Well, now that The Dark Knight has been out for nearly two weeks I suppose it’s safe to start talking about ir in a bit of an analytical fashion, right?
First, though, let me get this out of the way: If you haven’t seen the film yet – yes, it’s safe to believe the hype. It’s an almost flawless comicbook-based film and I have little doubt that it will easily rank as one of the best comicbook-based films of all time for a long, long time…
However, that being said, I must admit that I hate having to qualify the film with that little addendum…
You know, the bit about it being a great “comicbook-based film”… as if the film is great despite the fact that it’s based on a comic book.
Sure, sure… I take a lot of pride in being a fan of (good) comics and I’m always eager to point out to people that great films such as Road to Perdition, The Crow, A History of Violence, Ghost World and even 300 are among just a few of the non-“comicbooky” films that – SURPRISE! – are based on works of sequential-art-based literature.
(If I had a dollar for every casual acquaintance who came-up to me and said “Hey, Dirk, did you know that 300 was based on a comicbook?” I’d now be sleeping on a mattress filled with money – just like Frank Miller now does every night.)
Sure, sure, I’m tickled that people are finally starting to realize that there’s more to the medium of comicbooks than grown men running around in tights – but even in the case of superhero-based literature there’s some good stuff out there that isn’t just adolescent boy power-fantasies put to paper…
And that has most recently been demonstrated to the masses by The Dark Knight.
While the film is not based specifically on any one comic story (despite the homages to such classic – and, despite what Alan Moore says, pretty darn good – Batman stories as The Killing Joke), the film succeeded in showing the masses how it is indeed possible to tell a fairly serious and dramatic story about a character such as Bruce Wayne/Batman.
Considering this, I suspect I’m not the only comicbook reader who’s been doing a bit of a “victory lap” lately, holding-up the film as a bit of – dare I say – justification for the medium I so love.
As I’ve said here before, I’m really not that much of a superhero fan, per say, as I tend to follow creators such as Brian Azarello, Garth Ennis, Robert Kirkman, David Lapham, Mike Mignola, Alan Moore and Eric Powell much more than titles or characters (with a select few exceptions, of course)… but regardless, The Dark Knight did in about two and half hours for millions of people what thousands of us individually have been trying to do for years: Show that comics aren’t just for kids anymore.
Hell… could you imagine taking a child under the age of twelve to see that film? Yeesh…
(Subjecting a small child to a viewing of The Joker’s “magic trick” alone could probably get Children’s Services called on you in some states…)
However, when all is said and done, do I really to point to movies such as The Dark Knight (or even the upcoming Watchmen trailer for that matter) to justify the existence of good comics – let alone my enjoyment of them?
Sadly, yeah, sometimes I sort of feel like I need to.
After all, not even 10% of the people who will ever watch The Dark Knight are going to suddenly start reading comics and discover, “Hey, comic books ain’t all adolescent child-fantasy stuff after all!”
Sure, sure… a FEW select people may wander into a book store or MAYBE even a comic book store and pick-up, say, a copy of The Killing Joke or The Dark Knight Returns… but what then? Of that small percentage of people… how many will then attempt to hunt down a local comic book shop (if there’s even one still around in their area) and subscribe to a few titles – be them Batman-based or otherwise?
Heck – I’ll even raise the stakes: How many people who watched the film are going to go to their local library to check out some Batman-based graphic novels… and even if they do, what kind of selection will their library have?
(Do you think someone who liked The Dark Knight would enjoy Batman: Hush? Really?)
You know, you would think that this would be a reason for some of the “big dogs” to step-up their game in regards to getting their stories online for free (or a MINIMAL cost) so casual fans/readers/web-surfers could access them (hey, it’s worked for a lot of comic creators out there – myself included, and more recently for DC Comics with the free sample of the Watchmen semi-animated comic that they will be producing for online viewers)… but as someone who comes from a family of small business owners, I also understand the reluctance many proprietors have about “giving away” their product.
Heck, wasn’t it The Joker himself who said in the film “When you’re good at something you don’t do it for free?”
The world’s changing, folks, and with the proliferation of high-speed Internet access the sad fact of the matter is that more and more people are learning to “expect” things for free… or at least free samples of said “things.”
(Who here was a kid who didn’t LOOOOOOOOVE the idea of those teeny-tiny free samples “Baskin Robbins” gave out when you were a kid?)
I’ve long argued that – in the case of comics as well as ice cream – free samples (online in the case of comics) are a great way to “hook” people into buying the stories in print… but that’s off the subject that I want to today.
I even know of some store owners who’ve given out a free comic here and there to hook readers, too… what a concept! Giving three dollars to earn hundreds – and possibly even thousands! Just like my grandfather always says, you’ve gotta spend money to make money…
Warner Brothers did the same thing by building a solid product (in this case, a great Batman film that even far-surpassed its predecessor) and then kicked the hype-machine into high-gear about it, spending thousands and thousands of dollars to make sure you knew how great it really was.
