The Fanboy and the Apostate, Part 3: Social Relevance and the Rise of Cinematic Universes

The Ritchie and Carlin superhero debate continues!

Part 2 of our discussion tackled the question of whether superheroes have evolved with the times or become exploited by older generations to the detriment of their (arguably) originally intended audiences. 


Part 3 – Social Relevance and the Rise of Cinematic Universes

CARLIN: Some have said comic-book stories are modern mythology, but I struggle with that comparison. Mythology, it seems to me, was created to explain history before there was a record of it, to explain acts of nature before we had science to do that, and to pass down our morals to subsequent generations. Comics certainly are intended to provide aspirational behavioral exemplars, but to a very specific audience: children. They do not exist to plug the gaps in our historical or scientific knowledge. They’re probably more akin to fairy tales or folklore, which are often dark (when they haven’t been sanitized by Disney), but are nonetheless designed to teach children basic morals. Imagine if Hollywood started producing dark, explicitly violent, even sexualized takes on Cinderella, Snow White, and The Little Mermaid––PG-13 or even R-rated incarnations of those beloved characters––and parents everywhere had to explain to little girls that they couldn’t see those movies? It wouldn’t happen––am I right? No studio would make a movie based on children’s characters that was inappropriate for its target demographic! And yet that’s exactly what the studios are doing with Batman, Superman, Wolverine, et al. They’ve taken folkloric figures, created to entertain and inspire children, and perverted them into malapropos nostalgia acts for a generation of middle-aged men that can’t cope with the irreversible passing of the analog era in which they came of age.

You know, in the eighties, it was all about, “How do we take an R-rated property and make it accessible for kids?” Seriously. You may not remember this, but there were actually Saturday-morning cartoon incarnations of Rambo and RoboCop! Now the governing philosophy seems to be, “How do we take the old Saturday-morning cartoons and make them appealing to adults?”


RITCHIE: You make a very interesting point about superheroes not being modern mythology. However, I believe that superhero stories, at their best, are a reflection of the current generation––it’s struggles, it’s passions, triumphs and failures. Issues such as gay rights, xenophobia, gun control, and distrust of government are becoming increasingly prominent in current storylines. Are these topics that children should be exposed to? Absolutely, because they face them every day. This is an age of omnipresent news and social media. It’s not comics that are robbing children of their innocence; it’s the entire damned world. Kids today have to worry about being gunned down in school. They have drills for the scenario. I can’t imagine growing up with that reality, that horror.

Many of these beloved characters were born out of the need to digest terrible, larger-than-life events, like World War II. But our world is far less simple than it used to be. Black and white, good and evil…it’s all been muddied. We can’t just show Captain America punching world leaders in the face anymore. The world is increasingly gray, which I think influences our modern portrayals of these characters. If they, too, can be flawed and struggling with morality (a la Snyder’s Superman), does that make them more relatable because they’re like us? Food for thought.


CARLIN: I was incrementally straying from superheroes when Batman Begins came out in ’05. It was, quite simply, the Batman movie I’d waited my whole life to see! It had the origin story; it had the iconic visuals (the lonely silhouette of the Dark Knight gazing across the cityscape); it had darkness (appropriate to the character) but also a tremendous amount of humor (all character-based) and psychological complexity: finally Batman was given, ya know, a character arc. It was thrilling––I couldn’t imagine why it took five tries to make this Batman movie!

Then came The Dark Knight, an absolute masterpiece. What Nolan did with those films was so remarkable, because he managed to interpret the character in such a way that it felt closest to the general characterization from the comics (with full acknowledgment that there is no “true” interpretation), and yet it existed in a very idiosyncratic world that, unlike Burton and Schumacher, felt grounded in reality. That had been Donner’s secret: the superheroic protagonist was pure fantasy, so the world he inhabited had to feel credibly believable. Nolan made the story feel relevant to its particular era, whereas Burton’s existed in this confined, retro-noir dreamscape and Schumacher’s in some acid-trip, homoerotic psychedelia, both heavily production-designed and very much a reflection of their respective director’s psyches, and both owed more to pop-cultural influences than sociocultural influences.


RITCHIE: I think The Dark Knight is one of the darkest (no pun intended) superhero films out there. The Joker is the stuff of nightmares, and placing his crimes within our “real” world only made him more terrifying. I’ve spoken at length on the PG-13 rating and the irresponsible sterilization of violence to achieve that rating. I think, in many ways, The Dark Knight is more of an R-rated film because of its mature tone and Joker’s chaos. You want to talk about a loss of innocence? How about when Alfred says “some men just want to watch the world burn?” That line and the movie exposed a harsh truth about Mankind that would’ve terrified me as a kid. Unfortunately, villains are quite real, and we don’t have superheroes to count on.


