham City. Thomas pours his fortune and his heart into the city and when he's killed the city gives up on itself and descends into poverty and crime. This continues until Thomas' son Bruce inspires the city to believe in itself again with his symbol, The Batman. Batman comes up against a variety of different people who try and convince him that Gotham isn't worth saving. Ra's Al Ghul, Bane and Talia believe that Gotham has forfeited its right to exist and must be wiped off the face of the Earth, but through all three films the people of Gotham continue to reward the Batman's faith in them. The second film contains one of the most explicit examples of this, when two boatloads of Gothamites defy the Joker and refuse to murder each other. At the end of the second film Batman and Gordon try to inspire the people of Gotham with a lie, Harvey Dent. But in the third film we see that the lie fails and it's the honest and pure symbol of the Batman that proves to be the most effective and enduring inspiration for the people of Gotham. Foley wants to bury his head in the sand but seeing Batman's symbol inspires him to heroically sacrifice his life. Catwoman can't understand why Batman continues to struggle for the people of Gotham; she tells him "You don't owe these people any more!" But Batman eventually inspires her to return to aid Gotham, which leads to Bane's ultimate defeat. And of course John Blake is inspired to continue Batman's heroic legacy.

One of the main messages of the trilogy then is that people are inherently good, they just need an inspiring symbol to point them in the right direction. Hmmm, where have I heard that before? Oh that's right! Marlon Brando's Jor-El in Superman:The Movie!
"They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you... my only son."
And you're trying to tell me that this film is too dark and depressing?! You're trying to tell me that this film is ashamed of it's comic-book, super-hero roots?!

I'm sorry, but you're wrong. Just plain wrong.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Meanwhile...Before Watchmen

I was recently reading issue 2 of Superman: The Secret Years (1985) when I stumbled across something that struck me as rather interesting and worth sharing. Meanwhile... was a column that ran in the back of DC Comics for a while in the '80s. It was written by the then Vice President and Editor of DC Comics, Dick Giordano (a true comic book legend). In the Meanwhile... column that ran in DC's comics dated March, 1985 Dick discussed two upcoming projects that he was very excited about. One was an idea pitched by Alan Moore based on the newly acquired Charlton heroes tentatively titled Watchmen. The other was a project by Frank Miller that involved "one of the most popular super-heroes ever." I think we can safely assume he is referring to what would become Dark Knight Returns. 

Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns are usually (and quite rightly) hailed as two of the greatest comics series ever made. The influence of these two series is still felt in the world of super-hero comics to this day. Indeed, DC are currently releasing a series of prequels to Watchmen and many of Miller's ideas (i.e. his depiction of Jim Gordon and his depiction of the Waynes' murder) have become iconic and enduring aspects of the Batman legend.  These two series are such a part of the language that we use to discuss super-hero comics that I find it fascinating to read something from a time when they were just upcoming projects. Many of you have probably come across this particular Meanwhile... column before but I just found it so interesting that I thought I'd share it here.

Here's a close up of the part where Dick discusses Watchmen and DKR....

...and here's the whole thing,

By the way, Superman: The Secret Years is a great mini series written by Bob Rozakis with art by Curt Swan. It's about Superman's college years and has some brilliant covers by none other than Frank Miller. It seems to have been forgotten as it was wiped out of continuity by the Crisis on Infinite Earths almost as soon as it was released, but it's worth a read if you ever see it on ebay or in a second hand shop.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Sweet Superman: The Legacy of Christopher Reeve

Recently on Twitter comics writer Gail Simone retweeted a fan who expressed a preference for a "sweet, naively optimistic" Superman. This tweeter is not alone in her desire to see a "sweet" Man of Steel. Yale Stewart's Little League, a webcomic featuring cute, saccharine, mini versions of DC heroes is gaining a lot of attention, and one of the main criticisms of DC Comics' recently revamped 'New 52' Superman is that his cockiness and arrogance is out of character and that Superman should be more humble. But has Superman always traditionally been such a nice and humble gent? I would argue that "sweet" is a relatively recent interpretation of the character and that "cocky and arrogant" is a far more traditional way of depicting Superman.

Fans of DC Comics' recent Superman reboot, as seen in the pages of Grant Morrison's Action Comics, have argued that Morrison has returned the character to something resembling his Golden Age roots. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's Superman, as seen in early issues of Action Comics from the 1930s, was a particularly cocky fellow and whether he was forcing foreign nations to stop warring with each other or threatening to kill individuals if they didn't stop gambling, the Superman of the 1930s was always arrogantly imposing his will on others. In a similar fashion, Morrison's Superman has been seen dangling corrupt businessman off of buildings and laughing at the efforts of the police to capture him. It would seem then that the comparison of Golden Age and New 52 Superman is an apt one. But I would go a step further and argue that the depiction of Superman as "cocky and arrogant" is not limited to these two eras.

