‘I think it’s still Batman running around in a stupid cape.’ – David Cronenberg about The Dark Knight Rises, in an interview with Next Movie.
All right, so David Cronenberg made his feelings about superhero films very well known a few days ago by slagging off on The Dark Knight Rises. While I question the reliability of a man who cast Robert Pattinson in a movie (any movie), I see where he’s coming from. Cronenberg makes a good point after all: Batman is a guy running around in a cape. The Dark Knight et al takes that cape very, very seriously. Too seriously, as a matter of fact. There’s very little fun in Nolan’s films; certainly no sense of humor. That seems to me a fair criticism, if not a popular one. Then Cronenberg goes on to say that he doesn’t think the superhero film has been made into a elevated art form, which is as much to say that it cannot rise to the level of art. It’s by necessity ‘adolescent’.
Hmm. Comic books, despite gaining traction as an art form – we now call certain ones graphic novels, don’t we? – are still viewed as something that teenage boys and arrested-adolescent adults read. That’s the stereotype and it still holds some cultural weight, even if it has been disproven by the increasing popularity of the genre among, y’know, everyone. Now, I might not be into the comic book/graphic novel world, but I do enjoy horror, sci-fi, fantasy and crime fiction. Pretty much the same kinds of accusations have been leveled at those: sophomoric, adolescent, encouraging violence and vice. I have also read enough Alan Moore graphic novels to know that comic books can indeed rise to the level of art. So, basically, if I’m going to make the claim that crime or horror can be artistic, I have to allow the same claims to be made for comic books.
Then we come to the movies. It has indeed been proven time and again that certain genre types – again, crime, horror, science fiction – can achieve a level of art. Cronenberg himself trades in the horror genre: The Fly, Dead Ringers, Scanners, The Brood. Let’s not even discuss what genre Crash falls into; I don’t want to think about it. Certainly at least a few of those rise to the level of art. Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski, both directors who made their names in the art house as well as the cineplex, worked and work primarily in the thriller genres. John Carpenter has at least two films I think rise to artistic levels (The Thing and Halloween). Even the more primary art house directors of yesteryear made or borrowed heavily from genre: Godard’s Band of Outsiders is basically a film noir, Lang’s Metropolis is one of the greatest sci-fi films ever made, Antonioni’s Blow-Up is a murder mystery, among other things. Akira Kurosawa made mysteries, thrillers and potboilers (Rashomon, High and Low, Stray Dog).
All of which Cronenberg admits to. He does think that horror can reach artistic levels. So why not comic book movies?
First, I think that Cronenberg is mixing his terms. He’s really talking about superhero movies: the guys in stupid capes. So if we narrow this down to the ‘superhero’ sub-genre, what are we left with? Are there any artistic films that have been made within the superhero genre? Art is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. Simon finds Nolan’s Batman films far more interesting and complex than I think they are. I’m certain there are those who disagree with me in labeling Carpenter’s The Thing an artistic film. Nevertheless, this is my editorial, so I get to answer my own question.
The answer is: No. No, there are no superhero films I can name that I think rise to the level of art. Art in the sense that they do something more than entertain. I would say that to be artistic a film has to operate and succeed on multiple levels. I’ve covered my notion of art before and I stick to it. Most superhero films simply don’t rise to it. But do they want to? Is Iron Man really trying to be an art house film? Are we meant to consider the tribulations of Tony Stark as an analog to the ennui of modern man? Not in the least. It’s trying to be loud and funny and exciting and it succeeds admirably.
I do think that fans do a disservice to certain films when they make claims for them as art. It smacks of self-justification, of trying to raise something to a place that it never wanted to be. Entertainment can be just that: entertainment. That’s OK. It might be that some fans feel like they have to prove that a piece of entertainment has fully as much value as a film that sets out to express something artistically. Which it does; it’s just a different kind of value.
I don’t believe that if a superhero film wanted to be artistic it would fail. It needs a good director – a great director – who is interested in making it into that. I think Christopher Nolan, for all his technical brilliance, is not that director. But I do not join David Cronenberg in believing that a superhero film must be nothing more than a guy in a cape. It can be more; just as horror films and crime films can be more. It’s merely a matter of making it more.
While I cannot think of a superhero film that I can truly call artistic, I can think of at least one film based on a graphic novel that I would classify, without hesitation, as art. It’s A History of Violence, starring Viggo Mortensen and Mario Bello. It was directed by David Cronenberg.