CARLIN: There’s no question that the Dark Knight trilogy is a nuanced statement on our post-9/11 surveillance state. I will say that I think they were probably about as dark, aesthetically speaking, as the character ought to go––I’ll give you that. But there was also tremendous humanity in those movies, and I think that’s what audiences responded to. It was all so perfect and satisfying to a fan who’d followed Batman his whole life that I took the opportunity at that moment to say, “This is where I get off. Batman now belongs to the next generation.” I was happy to hang up my cowl on a high note.


RITCHIE: I understand that Nolan’s trilogy is the pinnacle of Batman filmmaking for you, but at the same time it’s in stark contrast to the direction you’d like to see these films take. Were that sudden change to occur, others may never have the opportunity to find their “perfect” Batman story. It’s wonderful that everything you could’ve wanted from a Batman film was achieved in those three stories. Like Bruce himself, it seems like a good time for you to walk away from the genre, (at least for a while). Fandom runs very, very deep and is not easily satiated. Consider yourself one of the lucky ones.

Still, for someone out there, maybe Spider-Man: Homecoming will be his or her definitive Spidey tale. Likewise, a friend of mine had waited decades to see a Doctor Strange movie hit the screen. I used to fantasize about what an X-Men­ film would be like––Patrick Stewart was Professor X to me long before he landed the role. It was pure joy to see those fantasies realized, and I had to wait until I was 18 for that to happen! Generations of kids have no concept of a pre-CGI era of filmmaking or even an era when superheroes were considered nerdy.

I think one of the most difficult challenges for superhero films is tone, especially if the studios are placing multiple movies within a share cinematic universe. Multiple visions have to be reconciled, from the writer to the director to the producers, and then all the financial garbage has to be factored in. Ever wonder why we haven’t seen gay characters in the MCU? Because the films wouldn’t get played in countries like Russia, and money would be lost. But that’s a rant for another day.


CARLIN: I can appreciate the mature approach Nolan took to his interpretation of Batman and also be concerned about the increasingly grim (and decidedly un-kid friendly) path it leads superheroes down––both things can be true. Alan Moore, after all, has been very critical of the cultural corruption of superheroes over the past few decades, a trend he himself is partially responsible for––again: a case of competing truths, not contradictory positions. For me, costumed crimefighters have lost their innocence. I can’t just go back to enjoying superheroes even as escapist entertainment, same way Neo in The Matrix couldn’t go back to accepting his reality at face value; I see things differently now, and there’s no unseeing that. What you and I have, I think, is an instance of irreconcilable viewpoints. And that’s okay. Superheroes certainly inspire a lot of passion––there’s no denying that!


RITCHIE: Competing truths––I like that. And, yes, our viewpoints aren’t likely to reconcile any time soon. I continue to be blown away by the Marvel Cinematic Universe and eagerly await each new phases. It’s hard to imagine now, but Iron Man (and Robert Downey Jr.) was considered a gamble, and the entire MCU future rested on its success. I knew who Iron Man and Thor were, but those movies made me (and millions of viewers) a fan of the characters. Now that the AAA players have had their success, Marvel is introducing its other, lesser known characters…and knocking it out of the park every time. I mean, Ant-Man?! That movie is hilarious! I’m so excited to see Captain Marvel, Black Panther, and pretty much anything Marvel releases. Marvel Studios and Kevin Feige have earned my trust, and I know they’ll do these characters justice. Eventually, fatigue may set in, but not for many years. There are too many rich stories left to adapt and too many characters to explore. As dominant as the genre has been, it’s only the tip of the iceberg.


CARLIN: I admire the hell out of what Kevin Feige and Marvel have pioneered with the MCU: Nobody has ever pulled off an interconnected multimedia universe like that. For me, though, the series sort of peaked with The Avengers––once I saw the team-up (which was astonishing, by the way), that sated my appetite for more. Marvel’s success, unfortunately, has kick-started a case of industry-wide “mega-franchise” envy, with every studio in Hollywood trying to emulate the template; Warner Bros. has already learned some tough lessons that it’s a lot harder to pull off than it looks. I suspect Marvel will continue to be successful at it for as long as there’s a sustained appetite––God knows they have a winning formula––but I think the other studios are going to fall on their faces trying to mimic the deceptively complex approach. This past summer (2016), with all of its sure-thing tent poles collapsing into box-office disappointments, may very well go down in history as the beginning of the end.


RITCHIE: Ah, ye have little faith! Call me an optimist, but I continue to have high hopes for Wonder Woman, despite general reactions to Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad (both of which I liked and will make no excuses for my enjoyment). If the X-Men represent all I love about Marvel, then Diana does the same for DC. Again, I didn’t see the Lynda Carter series, but my wife adored the show growing up and passed her love of Wonder Woman onto me. Being introduced to the character as an adult, I appreciate her on so many levels. As a warrior. As an ambassador. As a woman. She’s just the bee’s knees. If the upcoming film can capture that multilayered essence of the character, then the DCU could have its first legitimate critical hit.


Check back next week for our closing comments in Part 4:

The Dawn of the Mega Franchise

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