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Category:    Home > Essays > Superhero > Politics > The Dark Knights’ Returns!

The Dark Knights’ Returns!


By Nicholas Sheffo



When the impressive Iron Man became the big surprise hit of the early Summer, everyone (read “expert”) was spewing about how Marvel Comics was ahead of DC Comics on the big screen as if it had always been that way, conveniently forgetting that it took Blade back in 1998 for Marvel to have any live action feature film that worked at all.  Sure, Superman Returns barely broke even and no one really celebrates it and in its wake, Warner and DC Comics panicked, putting every live action project on hold… except one.


Before Bryan Singer’s Superman venture turned out not to be the Superhero homerun his first two X-Men films did, the next Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale Batman film was not going to have The Joker, but after Singer’s film hit a sour note, that changed.  In one of the greatest, saddest changes of gear in cinema history, Heath Ledger was hired and now, we all know the incredible on-screen results and terrible off-screen end to a young actor tired of easy paychecks for bad films, wanting to take risks and make a name for himself as more than just a pretty face.


Even before his passing, there was no doubt that The Dark Knight would be a very big film.  Like any good studio at its best, Warner Bros. took the project seriously and once again was all-out in backing the film and well over $400 Million with a take heading towards Titanic proportions, rave reviews, huge positive fan response and shockingly positive general audience response, the film has made all-time filmmaking history and those “experts” are no longer making stupid Marvel/DC comparisons.


The fact of the matter is, those companies (and a few others no longer with us) made what has been loosely called the Superhero genre, one which remains the most successful in the history of comic book publishing, even with all the classic comedy, horror, war, science-fiction and even soap opera titles.  DC invented it, Timely, Fawcett and Street & Smith added to it, Marvel further innovated it and now we have the market we have, yet a new ignorance has emerged and it is no surprise that it is often from those same “experts” who embarrass themselves the more they speak.


This time, it has been about the politics of both Iron Man and Dark Knight, but with one fascinating common denominator: trying to “explain” the politics of both.  Why?  Because their success is profound in context to what is happening in the U.S. in particular and manage to get their audiences to address what the media is trying to ignore in the country: bad economy, suspicious war actions, condescending propaganda, a culture of secretive government, paranoia-induced spying without limits and a fight over The American Dream that goes from gutted S&Ls to gutted pension funds and the suspicious housing crisis.


In the case of Iron Man, there were those touting that it has totally avoided politics and was somehow apolitical by setting the abuse of the weapons of mass destruction Tony Stark made “from Iraq to Afghanistan” as if they were several planets away.  It is either a sense of being naïve, ignorant or outright hatred of the reader and the public to make any such claim for one simple basic reason.  There is no such thing as a film without a political point of view, as they all have them no matter what, with any such claim a joke or attempt to inoculate the point of view the given film has.


With Dark Knight even more successful and much harder to ignore, those who decided to take it on ideologically once again fell right on their faces.  Why?  The answer is not so simple, but we can start with the interesting analogy between what Bruce Wayne does and the second Bush Administration claims to be doing on one level.  The Mystery-genre writer Andrew Klavan took it on it an article about the film being an outright analogy of the current administrations actions in spying on people illegally and/or with few limits and The Joker as a terrorist.  It is a weak analogy and quickly becomes laughable when testing it in real life, but also shows someone who should have thought before they spoke.


Fortunately, Variety Magazine writer Brian Lowry went after him and others who suddenly thought they were Pop Culture experts when they are clueless on these issues; ones they obviously could have cared less about to begin with.  There is also the over-reliance on the idea that cinema and film is a basic reflection of a society instead of a complex one, which tripped up Klavan the way it tripped up much the way former Salon.com writer Ed Gonzales did when he accused Star Wars: Episode Three: Revenge Of The Sith of being anti-Bush II propaganda when instead, it was from a screenplay finished years (or decades) before the man ever entered politics no matter what changes were made.  Any early-1980s fan of the films knew where the storyline was going and it was no big CIA secret.


Klavan decided go the opposite way, claiming it was possibly an endorsement of Bush II policy, showing how little he takes commercial, Action or Superhero films seriously and makes the fatal flaw of thinking all such films are comic, shallow or disposable.  In both cases, the premise is that the films would be disposable and if they are even coming close to being about something, it is shallow and “easy” to figure out.  The huge failures in both cases prove otherwise.


