So we saw The Dark Knight last night—this is the kind of thing that gets to Japan right away (although we’re still waiting for Iron Man). In fact, one of my most vivid memories of arriving in Japan for the first time in August of ’89 is seeing Batman stuff everywhere, for the first Tim Burton film. Went to my first traditional Japanese summer festival, and they were passing out paper fans with the Batman logo on them. (Couldn’t find an image of one of those, but I found one for fans for the second Burton Batman.) Some kind of cultural commentary, I guess.
On the train on the way home, Mrs. Sgt. Tanuki and I had a conversation that I’ll try to summarize, because it gets at something I’ve been trying to articulate to myself about superhero movies for a long time.
We were talking about Harvey Dent/Two-Face, specifically his transition from one to the other. It’s finding the coin by his bedside that triggers his final psychotic break and turns him into Two-Face, right? The coin, which he had previously given to Rachel, reminds him in a graphic way that she was burned to death. But it means more than just that his fiancee is dead.
It was a two-headed coin, but now one side is defaced; before, it was a symbol of how he left nothing to chance, now it’s a symbol of how chance has asserted itself in his life. Up to this point, he’s been an operator, a manipulator, someone who’s understood the rules of the game and made them work for him—he’s fooled himself into thinking that he’s in control of his destiny. Now Joker—who self-identifies as Chaos (do we believe him?)—has intervened, and shown Dent once and for all that he’s not in control, that luck rules us all. It’s this that causes his break: not simply losing his girlfriend, not even just losing his looks, but losing his certainty about the world and his place in it.
Sure, Sgt. Mrs. Tanuki says, but is that really enough to turn him into this supervillain? I mean, come on. To which I reply, essentially: yeah, but it’s just a comic-book superhero movie.
There’s something wrong with this response. Right now there’s a big debate going on among cinephiles about whether or not the comic-book superhero genre is worth taking seriously (there’s a good summary of it here). Myself, I come down squarely on the side of taking it seriously: I think there’s a great potential within the genre for thoughtful, artistic, adult movies. But if this is true, then it’s hypocritical to give them a pass for flaws because “they’re comic book movies,” with the implication that we shouldn’t judge them too rigorously.
But I do think that comic-book superhero movies should be given a pass on questions of realism. Not because they shouldn’t be taken seriously, though: rather, because they should be taken seriously in a different way.
I think of superhero movies as working like a kind of surrealist art. Events in them happen solely because the artist has chosen to make them happen. Events may be presented in a realistic way, but that just means the artist has chosen to gesture toward realism as part of his/her surrealism, not that he/she is accepting a realistic framework overall. Think of Magritte’s Time Transfixed: the artist is employing realism within the painting (the look of the locomotive, the carefully rendered shadow it casts on the fireplace), but only in the service of a surreal image. It’s kind of pointless to judge the total image according to realism (“hey, a train’t can’t come out through somebody’s fireplace like that, at least not without tracks!”). The artist is up to something else.
With comic-book superhero movies, that something else, a lot of the time, is the presentation of an inherited end-result. This is one of the features of the genre that most intrigues me, and that I think is responsible for most of the really great stuff that’s happened in it. This is where the genre takes on the dimensions of myth, or rather of interpretation of myth. You’re making a Batman movie: you’ve got a ready-made set of attributes for Batman. Suit, night, bat imagery, gadgets, no actual super powers, Bruce Wayne identity, etc. You can modify these, but only to a certain degree: basically, what you’re doing is trying to figure out how you want to present these attributes. What you want to say with them, about them. What the myth means to you.
You can employ realism, gesture toward it, as part of your presentation of these attributes, but it will never change the fundamentally unrealistic nature of the attributes. This is what Nolan is doing with Dent: he’s given us a very careful portrait of the character, whereby (if we’re the kind of moviegoer who thinks about these things way too much) (hi!) we can figure out the kind of person he is, what drives him, how he sees himself. He’s a pretty realistic character. And to a certain point, we can understand his transformation in realistic terms. But in the end that’s never going to be quite sufficient—because dude, he turns into Two-Face! Nolan leads us logically from A to B to C, but that’s only going to take you so far when the endpoint is not Z but a fish.
And that’s okay because, like Magritte, the comic-book superhero movie, no matter how much it may employ realism, is not fundamentally realist. Nolan (if I might presume to speak for him) is not trying to say that if you’re a guy like Dent, and you go through the things Dent goes through, you’ll end up Two-Face. He’s trying to give us a picture of Two-Face—that’s the starting point, that set of attributes—and then connect it to certain recognizable, real-world ideas (illusion of control), using realism as a tool.
So: it’s not that we’re not supposed to take it seriously because it’s a comic-book superhero movie, but that we’re not supposed to take it realistically. Sure, all the stuff Dent goes through is insufficient, in realistic terms, to turn a guy into Two-Face. But for me, that’s not the point. The point is that we have Two-Face, and through the way he introduces and explains Two-Face’s mythical attributes, Nolan has helped us see them as relating to the illusion that we control our destiny. For example.
Anyway, that’s the best I can do with it right now. I’m sure I’ll revisit this, because I actually think the comic-book superhero genre is the most interesting one going in movies today. And this despite not being a comic-book fanboy—I’ve never read a single Batman comic.