Rags Morales' Superman, featured in Grant Morrison's Action Comics

Golden Age Superman lasted roughly throughout the 1940s and was followed by the Silver Age Superman of the 1950s and 1960s. Silver Age Superman was, quite frankly, the very definition of arrogance. It was quite common for this Superman to abuse his mighty powers and employ them in the execution of some cruel prank played on Lois and Jimmy, his defenceless mortal chums. And Silver Age Superman wasn't above using mind controlling devices to bend the will of his foes, such as the time he devised an "anti evil ray" to eradicate evil impulses across the globe. But these characterisations were a lot of fun and can easily be dismissed as typical of the un-sophisticated comic book story-telling of the era. What about 1970s Superman?

There was a big streak of arrogance running through Superman during the 1970s and the early part of the '80s. In Superman #233 (1971) Denny O' Neil rendered all Kryptonite ineffective and Superman couldn't have been happier! It was left to Clark's boss Morgan Edge to ponder the ramifications of a completely indestructible super-being, because Superman was too busy showing off. It later took the presence of a power leeching sand duplicate from another dimension to take Superman down a peg or two.  In Superman #247 (1972) Superman has to be taken down a further peg by the Guardians, who show Superman that he may be interfering with human history just by existing. In DC Comics Presents #27-29 (1980) Superman arrogantly steals a macguffin from the Martian Manhunter by force and then attempts to cross into the afterlife to rescue Supergirl. As a result he has to be taught a lesson in humility by the Spectre.

In all these instances (and more) Superman learns humility, but it is usually a lesson that comes from some outside force, not some innate humility on Superman's part.  So what happened to change things?

Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve happened!

Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve have probably influenced the characterisation of Superman more than anyone else in the past three decades. In Donner's 1978 movie, Superman, Reeve portrays Superman as an extremely humble and, yes, sweet character.  It really works. The humility that Reeve brings to the role is a big part of what makes his Superman such a likeable character. Also, Reeve has to deliver some lines that even in the context of the film could have appeared corny. For example, when Superman tells Lois that he's here to fight for truth, justice and the American Way, she laughs at him. But Reeve delivers the lines with such humble sincerity that it's Lois' cynicism that seems daft.

Reeve gave such a definitive performance that it wasn't long before his influence permeated the comics portrayal of the Man of Steel. This became particularly prevalent when John Byrne revamped the character in 1986. After 1986, Superman was always considering the limits of his power and his right to impose it on others.  In one late eighties story, after being forced to kill, Superman decides off his own back that he's too much of a menace to remain on Earth and exiles himself in to space!

Superman by Jerry Ordway

There have been many interesting stories featuring this new humble Superman but in the past few years this portrayal has grown a bit stale and it's possible to argue that the depiction of a humble, good natured Superman has been taken too far. For example in Infinite Crisis (2005) we saw a Superman who was so humble he was almost crippled with doubt. In that story Geoff Johns had Batman famously put Superman down with the line "The last time you inspired anyone you were dead." Wonder Woman meanwhile was busy accusing Superman of being a naive idealist in response to his criticism of her actions in killing Max Lord. As it happens Greg Rucka wrote the perfect resolution to Superman's doubt in the pages of Adventures of Superman, but if you had just read Infinite Crisis you would have just seen Superman doubting himself with very little resolution. J. Michael Staczynski's recent storyline in Superman, 'Grounded', had the Man of Steel so shaken with self-doubt that he embarked on a walking trip across America to reconnect with the common man. To my mind one of the major flaws in JMS' tale was the fact that self-doubt-Superman was a concept that had been done to death by the time 'Grounded' began. (There were of course other flaws in the story.)

This then is where Christopher Reeve's "sweet" and humble Superman has led us. Reeve's depiction worked at the time but I would argue that in sticking too slavishly to his interpretation for far too long DC Comics led the character down a creative dead end. By the time 'Grounded' finished a change was long over due and thankfully a change was exactly what we got! The Superman we've been seeing recently in the pages of Morrison's Action Comics doesn't spend any time worrying over the right thing to do, he does what he feels in his heart is right. It really is a breath of fresh air to see a Superman that is so full of confidence and, yes, arrogance too!

So, yes, Superman can be sweet and naively optimistic and it can work. But let's not pretend that he's always been that way. And let's remember that too much sweetness can be bad for your health, even if you're Superman!

Yale Stewart