AS the caped crusader wallows yet again in his misery, Siobhan Synnot looks forward to cinema superheroes with less alter-ego and more punch
Did you dream of being a superhero as a child? Plans for world domination could be foiled with the flick of a cape. Evil villains despatched with a biff and a kerpow. Startling, figure-hugging leotards could be worn in public without generating a snigger. And you could rest assured that all superpowers would be exercised responsibly by men of moral certainty.
Not any more. In the past two decades, the superhero’s fight against evil has included his own dark urges. In Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989, Michael Keaton was put in a rubber exoskeleton, deprived of Robin, and was clearly ambivalent about the task of doing good. Ever since then it’s become a case of anything you can do, I can do darker. In 2000, X-Men’s first scene was set in a concentration camp, while much of the comedy shading Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man was of the rueful if-only-they-knew variety, reinforced in Marc Webb’s reboot earlier this month as a pile-up of adolescent angst for Andrew Garfield
In the past, your choice of favourite superhero was more revealing than a Rorschach test; Superman people tended to be optimistic, Batman followers were more pessimistic. But even that theory packed its bags and went home to mother after Superman Returns, where Brandon Routh replaced the side-parted and tragically departed Christopher Reeve. Always a hero with Christ-like tendencies, the emphasis was now on Clark Kent’s self-sacrificing suffering: sure, you’ll believe a man can fly, but you’ll also believe that he’s unable to commit to Lois Lane.
The superhero as antisocial, tortured narcissist has, at its apex, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight; a trilogy that is bleaker and literally darker than any other mainstream superhero saga. The final chapter officially uncloaks on Friday, and marks the end of Christian Bale’s tenure. I admire Nolan, I like heroes who dress in a manner that would make heads turn down at the local fetish bar, and I hope The Dark Knight Rises to the occasion once again. But I am not entirely sorry to see the back of the Bat if it means we can start to move on from superheroes whose fatherless upbringing and urge for vengeance gnaws at the soul.
Introspection and brooding have become as much a part of movie superheroes as a cape and a celibate lifestyle. Everyone can relate to feeling lonely, isolated, awkward and different. But classic comic books offered an escape from these feelings, not an exploration of them, and there’s a danger that in portraying the superpowered as messed-up losers, the self-loathing modern hero is becoming a superbore.
Comic book writer Mark Millar already seems to have lost patience. “We’re so busy making them cool and angst-ridden that we forget what appealed to us,” he says. “I didn’t want to be Batman so I could cry about my parents dying; I wanted to be Batman because he’s got a f***ing great car and a utility belt.”
It’s reached the stage where some of us feel wistfully nostalgic for the old days before superheroes became as unhinged as their evil nemeses. Before Burton and Nolan, comic book fans may recall Batman was a more sociable superhero, to the point that he had a spin-off comic book, The Brave And The Bold, where he joined forces with some of the lesser superheroes in the DC Comics universe to bash crime. And maybe it is time for the Dark Knight to see the light once again.
The success of Avengers Assemble suggests audiences are already in the mood for something more upbeat. Even the Hulk, rarely mistaken for a ray of sunshine, seemed to lighten up this summer. Back when Eric Bana was Bruce Banner, you’d want to see him when he’s angry, just because it would be a refreshing change from turgid Freudian dramatics. In the Avengers, Mark Ruffalo’s doctor is more rueful about his anger management issues and while it’s still tough to be a superhero – Robert Downey Jr’s wry hipster Tony Stark describes his Iron Man powers as “a terrible privilege” – most of the Avengers’ team seem to fall in behind Thor (Chris Hemsworth) who is prepared to put his own problems on the backboiler and give the bad guys a good Asgard-kicking.
More significantly, Avengers Assemble did a bundle at the box office – it’s now the third highest grossing film of all time – which is reason enough for film studios to pause for thought. They might also recall that the most popular X-Man, Wolverine, is the one who is least conflicted about his superpowers and the best equipped to beat up adversaries. It’s precisely this lack of inner moral conflict that makes him appealing to turmoiled teens.
Batman and Avengers Assemble represent two drastically different approaches to the superhero movie – one dark and dangerous, the other fast and frothy, but no less smart. As the Dark Knight rises, is the sun setting on glum superheroes? Whatever Batman says about our need for action heroes who reflect our own insecurities and alienation, maybe audiences are voting for the pleasure principle instead.
Of course you can’t do away entirely with angst-ridden superheroes – where’s the heft if you have a Superman with sang froid or a bullish, “no worries” Batman? – but the message of noir is that there are no heroes, and that’s something of a narrative cul-de-sac.
What still surprises me about movie superhero reinventions is that while they are happy to toy with psychology, their ambitions remain almost exclusively homoheroic. Yes, Scarlett Johansson is part of the Avengers’ superteam, and Anne Hathaway plays Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises – but the Black Widow was noticeably the only superhero who didn’t have an origins movie of her own before Avengers Assemble, and Nolan’s interest in female characters seems best illustrated by the cheer that went up in my cinema when Batman’s annoying long-term love (Maggie Gyllenhaal) suddenly toppled out of a skyscraper.
While Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man pore over their daddy issues, Wonder Woman and Supergirl are ignored by modern movie studios. Forget Kryptonite; developing interesting and engaging female superheroes is the real Achilles heel in Superworld.
Hollywood’s wariness is understandable: the cutting room floor is littered with female crusaders of various shades of heroism, from Halle Berry’s Catwoman to Jennifer Garner’s Elektra to Helen Slater’s Supergirl, with a special corner of hell reserved for Charlize Theron’s Aeon Flux. Admittedly, Flux is more anime than comic star, but the way the film dribbles over Theron in her bodacious lacquered-on fetish costumes is emblematic of Hollywood’s worst impulses when offered the chance to create a female action hero. Drained of emotional interest, to say nothing of narrative coherence, they aren’t so much acrobatic as robotic, as if behaving like a lobotomised zombie ninja is a glorious feminist statement. Others, like the female X-Men, are emotional to the point of exasperating, acting as a soppy chorus of care-givers while the boys do the fun stuff and crack out the one-liners.
So lads, how about it? Put the exhausted, cranky superhero genre to bed already, and let’s kickstart a new wave of feisty, self-assured heroines who actually know their way around a pair of tights.
• The Dark Knight Rises is in cinemas from Friday
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