As for Klavan, it is a “mystery” that he has a writing career of any sort after that one, even missing that Batman has always been considered a detective and wrote the books that inspired horrid films like Don’t Say A Word (which he co-produced) and One Missed Call, plus the lesser Clint Eastwood film True Crime.  Maybe he should spend this “amazing” energy worry about his non-hits before attacking someone else’s.  I guess we should listen to the old public service announcement that told us to read the books, don’t wait for the movies. 


Before concluding, here are the links to the two Dark Knight articles noted:


Wall Street Journal/Andrew Klavan



Variety/Brian Lowry





So what does the success of Iron Man and Dark Knight really tell us and spell out?  For one thing, to end the goofy Presidential analog, both films are about heroes who are powerful, successful members of both the U.S. Capitalist Elite and Power Elite with old-money family histories based on the things that make the U.S. great, like technological innovation, financial success and companies with a share-the-wealth philosophy that is what some would term “mid-Capitalism” while the Bush II administration (practicing incompatible to The American dream Late Capitalism) hates science, has a war on it (unless it is weapons that kill) including the support of yesteryear technology (the combustion engine) and an end to innovation and scientific models (from evolution to genetic engineering to anything that helps the public at large) making he and his administration the total opposite of the title characters of their respective films.  Also, they are willing to risk their lives while the vast majority of the Bush II people are lazy and have never seen real combat of any kind, going around as if the world owes them something.


Then there is responsibility, something both learn in the origins of their rise as heroes versus the most irresponsible administration (pretty much) of all time.  Tony Stark realizes his weapons are killing innocent people and does something about it while Bruce Wayne is already doing what he can do to save Gotham City from being (continuing to be) a living hell and is hands-on with his U.S. Government project to make sure his work is not abused like Stark’s was when Stark was complacent.


In using that technology, Wayne/Batman and Lucius Fox abuse power to save the city from The Joker, but the big difference is that we can actually trust them and unlike their governmental counterparts who must follow the law (no matter how often they feel they don’t need to, imperial presidency, fascist leanings, arrogance, or otherwise), have vigilante leeway that should never be given to anyone in any government, all the way to a series like 24.


After 8 – 28 years of lies and worse, people are finally waking up to the profound implications of how we got to where we are with gas price scams, Enron-style energy manipulation long after their demise, CEOs being paid insane tens to hundreds of millions for failure and other aforementioned disasters.  While the heroes in the film are about hard work, earning what they have and doing what has to be done for the better, with the best interests of the future in mind.  They are also proof that people believe the American dream is more than just a myth and they are correct.


But still the ignorance of Pop Culture and seeing the Superhero genre as a joke prevail and will for a long time.  It has not helped that the studios prefer humorous, childish, lite version of such films if such version of those films will bring in big bucks, but something has changed this Summer of 2008.  The more serious graphic novel edge that began with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and was soon realized in the first two Robocop films (1987, 1990) have finally caught up with the Superhero genre in the mainstream.  You can even have humor without it being stupid.


There will always be Superhero product for young audiences and rightly so because it is for everyone, but the mainstream has always been afraid of comic books because it is an artform they never understood, could control or admit to the power of.  Now, that is more undeniable than ever and the strong denial is amazingly still there, remaining there because some people think they are above certain ideas or people, so expect more ignorance.  Unless Hollywood has a campaign against these more potent, mature and serious entries in the genre, which has replaced outright action films as their biggest money makers, we will see more such works and the 21st Century may finally be the period where the comic book is seen as the artform it has always been.


Of course, it is easy take its financial success (all the way to rare collectibles and the rarest comics) and try to write it off as limited to fans, a overhyped market and nostalgia, but that is clearly not the case.  It is in the interest of the studios to support the films that will do the best, but the assumed audience for these films and this genre (and yes, it is a genre) is children with massive energy, as well as persons still considered disposable by society except for their exploitation and the money that can be taken from them, including (but not just) “geeks” and “losers” with unspoken but extremely heavy connotation of homophobia and amazing hatred of the mentally ill.


However, the world (film, comics and real life) is changing and while there are more than a few (including those very close to power in this country) who will continue to embracer and stick to that sick view of the Superhero genre audience, they’ll continue to smile, laugh, hoot and holler about it all celebrating their “happiness” while laughing at the expense of others.  Soon however, they will be snapping out of their haze of hatred and without being able to do anything about it, will come to the grim realization that for all of them, the party is over.


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