image from article, with caption: The Joker knows the score
Another month, another superhero movie staggers to the silver screen, lurching under the weight of its own self-importance, groaning with the expectations of fans, and burdened with a nine-figure marketing budget. I am, of course, talking about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, to give it its full, clunkingly portentous title.
Can we all please grow up? Can we acknowledge that Marvel and DC have scraped right though the bottom of the barrel? Can we call time on superhero films? Films which are too dark for kids the comics were originally written for, yet too dumb for any thinking adult.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice final trailerPlay!02:15
Way back in 1989, I quite liked the first modern Batmanfilm – and yet now I curse it. When it was released, it was genuinely interesting and different. A superhero film with highbrow-ish director, a dark feel and adult themes. It was a huge success and I don’t begrudge it that. The trouble is it spawned the superhero-filled-multiplex-hell we currently live in.
So now, a quarter of a century later, having strip-mined the comic world down to the bedrock, we have the inevitable franchise crossovers. I’m sure the thinking that went into Bruce Wayne and Clarke Kent’s upcoming get-together was every bit as deep as “These are two really successful brands we’ve been milking for years and the audience is starting to notice that they’re a bit long in the tooth ... and, hey, it worked for Alien vs Predator”.
Of course most of the superhero films aren’t actually crap in the way that The Last Airbender or Gigli were crap. Many of them are nicely shot and use A-list actors. They often have talented directors. They even get decent reviews (although the same cannot be said for Batman V Superman). And yet, an hour after watching the latest iteration of Superman/Batman/Iron Man/The Flash/The Green Lantern, I can barely remember anything about it.
The trouble is the source material. In the case of Batman and Superman, this was originally written for ten-year-old boys. A man who can fly with lasers in his eyes. A man who dresses as a bat dispensing justice to bad guys. It’s fun but it’s fundamentally very silly stuff; it has pre-teen built into its DNA.
I know that the stock response to this is that there’s no reason you can’t use superheroes to examine dark, adult themes. No there is isn’t, but just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
Let’s use a food analogy. It’s like making hamburger out of Wagu beef mixed with foie gras and then serving it in a toasted brioche bun and topping it with artisan cheddar, oak-cured bacon and hand-brined pickles. Sure, the end result will be good but it will be kind of “stupid-good,” the ultimate expression of something quite dumb. A cassoulet made with far cheaper ingredients would be a better, more sophisticated and more satisfying dish by almost any yardstick.
In the 80s and 90s, people used to worry about “dumbing down”, where complex ideas in spheres like politics and literature were simplified in order to make them accessible to people who were unwilling or unable to deal with sophisticated thought (tellingly, the term originated in the film industry). These days, I’m more worried about dumbing up, where you take something that’s pretty stupid to begin with and then throw money and talent at it until it has a semblance of intelligence and sophistication.
Batman v Superman: fight statsPlay!02:16
Does this really matter? The answer is that it doesn’t if your dumbed-up burger is just another dish on the menu. But it does matter if your local French and Italian joints have been shut down and replaced by an entire street of huge dumbed-up burger restaurants. It matters if you live in a town where the only dish on the menu is dumbed-up burgers. Now, ask yourself how many superhero films your local cinema is currently playing.
Of course, I know there’s a business case for it. I understand that big franchise films come with built in branding. I get that, if you went to see Iron Man, you may well go and see Iron Man 2 all the way through to Iron Man 47. I know these films do well in increasingly important markets like China because they're easy to dub (a total lack of nuance helps). I recognise that big explosions and stunning, yet somehow entirely predictable, CGI are a kind of lingua franca for cinema audiences the world over who don’t want to think very hard.
In a way though, the cynical business case is the least of my gripes. Far more troubling is the widespread notion that somehow these films have something important to say. The thing is, like our dumbed up hamburger, they are limited, even crippled, by their form. God knows how many articles I’ve read saying, “Actually, Batman v Superman and Captain America: Civil War are about fascism and America’s love of authoritarianism.”
Well, maybe they are. But I can think of dozens of better ways to examine the slow erosion of democratic institutions than two guys in tights prattling on about the kind of hero America needs.
The obvious way is just better films. Films like Sicarioand A Most Wanted Man which manage to say something interesting and thoughtful about the world in which which we live without recourse to bang-you-over-the-head expository dialogue set to music that tells you exactly how to feel – and all for a tenth of the budget.
I’d also include South Park in this. Its 2015 skewering of Caitlyn Jenner was a thousand times more insightful than anything I’ve ever seen in a comic based film.
I know that suggesting that comic characters might be stupid upsets plenty of people. Well, sod it, in for a penny, in for a pound ... I used to read 2000AD as a kid and I quite liked its epic, six-month-long storylines. But then I turned 14. And comics stopped doing it for me. Yes, even graphic novels. Even The Dark Knight Returns. I put them all in a big trunk and it went up in the loft and there it stayed.
My parents deserve some of the blame for this. Dad was not a fan of comic books. His view was that the second you hit puberty, you put them behind you and started reading John Updike – and you damn well stuck at it until you liked it. And you know what? He was right. The travails of Rabbit Angstrom are better than any comic. They were better when I was 15 and they were a hell of a lot better by the time I was 25 – which is the median age of people who went to see The Avengers.
And yes, I know Persepolis started as a graphic novel – and very good it is too. But it’s an exception to the general rule that if you need to shave, you should be reading books where you have to make the pictures in your own head. You can say this intellectual snobbery if you like, but you only have to go a little way down this road before you find yourself arguing that V for Vendettais the equal of Lolita – and I’m afraid my artistic relativism doesn’t stretch that far, even if yours does.
Of course, I can’t be reading all the time, so thank God for TV. While Hollywood seems content to feed us an endless conveyor belt of dumbed-up dirty burgers for the mind, TV outfits ranging from Netflix to Channel 4 have recognised that there’s a market for drama that doesn’t involve men in capes. Series like The Wire, Breaking Bad, Narcos and Deutschland 83 are the real heirs to all those great films from the 1970s like Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now. They’re the popular culture people will remember in 30 years time, not some crossover film that started life as an Excel spreadsheet at a LA branding consultancy.
As for Superman v Batman, I’m sure I’ll watch it on a plane sometime in the next 12 months. Probably one of those really long flights to Asia.
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future; now online).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States (also online). In the past century, he served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.