There can be no doubt that the summer of 2008 stands as a high-water mark for superheroes. Four comic book movies (Iron Man, The Dark Knight, The Incredible Hulk and Wanted) hit the top twenty of high-grossing movies, while Hellboy: The Golden Army was acclaimed for its artistic use of cinema to convey a comic-book hero.
Iron Man has rebooted the career of star Robert Downey Jr., reminding audiences why he won an Academy Award. The Dark Knight offers a sweeping cinematic scope, replete with stylized visions of modern cities. Heath Ledger’s portrayal as the Joker has already garnered attention towards a Oscar, which if won would make Ledger only the second actor (after Peter Finch) to be awarded posthumously.
While both Iron Man and The Dark Knight (more prominently than Wanted, Hellboy: The Golden Army or The Incredible Hulk) tap a vein of post-911 social realism, film critic David Bordwell argues against the rise of the superhero genre as simply a response to zeitgeist. For Bordwell the superhero genre provides a neat, clear-cut nexus for the confluence of a number of trends already present in Hollywood. Chief among these are the rise of franchises and merchandising, the shift in acting towards personification (in recent times actors radically reshape their bodies and acting styles to suit the character, Charlize Theron in Monster, for example) and a greater reliance on pre-visualization which focuses on storyboarding (and by implication, the rise of dynamic shot composition more akin to comicbook panels).
Beyond Oscar buzz and Hollywood trends, the movies themselves have brought the weight of a greater realism to the superhero genre. Faltering and fear-ridden, Christian Bale stumbles forward to rescue a city teetering on the brink of barbarism. Trapped between atonement for his inherited role as weapons manufacturer and the sheer joy of a mind freed to fabricate nextgen technologies, Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark is both stalwart and vulnerable.
With the epic scope of the big screen, this past summer’s blockbusters were also able to naturalize the logic of conflict between superhero and supervillain. Far from a howling lunatic obsessed with small-time heists, The Dark Knight‘s Joker proves to be a formidable opponent to the social fabric. Astute and resilient he uses violence as a means, blasting away at what he hopes is nothing but a veneer of respectability. Iron Man‘s final conflict between Tony Stark and Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stane is cast as a battle for succession, a battle around corporate ethics and vision. The technology and super-heroics appear as backdrop to a slow-brewing interpersonal dispute inevitably run amok.
What comes shining through all these blockbusters (even the dystopian Wanted) is the ideal of the superhero. Whether a crimefighter performing a criminal extradition across international borders or a technologist engaged in a military skirmish to defend refugees or a secret society destiny-bound to assassinate psychopaths or a lone scientist at odds with rogue elements within the military-industrial complex, superheroes have an impact at cultural level. Superheroes speak to those ostensibly contradictory but innately human values of society and self-reliance.
On the canvas of the silver screen, superheroes have come of age. Why then, does the corporate response from both DC and Marvel, at first glance seem so lackluster?
Shortly before release of the film, the Hulk was turned from green to red and overhauled from grunts to full language. The launch of The Invincible Iron Man comic book title was set to coincide with theatrical release of the Robert Downey Jr. film, but not much else was done in the way of promotion. And the Brian Azzarello/Lee Bermejo graphic novel Joker arrived a few months after the Chris Nolan helmed motion picture, The Dark Knight.
Understanding the ostensible lack of response from comics publishers comes with an understanding of what Wired editor Chris Anderson has referred as an economics of the Long Tail in his book and blog of the same name. With the growing use of the internet as marketplace, Anderson observes an attendant rise in niche markets. Comic books are tailor-made, and not for everyone. And even the superhero genre has come to benefit from this more defined scope.
Disputing Bordwell’s notion of the rise of the corporate tie-in, comics publishers have opted to move in a wholly different direction. Reading Azzarello’s Joker, the twisted language and gaunt, psychotic thinking prevents anyone from needing a scholar the quality of Michel Foucault to remind them that mental breakdown is a breakdown of language. Riddler has never been so broken, Two-Face never so frightened and the Batman never so wickedly hopeful as when render in the moody artwork of Bermejo.
In “The Five Nightmares”, the opening story arc of The Invincible Iron Man writer Matt Fraction creates a considered and believable portrait of an emotionally fractured Tony Stark. Unable to recognize his contribution to shared humanity, or perhaps out of a misplaced need to atone, Stark is driven to succeed by fear of his own obsolescence.
While not taking utmost advantage from the blockbuster releases, comics publishers have replied in ways uniquely adapted for the comics medium. Comics involve the reader to a far greater degree. Magnificently threatening as he remains, Ledger’s Joker can never be as scary as Azzarello’s when the latter requires you to do the heavy lifting and participate in scaring yourself.
With the ostensible apologist tendencies of the ‘90s receding into historical quaintness, celebrating the coincidence of the comics medium and the superhero genre becomes available in the popular culture again. Comics and superheroes share a deep and fertile history, but both labor under the cultural exclusions historically reserved for pulp literature.
As the superhero genre gains a wider critical and commercial recognition in movie theaters, comics publishers have made strong riposte with the medium itself. Foregrounding the comics medium’s capacity for a grander emotional imbrication, publishers have shunned crass commercial exploitation and corporate synergy. Recent books like Joker and new monthly series like Invincible Iron Man have proven that the history between comics and superheroes is far from fully written.