Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Dark Knight and the Limits of Convention

Here's Matthew Yglesias commenting on some of the commentary about The Dark Knight:

Thence comes the thesis that a movie about a superhero just can't, on some level, be a great film. I think The Dark Knight has enough specific problems, especially in terms of the quality of the dialogue and some odd plot holes, that one is well-justified in cautioning that audience enthusiasm for this film shouldn't be allowed to go overboard. But I think moving toward a generic point about inherent limits of movies about Batman is pretty off-base. What is Homer writing about if not superheroes?

And at the same time, some of this winds up letting the artists off the hook. If a story's quality has been compromised in order to set up the next edition of the franchise, that's a storyteller compromising his story for money.
I strongly second the rejection of the excuse -- there is actually no good reason why romantic comedies, buddy movies, crime dramas, horror films, or indeed superhero blockbusters should be unwatchable crap. There are strong conventions in place for these familiar subgenres and others, but certainly no law commanding screenwriters and directors to accept those conventions, and for that matter no shortage of excellent films that stay within the conventional boundaries. That said, those conventions are, for better or worse, bound up with the audience's expectations about the work, and there's only so far they can bend before breaking.

I'm not convinced that citing Homer is the way to make the point in connection with Batman and superhero films. Yes, Homer's characters are larger than life, but there again, convention matters a great deal: what works in epic poetry wouldn't necessarily work on screen. I think a modern-day movie audience would balk at accepting the longwindedness of the speeches, and would probably walk out the first time a god ended a good swordfight by manifesting as a shroud of mist and plucking a favored warrior from the fray.

The thing that keeps superhero films from entering the higher reaches of cinematic craft is the quality of the underlying source material: granted, I am not a comic book reader, but what I have read suggests dialogue falling a little short of the Shakespearean as measured in either eloquence or subtlety. If The Dark Knight hits us over the head with its themes, allows seemingly important plotlines to trail off to nowhere, fetishizes technological gadgetry, and emphasizes the visuals, it's because the source materials do the same.

It's hard to say what, say, Ingmar Bergman would do with full creative control of a Batman movie. Assuming the universe didn't explode from the conjunction, the result would almost certainly disappoint people who love Batman from the comics. Likewise it's hard to imagine it winning over the Bergman fans either -- the dialogue would probably be quite a bit richer and deeper than what we find in The Dark Knight or Batman Begins, and the themes would be handled artfully, but it sounds like a compromise destined to please no one. (Besides which Bergman is no longer available.)

I would love to be proved wrong with one of the next inevitable superhero films -- a creation that bends conventions just enough to put forward something with higher-brow subtlety and grace that doesn't sacrifice the simpler pleasures of the subgenre.

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