Partners in crime (fighting)
Published: Thursday, June 13, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, June 12, 2013 at 12:36 p.m.
All movie genres have watershed moments that define certain eras in their development. “The Godfather” paved the way for more nuanced, morally ambiguous crime films by bringing the audience into the lives of a group of empathetic mobsters. Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns ditched the classic formula of white hats taking down black hats for bleak depictions of the West in which all that matters is how well you handle a gun. And in recent memory, many comic book adaptations have borrowed heavily from the gritty, “realistic” aesthetic of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, especially “The Dark Knight.”
However, a new chapter in superhero movies may be upon us. “Man of Steel,” which opens Friday, appears to offer a hybrid approach combining weighty themes such as those found in “The Dark Knight” with a significantly lighter tone and visual style. With the Caped Crusader and the Man of Steel having been the primary shapers of the superhero genre, it seems fitting now to take a look at the history of these dueling super-titans on screen.
After debuting as comic book characters in the 1930s (Superman in 1938, Batman in 1939), both characters found early homes in radio and TV serials. The first screen iterations to make a true cultural impact outside of comics, however, were “Adventures of Superman” in the 1950s and the Adam West “Batman” in the late ’60s, both on television. While “Adventures of Superman” was relatively straightforward yet still lighthearted, West’s “Batman” went for a campy approach and is best known for its outright goofy catchphrases (“Holy Bill of Rights, Batman!”) and fight effects (“Pow!” “Biff!”).
Superhero films take flight
After West’s “Batman” went off the air in 1968, it took another 10 years for another major superhero adaptation to emerge on screen. That was 1978’s “Superman: The Movie,” directed by Richard Donner with Christopher Reeve in the title role. The movie depicts Superman from infancy all the way to adulthood, struggling every step of the way to balance his hero act against his more mundane desires.
This struggle is epitomized by the ideological differences of Superman’s two father figures: Jor-El, his biological father, and Jonathan Kent, the man who raised him. Jor-El sees his son as a would-be god who should largely stay out of human affairs, while Pa Kent believes he should use his powers to do the most good possible.
Despite the weighty subject material, “Superman” is an angst-free adventure, complete with moments of genuine laughter and a breezy chemistry between Reeve and Margot Kidder as Lois Lane. The team behind “Superman II” continued this approach, but upped the stakes by having Superman give up his powers temporarily, only to have to get them back and forego a life with Lois to fight a band of vicious Kryptonian exiles. Despite the added drama, the film keeps its predecessor’s relaxed style; the scene in which Superman — as Clark Kent — has to rescue Lois from a river without using his powers could easily fit in a romantic comedy.
After the combo of “Superman” and “Superman II,” the Last Son of Krypton was seemingly invulnerable. However, the twin clunkers of “Superman III” and “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” left an opening for The Dark Knight to emerge from the shadows. In 1989, Tim Burton’s “Batman” exploded onto the scene and grabbed the superhero spotlight. Burton’s gothic visual style, Jack Nicholson’s demented turn as The Joker and Michael Keaton’s brooding behind the cowl bludgeoned decades of lighter superhero fare into irrelevancy. This is also the first time movie audiences were really exposed to psychological trauma as a motivating factor for both superheroes and supervillains; we see how the violent death of Bruce Wayne’s parents drives him to fight crime, as well as the Joker’s similar origin.
This theme of mental scarring carried over into “Batman Returns” in 1992. This cheery film features the Penguin, a deformed crime lord who was thrown into the sewer as an infant, and Catwoman, a borderline psychotic anti-hero out for revenge after nearly being murdered by her scheming millionaire boss. Oh, and Penguin tries to kill all of Gotham City’s first-born sons.
How did Warner Bros. respond after this dark outing? By embracing all of the idiosyncrasies of the Adam West-era Batman that they’d buried for decades. With 1995’s “Batman Forever,” director Joel Schumacher brought back Burton’s set designs, but eschewed the dreary darkness for garish costumes, super corny jokes and a much more obviously cartoony style. Then again, how serious can you get when you have Jim Carrey as The Riddler and Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face both going so far over the top that they enter “so bad it’s good” territory?
The next Batman movie, 1997’s “Batman and Robin,” embraced a level of camp that would make even Adam West blush. The film was critically panned and didn’t perform very well at the box office. There’s certainly no shortage of culprits to blame for the movie’s commercial and artistic failures: Schumacher’s direction goes well beyond cartoony into the realm of ludicrous, George Clooney is an utter disaster as Batman, and Arnold Schwarzenegger and Uma Thurman (as Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy, respectively) seem more concerned with making silly one-liners than trying to be convincing villains.
‘The Dark Knight’ era
It was inevitable, then, that the pendulum would swing back in the direction of dark and gritty when Christopher Nolan rebooted Batman with 2005’s “Batman Begins.” Except Nolan took it a step further by employing a cerebral, realistic style that eliminated all but the most minute connections to Batman’s comic book past.
In doing so, Nolan created what was not so much an adaptation of Batman as a meditation on Batman and what superheroes represent more broadly. Nolan refined his technique in 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” going so far as to posit that even the truth and a hero’s reputation are expendable in the name of the greater good.
All the while as Nolan redefined Batman for the modern era, the box office receipts and critical acclaim piled on. This in turn ensured an endless crop of brooding, tormented heroes in theaters. Such is the current state of the superhero genre.
Will “Man of Steel” be the movie that moves blockbusters in a more lighthearted direction? It’s impossible to say before its release, but movie audiences are starting to get a little tired of the dark, and history suggests Superman is the one to lead the way into the light.
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