Of course, a bit of a cloud hangs over the film regarding Heath Ledger’s inspired and frightening take on the psychopathic – and there’s no denying that his performance continues to be a huge part of the film’s success (regardless of the… ahem… “cautious optimism” so many fanboys had when he was first interviewed here at Newsarama about his role in the film)… but I think a larger part of the film’s success is due to how its director, writers and producers treated the story, the characters and the subject matter in a serious, realistic and – most importantly – respectable fashion.
What a concept, eh?
Yes, yes: In this case we’re talking about a guy who dresses-up like a bat to fight organized crime… but you know what? Chris Nolan (and company) made this seemingly childish concept both exciting and – of equal importance – plausible.
You know… just like so many modern comic book writers have done over the past several years.
Ah… but therein lies the rub I touched-on earlier.
We – current comic book readers and fans – all know that, despite the childish stigma attached to the medium by such pop-culture milestones as the ridiculously over-the-top cartoon gusto of the Adam West Batman TV series (or even Tim Burton’s stylized cartoon-made-flesh take on Batman), modern comic book writers and editors now treat their characters and storylines with the respect and dignity these literary icons have earned over the decades.
(Well, at least for the most part, anyway… but let’s not feed the trolls, eh?)
Sure, it’s easy to curse the campy shadow of Adam West (who – SURPRISE AGAIN! – is not a fan of Nolan’s take on the Batman film franchise)… even many of the “better” modern comicbook-based films still have found themselves falling into the trap of inane deathtraps and ridiculous doomsday devices… and it makes me want to scream.
Take Bryan Singer’s X-Men, for example. Here’s a solid theatrical introduction for the non-reading masses to the X-Men universe (and franchise) that has a good director and not one – but TWO – Shakespearean actors onboard… and the film features a climactic showdown at the Statue of Liberty where the head villain unveils a machine that will somehow use magnetism to turn everyone in the city (or – remind me – is it THE WORLD?!?) into mutants – you know… right before it kills them.
Wha – huh?!?
Sure, sure… in the case of X-Men we’re talking about a sci-fi/fantasy film in which people with metal skeletons, laser-shooting eyeballs and uber-telekinesis have dot the globe – so I get the fact that the film takes place in a world where the bounds of reality are a bit… elastic… but was the inclusion of this ridiculous contraption really necessary?
I mean, hey, isn’t a guy who controls magnetism scary enough in and of himself?
If Singer (and company) wanted to include a grand showdown of some sort couldn’t he just have – I dunno – had Magneto find a more organic way to amp-up his powers and then have him go nuts in downtown New York like he did (admittedly, a few years later) towards the end of Grant Morrison’s run on New X-Men?
Did the plot really need a ridiculous doomsday device that contained barely enough logic to fool a seven-year-old?
Of course, I could go on and on about such sloppy examples of clichéd comicbook villain mentalities being shoe-horned into otherwise good (and oftentimes even better than good) films (as did the fine folks at here)… but I’d rather try to stay positive and look forward.
The real point to be taken from this – and I sincerely hope that it’s one that’s observed and then followed through upon by future filmmakers who use comicbooks as their inspiration and/or source material – is that it’s time to lose the childish clichés that have been cast over the medium since the 1960s.
The “Batdance” (no, I’m not going to link to a video of it) took place over 40 years ago, people. The joke is old.
It seems that Hollywood is finally starting to look to actual modern comics for inspiration and bringing-in some modern comic book industry people as advisers – and, again, the results speak for themselves in terms of critical and commercial praise.
(Admittedly, there are some current writers that I wouldn’t want to let within 100 miles of a Hollywood script session – but, hey, if bringing in some working comic book professionals into the fold regarding the script of a B-List character like Iron Man worked, it could work for many other lower-tier characters, right?)
In closing, though, let me add this little caveat. I’m not advocating for all future comic book-based movies to be uber-realistic and/or gritty as was the case with The Dark Knight. Not all properties deserve to be made uber-realistic, dramatic and/or serious.
(See: Superman Returns.)
However, to answer the question posed by the late Health Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight (which, as of this writing, is well on its way to quite possibly becoming one of the highest grossing films of all time – take that, Titanic)… “Why so serious?”
Because, my friends, the source material deserves it.
Next Time: Back to basics.
Dirk Manning is the writer/creator of NIGHTMARE WORLD, a longtime contributing writer to Newsarama and an active member of MySpace, Comicspace… and even Facebook. Yeesh. While his activity on these various websites is based strictly on his ever-shrinking windows of opportunity to “surf the web,” he usually does pretty well at responding to everyone who takes the time to comment in the talkback sections of these columns… so subscribe to this thread it and check back often if you’re into that sort of thing, have something worthwhile (or entertaining) to say or otherwise want to keep the conversation going.
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