Tuesday, 18 May 2010

What's wrong with heroes? - Some Thoughts on Superhero Narratives

(As is established early on, this was written in the run-up to Quantum of Solace and The Dark Knight. The quote from Robert Wade on Bourne which I later used in the Quantum of Solace piece appears at one point, but I've left it in for now. Some of my comments on Batman might overlap with the Quantum piece, too. One other postscript: I've just discovered that the phrase "Umberto Eco" appeared randomly in the text, though I've now deleted it. Either this was a leftover from a note I made in an earlier draft, or there's a rather cerebral computer virus going around.)

It’s hard to think of two films that could generate more excitement than The Dark Knight, coming this summer, and Quantum of Solace, coming in November. They are exciting not merely for being the next instalments in the respective Batman and Bond franchises, but because each is a follow-up to a film that reinvented the franchise and increased its popularity and credibility. The recent success of the Bourne trilogy – probably the finest action films to have emerged from Hollywood since Indiana Jones – confirms a current appetite for detailed characterisation and attempts to persuade the audience that this is taking place in the real world, rather than revelling in the sheer energetic lunacy of it all as so many action films do. In The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, Paul Greengrass has demonstrated more involving and hard-hitting ways of shooting car-chases and fights, while making the protagonist an action hero whose predicament is genuinely affecting and whose inner turmoil is as interesting as his lethal skills. Die Hard 4.0 - released in the same summer as Ultimatum - seemed very dated in comparison, belonging to the eighties Hollywood tradition in which explosions were enough. There’s a car chase in there, but it is no where near as strikingly photographed and bruisingly edited as the ones in the Bourne films. The trilogy has challenged the idea of the “popcorn movie”: films like Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Cliffhanger and Face/Off were based upon the assumption that those who paid to see action movies weren’t interested in anything other than spectacle, and so logic, character development and good dialogue were treated as secondary concerns, and little effort was made to avoid cliché. By contrast, the Bournes reject the “leave your brain at the door and enjoy” philosophy, demonstrate that action films can make for outstanding – rather than merely entertaining – filmmaking and that their screenplays can be affecting and though-provoking rather than escapist. As Mark Lawson recently pointed out, the fact that a director such as Paul Greengrass is as committed to working on Bourne movies as he is to United 93 says much about the healthy, fertile state of modern cinema.
The success of the Bourne films has considerable implications for other franchises. The recent revitalisations of the Bond and Batman franchises with Casino Royale and Batman Begins saw the production teams struggle with the dilemma that seems to have plagued adventure narratives since the 1980s: in a Postmodern age, should writers of stories with heroes or superheroes allow the hero to get on with his quest, or should they dedicate time to deconstructing the heroes themselves?
This problem is analogous to the threat posed by modernism to storytelling: the nineteenth century novel as favoured by Bronte, Wilkie Collins, Austen and Dickens, with its emphasis on tension, plot twists, cliff-hangers, suspense, romance and human interest, is replaced by the more analytical, less showmanlike techniques of Woolf and Joyce. First Chandler and more recently Thomas Pynchon (in The Crying of Lot 49) and Paul Auster (in The New York Trilogy) have shifted the focus of the detective story away from his case and on to the detective himself. Out goes the idea of a coherent mystery which is solved at the end, in goes the idea that the quest to find the truth is more important than the truth itself. Just as these writers moved from the story itself to the mechanics and nature of storytelling, so too do mainstream tales of detectives and superheroes move away from their cases and focus more on the heroes themselves.
The mainstream comics industry has much to answer for in this respect. No other artform - not even film - had previously been so homogenised and so unexperimental in its mainstream wing until postmodernism came along. Superheros and Villains stuck to their roles, and plots consisted of straightforward battles and mysteries. The publication of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns prompted a move towards examining the damaged psyche and moral cost of a superhero rather than merely giving them an opponent to fight and a problem to solve. Whether or not this influence upon comics and film is a good thing is debatable, depending upon the work yet to be produced, but these two works at least were exciting innovations. Watchmen, probably the finest of all comic books, took a simple conceit - what if costumed crimefighters actually existed? – and explored superheroes as people rather than ciphers, revealing them to have deep psychological scars, and daring to suggest that their interference might make the world worse rather than better. Frank Miller’s Dark Knight was less complex, but examined Batman as a figure of stark realism rather than of fantasy, firmly rooted in Spillane-esque violence and moral outrage. Like Moore, Miller questioned the effect Batman and Superman would have on society (in both books superhero interference increases crime and nearly causes World War Three), and insisted upon writing about the latter with an emphasis upon psychological realism.
The problem with this path is that ultimately, it can’t lead us away from the fact that Batman is an entirely nonsensical, artificial creation. His origin relies on some ridiculous coincidences (he’s rich enough to buy all this equipment, is a master detective, warrior and athlete and has a convenient batcave right underneath his mansion), and he lacks any kind of flaws that might distinguish him as a human being. The character is pulp through and through, and we are deluding ourselves if we think psychological realism is possible in his portrayal. Moore himself highlighted this problem when speaking of his own take on the character, Batman: The Killing Joke by Moore and Brian Bolland, a graphic novel which attempts to deal with the nature of the relationship between Batman and the Joker and the psychological predicament they face in the style of a two-hander drama rather than an action adventure. Moore reflects:

