Superheroes are back. Now that Iron Man, with Robert Downey Jr in the title role, has been such a, well, superhit, Hollywood is ready to film nearly every comic book ever written. The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to Batman Begins, is expected next week. A new version of The Hulk, with Edward Norton in the Bruce Banner role, has eased memories of Ang Lee’s terrible 2003 adaptation which wasted Eric Bana (he played Banner). Alan Moore’s The Watchmen (a graphic novel rather than a comic book, for those who believe in these distinctions) has been shot and will be released next year.
Also at the planning stage are a fourth Spiderman movie (without Tobey Maguire, possibly), a second Iron Man, Captain America, the Avengers (as in the Marvel comic not the British TV show), a new Superman, Ant Man, more Batman sequels and Thor. Wonder Woman is struggling to get a movie deal; The Flash, who never made it past TV, may get a picture of his own and the Hellboy series is firmly established.
Superman Returns: It took 19 years to revive this caped hero’s cult on screen
The great thing about the superhero movie boom is that finally, directors are trying to capture the spirit of the comic books. The Watchmen movie treats the original comic panels as a storyboard and so, will reproduce Moore’s dark view of the superhero world almost exactly. Sin City and 300 (to say nothing of Road To Perdition) have shown us that because comics are a visual medium, film-makers are best off adapting them by simply following the pictures.
On the other hand, comics do not allow for the heart-stopping special effects that the movies are capable of. Superman Returns stayed close to the ethos of Richard Donner’s 1977 Superman movie but better special effects allowed it to manipulate audiences more cleverly than Donner could in those days. Donner’s movie was sold with the slogan, “You’ll believe a man can fly.” The new Superman did more than just fly and, in the 3-D version, seemed all too real.
Moreover, whenever film-makers have had the opportunity to go ‘adult’ with comic books heroes, most have excelled themselves. Batman, for instance, is capable of being interpreted at many different levels. In the 1960s TV show, the tone was campy and silly. When Tim Burton got his hands on the material, he looked for darkness. But the studios did not let Burton approximate the tone of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight comic book, a 1986 re-imagining of the Batman legend. Now, Nolan has been allowed to create the darkest Batman yet and his Joker is not Jack Nicholson’s comedian but Heath Ledger’s psychopath.
Much the same is true of Superman. The 1950s TV series with George Reeves (himself the subject of a recent movie, Hollywoodland) called him a fighter for “truth, justice and the American way”. The Donner movie threw out the American patriotism and made him a God-like alien who had compassion for earthlings. When Richard Lester took over the franchise, he went for laughs and lowered the tone. By the time Brian Singer got involved, there were three different interpretations. The Lois and Clark TV show was a straightforward love story-cum-action adventure; The Adventures of Superboy was a kid’s TV show; and the Smallville TV series was straight out of The X Files. For his Superman Returns in 2006, Singer could have gone with any of these versions of the Superman legend. He chose the earlier Donner interpretation with its emphasis on the essential dignity of the material.
The X-Men, another successful film version of a Marvel staple, have had three movies devoted to them and have grossed over a billion dollars. Though they are mutants rather than superheroes, they wear costumes and fit broadly within the genre. Their movies have explored such issues as society’s attitude to people who are different, suggesting parallels with racism and xenophobia. Many of the same themes have been effectively recycled in TV’s Heroes which is such an X-Men rip-off that I often wonder why Marvel does not sue for theft of intellectual property.
How well a superhero movie does seems to be a reflection on how successful the director is in introducing non-superhero themes. It’s easy to show Superman flying through the air, simple to show Spiderman straddling tall buildings with his webs and not hard to build a better Batmobile. But it’s hardly ever enough. The Batman series, for instance, collapsed after Tim Burton stopped directing the movies and such directors as Joel Schumacher went for simple comic book adventures. Batman and Robin not only wasted George Clooney (a very good Batman, better certainly than Michael Keaton, Burton’s Batman) but effectively killed off the franchise by treating viewers as children.
By the time Christopher Nolan revived the series, we had seen the success of Spiderman and X-Men. In both films, the stunts and superpowers were incidental. It was the plots and the adult themes that triumphed. Spiderman took off from Stan Lee’s original conceit of a nerdy loser who gets superpowers but still finds no happiness. X-Men stuck to the lofty themes of society and outsiders.
It can be no accident that Nolan’s Batman Begins was less about the Caped Crusader’s adventures in the Batcave and more about Bruce Wayne’s attempts to reclaim the legacy of his murdered father. Studios have learnt that children will watch anything. But for a superhero movie to earn back its investment, it needs to appeal to adults as well. And adults want grown-up stories and serious themes.
Of course you could argue that any film about a man who wears his underwear outside his trousers—as most superheroes do—can never be truly serious. And you’d be right. The charm of superhero movies is that they take the adventure stories and fantasies of our childhood and update them so that we can see the characters we grew up with facing the kind of adult problems that trouble us in our daily lives.
So yes, nobody making a Superman movie will make a work of art to rival Citizen Kane or Pather Panchali . But a good director can turn the stuff of childhood dreams into adult entertainment in a way that engages the brain even as the heart soars at the thrills.
Write to Vir at firstname.lastname@example.org