David Cronenberg, director of cult classics such as Videodrome ’83 and eXistenZ ’99 in a recent interview with NextMovie disapproved of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises calling it “boring” and classifying superhero movies as essentially comic books intended for kids. Though Cronenberg may have said this as a mere promotional tactic for his recent film Cosmopolis, he does bring up an excellent point of discussion: considering the plethora of special FX blockbusters that have been coming out, what is the role of the superhero? Is it merely intended to appeal to the masses as a means to profit?
Superheroes are often more than a lot of ass-kicking. They are often a layered, complex reflection of the human condition.
(Original photo from Marvel Comics)
Superheroes are an allegory for our individual and social nature. Though the most mainstream characters may don whacky outfits and have insane superpowers, what they represent often cites something deeper. For instance, Spiderman as a metaphor for puberty: (body changes, difficulty dealing with relationships, a white sticky substance coming out of his body) and Iron Man as the pro-capitalist embodiment of Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy (i.e. the antithesis of the counterculture movement he was born in), all add a very different dimension to their stories, allowing them to be enjoyed on another level.
For other superheroes like The Maxx, the layers can get even deeper.
As a homeless man in a purple leotard compelled to protect his queen (his social worker) from a strange stalker in a wretched city, Maxx deals with his psyche being torn between the real world and an alternate reality where the lines begin to blur. The parallels to our real world issues through an exaggerated comic perspective inspire a reexamination of our real society and its affect, which leads me to how…
Superheroes are a medium to explore deep philosophical questions. If you know Silver Surfer from Fantastic Four ’05, you know him to essentially be a silver guy with crazy powers who destroys shit. If you know Silver Surfer from the comic, you know of a young astronomer in a utopian society who willingly became a slave to a trans-dimensional entity in order to save those he loved. This is human nature in a completely different context: the unearthly powers and situations are merely a medium in which we can explore our very own existence and possible scenarios we may one day face.
Another, perhaps more earthly example is Watchmen ’09:
A group of superheroes work for the government in an alternate history of the US where the Vietnam War was won (with their help) and Nixon was repeatedly reelected as president. The film (and comic) is a medium to reflect on science, morality and more. It’s not all hypothetical either, because…
Superheroes are an impactful source of inspiration with real world effects. Considering our world history and literature, there is a thin line between a heroic figure and a superhero. Was V in V for Vendetta ’05 a superhero? Despite its comic book origins based on a historical figure, the impact of the comic and film had a real affect on society considering groups like Anonymous have adopted the Guy Fawkes mask for their own efforts.
Christopher Nolan’s Batman series paralleled a similar notion with the recurring motif that Batman represented an idea. This inspires numerous different ways to look at the most recent film [SPOILERS AHEAD]: Did Bruce really survive at the end? Or was what Alfred saw what he wanted to see? Ra’s al Ghul had a habit of reappearing as well despite Bruce having already killed him. Does Robin don the Batman costume to maintain the legacy that Gotham needs without citizens knowing what happened, (as well as oblivious moviegoers)?
The Dark Knight Rises may not be supreme cinema art, but it certainly has the ability to be enjoyed on a number of levels (for adults as well). If great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events and small minds discuss people, I believe that it is possible for a character to tap into all of those layers, and have the power to affect everyone: including the great minds who see beyond the character itself and what it may actually represent.