I mean, it doesn't say anything. It’s talking about Batman and the Joker, and says that yes, psychologically Batman and the Joker are mirror images of each other. So? […] You're never going to meet somebody remotely like either of those two people. You're not going to meet people who have been driven mad in that way.

This gives considerable insight into the futility of this desire for so-called realism. Instead of using the rich imaginative possibilities of the character, and attempting to tell the most inventive and entertaining story possible, deadly words like “Postmodern”, “grittier”, “darker” “more realistic” “psychological” and “more relevant” are uttered, and writers become more interested in theorising about a character than actually using him to tell a worthwhile story. Sherlock Holmes might have been a fascinating character, but Conan Doyle never forgot to give him equally fascinating cases.
The Bond films are on the edge of entering this cul-de-sac. Casino Royale, excellent though it is, has a touch of this problem. While Daniel Craig is terrific and both he and his love interest Vesper are well-characterised, the supporting cast and characters are forgettable. It’s important for the filmmakers to remember that Bond himself is only one ingredient. If we can contrast it with the great Bond films of the sixties – From Russia with Love, Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice, which remain the series’s artistic peak – we note that while Goldfinger features a fabulous performance from Connery as Bond, it also features equally fine villains in Gert Fobe’s Goldfinger and Harold Sakata’s Oddjob and a particularly satisfying, outrageous plot. Would anyone dare to make a Bond film about a plot to make all the gold in fort Knox radioactive, a woman killed by being smothered in gold paint, fights to the death between gypsy girls, butch lesbian colonels with poison-tipped shoes, a rocket that swallows other rockets or a base hidden inside a volcano? I’m not so sure - probably not “gritty” or “postmodern” enough.
The Pierce Brosnan-led entries in the series bravely showed more fidelity to making carefully crafted, lively, infectious entertainment than the trendier move towards grittier, darker introspection. The last Bond film of this type, Die Another Day, may have taken flak for its alleged “invisible car”, but you have to applaud the makers for their moxy in taking such an outrageous idea and having as much fun with it as possible. Bond films are nothing without a sense of the outrageous. The death knell for the series will be sounded when someone tries to portray Bond as a tragic character. Robert Wade, one of the scriptwriters for both Die Another Day and Casino Royale, observed of the differences between Bond and Matt Damon’s title character from the Bourne trilogy:

Whereas Bourne lives in the real world, we are talking about a heightened, intensified reality. You don’t want to be Bourne. He is a guy in hell. He hasn’t really got any joie de vivre. With Bond, you want to be Bond. You’ve got to want to be Bond.

So while Daniel Craig can lend the series an extra sense of danger and credibility, and the scripts can hint - as Fleming did – at the more murderous aspects of Bond’s job, they must not forget that we love Bond precisely because he is a fantastic figure, doing what we all want to do.
And yet one can hardly ignore the changing of the times. When GoldenEye was released in 1996, with the Cold War over and 9/11 nowhere in sight, it envisioned James Bond as a fixed constant in a changing world. Imagery of the decay and ruins of the Soviet Empire pervade the film, culminating in Judi Dench’s M’s famous outburst: “you’re a sexist, misogynist dinosaur: a relic of the cold war.” Brosnan himself – well-dressed, groomed, dignified, classically attractive, thoughtful, softly-spoken - played the part with an elegance that harked back to Fleming’s languorous style, with just a hint of weariness. By the time of Casino Royale, however, with Terrorism replacing Communism as the threat to pervade the writers’ imaginations, Bond ceases to be a dinosaur and becomes something much needed: a creature of the modern world. There’s never a hint in Casino Royale that Bond belongs to the past, and Daniel Craig’s interpretation – muscular, athletic, weathered, no-nonsense dress style, ruggedly striking, spikier hair, a brutal fighter – is that of the fully-trained commando as opposed to Brosnan’s seconded naval officer.
The script emphasises a need for Bond to exercise moral judgement, addressing the problems of cheering on a West-against-the-East action hero at a time when we are concerned with the folly of Bush’s War on Terror, mistreatment of prisoners at Guantamino and the appalling deaths of those such as Jean Paul Charles de Menzies at the hands of those who believe they are fighting terror. Indeed, when the script of Casino Royale was leaked online, many saw a parallel between the de Menzies scandal and a scene in which Bond is chastised for executing an unarmed man, which led to a brief tabloid accusation of the film attempting to use the tragedy for inspiration. While the allegation was, like so many Bond tabloid stories, mistaken - it now seems certain that the similarity is coincidental, and the script written before the tragedy – it provides a good indication of the topical whirlpool from which 21st century Bond grows.
The series 24 is less careful about the moral implications of its own hero Jack Bauer, with many commentators noting a right-wing sentiment in the more recent seasons of the show. Jack’s recurring use of torture to get the information he needs, and the scripts’ emphasis that he has no choice but to do this (usually millions will die if he doesn’t) take us into the sinister realms of propaganda and the “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists” mindset. The problem here is that heroes are black-and-white creations, and every child brought up on stories of good and evil will learn that real life has a lot more shades of grey. One shouldn’t take this too far and discourage children from believing in heroes: there’s nothing wrong with tales of knights and dragons, as long as one understands that there are no knights and dragons in the real world. As anyone brought up on superhero tales knows, our imagination is the only thing that allows us to take part in a world in which pure morals are championed and not compromised as they are in real life.
Bryan Singer’s recent, very flat film Superman Returns sidestepped the problem by failing to address any kind of change in the political climate since the character of Superman was created or worrying implications that his existence would raise, even though the film appeared to be set in the present rather than in a more stylised quasi-past as the original Superman and Batman Begins were. As a child I adored Superman - and still adore the original films - but as I grew older I became aware of both a poignancy and an uneasiness about watching someone save people from disasters, because of one’s awareness that these disasters are all too real - the Tsunani and 9/11 could easily be incorporated into a Superman story - but no-one will ever be able to swoop in and make everything all-right. 1987’s disastrous Superman IV – The Quest For Peace already made this mistake with a storyline in which Superman rids the world of all nuclear weapons, which is unsatisfying in much the same way that watching someone cure cancer in a film would be.
Watching Superman rescue people in Singer’s film, I was troubled by two things: first of all, surely Superman cannot keep rescuing everyone? He’s fast but not omnipotent. Secondly, what is the point of watching a saviour of a type that will never exist, and of seeing prevented things that we have to live with? When asked about the relevance of Superman in a modern age Singer replied “Don’t we need him now?” but the simple answer to such a question is we’re not going to get him. Superman doesn’t work as a role model because his powers come from absurd coincidences: the power of the sun just happens to give him flight, invulnerability and strength: his achievements are therefore not a goal we can strive towards. They result from brute force we aren’t capable of rather than his character or his decisions.
One can link this to the inability in childhood to accept death – we’ve all wondered why God doesn’t stop car crashes from happening, so we invent Superman to do it instead. There’s even a very thoughtful and moving graphic novel, It’s a Bird… by Steven T. Seagle, that deals with this problem. It tells of a comic-book writer reluctantly hired to write for Superman, at a time when his own problems - his aunt has died of Huntingdon’s disease, which he realises is hereditary, and his father has gone missing - are in need of a saviour. The book’s main thesis is that Superman has no relevance to the problems of real life; he triumphs by using brute force of a kind not available to mortals. The problem is the same one that Moore had with The Killing Joke: the strength of fiction is its ability to take us into the heads of human beings, and to understand how others see the world. When one writes of characters with experiences that have nothing to do with those that humans face, it’s hard to keep the story meaningful.
Then there’s the fact that Superman fights for “Truth, Justice and the American Way” – yes, it might strike you as embarrassing, but it’s also lazy for a scriptwriter to ignore it. Whether or not Superman would ally himself with America’s policies and how he would distance himself from, say, Bush’s foreign policy are issues which need to be addressed, even if not at great length. Many critics have indulged in tedious post-9/11 analysis of the current trend for superhero movies - which actually started slightly before 9/11, with Blade, X-Men and the majority of the footage for Spider-Man – interpreting superheroes as a metaphor for the last remaining superpower (personally I think the proportionate strength and agility of a spider doesn’t work particularly well as a metaphor for America itself – some metaphors you just can’t stretch). What they are reluctant to admit is that these movies remain conceptually if not actually pre-9/11, not to mention pre-Iraq, movies, telling stories unfettered - apart from the occasional lip-service – by the problems of using force to overcome adversaries, or whether the allegiance of a superhero should be to their country or to the world.
Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta - a rather more controversial, unsettling story that pitted a murderous costumed vigilante against a fascist Britain – was recently filmed, and could have provided an antidote to this. However, as Moore himself complained, the filmmakers would have done something braver and more relevant if they had updated the story to quasi-Bush America, rather than keeping the obsolete quasi-Thatcher setting. Would any one have the guts to write about a superhero who challenges his own President (I mean a realistic President, not Lex Luthor)?
Ultimately it results in a Jekyll-and-Hyde split between what might be called the camp or parodic coding and the dark, gritty or realistic coding. The former way of coding these stories is demonstrated by the sixties Batman tv series, the Roger Moore Bond films, Superman 3, the two Joel Schumacher Batman films and the 1977-79 and 1987 seasons of Doctor Who. Stories coded in the dark or gritty style include the Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig Bond films, The Dark Knight Returns, and Batman Begins. Although the former can be dire (witness Schumacher’s Batman and Robin) and the latter pretentious, both are equally valid interpretations. Superman 3 remains, for me, a better film than Superman Returns, the Tim Burton Batman movies or the X-Men movies, because while it doesn’t set out to be a realistic, darker or more psychologically complex rendering of the character, or to appeal to those who consider comic-strip adventures beneath them, it has a lot more fun along the way.
The X-Men films are hardly on a different intellectual plane, but because they purport to be a metaphor for oppression (with the fear of the mutants and their powers representing racism and homophobia), they can gain the status of films about “important issues”. Unfortunately, because awesome superpowers are such a clumsy metaphor for racism and homophobia (surely the mutants would be seen as Godlike rather then be oppressed?), the films don’t bear any kind of analysis or repeated viewing in this way, and so the fact that they forget to entertain – unlike Superman 3 – is what stays in the viewer’s mind. Sometimes the camp coding, when done infectiously and imaginatively, can be more worthwhile than the more futile exercises in the serious coding.
This Summer sees the release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which will inspire just as much excitement for those interested in action/adventure done well as the build-up to Quantum of Solace and The Dark Knight, but for slightly different reasons. The original trilogy - Raiders of the Lost ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Indian Jones and the Last Crusade – remain the finest action films yet made. And yet there is nothing gritty, psychological or post-modern about them
It seems to me that this call for greater introspection and analysis of the hero’s role will always be with us. Like Modernism itself, I don’t think it’s something we can ignore or avoid completely, and in many ways it can produce fine work – Watchmen, Casino Royale, Batman Begins, the Bourne films and The Dark Knight Returns being among the strongest examples. But it should be remembered that postmodernism is no substitute for creativity. Let us get on with telling stories about heroes, and telling them well – reassessing the nature of the hero is a secondary concern. If, in the far future, we start to hear about a “darker, grittier, more realistic” take on Harry Potter, there may be cause for concern…

1 comment:

  1. Richard, do you think it's possible for a work to simultaneously tell the story of the hero's quest and deconstruct the hero simultaneously?