Feature: Why Realism Has No Place in Comic Book Movies

PrintE-mail Written by Kal Shanahan

There were two thoughts running through my mind during the last few (epic) minutes of The Dark Knight Rises. The first, that Joseph Gordon Levitt was going to have a fantastic feeder system in the new Wayne Foundation’s Children’s Home, providing the new Batman with an endless supply of already emotionally damaged Robins and Batgirls. The second, that perhaps now that the trilogy was over, I’d finally be able to see the real Batman, my Batman, the Batman I’ve grown up with and listed as co-leaser on a number of tenancy agreements, make his on-screen debut.

And now let’s take a breather to return your seats to their upright positions. Don’t get me wrong, I adore the Nolan trilogy (henceforth referred to as ‘The Trilogy’ – sorry SW/LOTR) and everything it has done for both the Batman canon and the medium. The last time I was in Chicago I spent the entire first day walking up and down Lower Wacker drive and LaSalle Street telling everyone I passed that ‘this is where Batman did that cool flippy-truck-thing’. When Batman was using his iPad to bet on the NYSE (GCSE... hmm?) I was soaking in the Gotham City backdrop, wondering whether Crime Alley would be in NYC, Chicago, or Pittsburgh - and then, wondering where I could get myself a BatiPad (BatPad/iBat)? Point is, I have more than a passing interest in this stuff, which translated into making me a massive sponge for every facet of the Nolan universe - they made Bats relevant to a new generation and tackled the series in a respectable and realistic way – they really asked the question, what would Batman really be like?

But there’s the rub. I don’t want to see a realistic Gotham City. I don’t want to see a realistic villain. And I sure as hell don’t want to see a realistic Batman.

Well ok, maybe a little realistic.

There seems to be a trend in Hollywood of trying to ground comic books in a reality that the largest possible audience will be able to comprehend and accept. David S. Goyer, the slightly befuddled Moses of comic book movies, spoke on the approach that Christopher Nolan and himself had taken when working on the new Superman movie:

“We always had a naturalistic approach (to the movie), we want our stories to be rooted in reality, like they could happen in the same world we live in.”

And how did that work out for Superman Returns hmm? The film forwent Mech-Suit Luthor in favour of a great big rock, supposedly for the sake of realism. And though I may have drunkenly stated in the past that Returns was criminally underrated, I fear that any future Superman film, where he himself is the most ‘hyper’-real character, is destined to fail. I am of the opinion that building a ‘realistic’ world around a superhero only seeks to further alienate them from the viewer, and in fact in order for audiences to connect with a superhero character, especially the archetypal boy scout, on an emotional level, they need to be presented with an enemy so out of this world, that it makes them look like one of us. Its classic social psychology, ingroups vs outgroups. Kal-El is so close to being human that seeing him beat the snot out of Lex Luthor for the millionth time no longer appeals to me – it's just two dudes fighting within the same social group. Superman fighting for us, against one of us. But Superman in a drag-out, slobber-knocker with Doomsday or Darkseid or hell, even Titano, sounds awesome to me! Who is the audience going to most identify with in that scenario?  A guy that looks like one of us, acts like one of us, speaks like one of us, and even (tries to) sleeps with our chicks, or a giant, marauding King Kong cast off?

Superman’s one weakness - intimacy.

It becomes a case of normative globalism – Superman is one of us, an inhabitant of our planet, against one of them. That’s the only way you’re going to make the great Man of Steel relevant to the viewer.

One of my favourite Batman villains is Killer Croc. The dude is so ferocious he’d bite your face off for suggesting he should maybe try moisturising. Now whilst I don’t think ol’ Waylon Jones could carry a film by himself, seeing him in a role ala Scarecrow in TDK would make my fan-boy bones shudder with excitement. So many of Batman’s foes test him mentally and philosophically, Croc is just a massive dude who eats people. How in the blue hell do you portray that realistically? You don’t.

Tom Hardy was incredible as Bane in TDKR – imposing, ruthless, and perhaps one of the most intimidating characters in cinema history, despite sounding like a puberty-reaching Mickey Mouse. Bane as a character was always meant to be Batman’s equal in every conceivable way; it was his mind as much as it was the Venom that gave him his edge. He was never so much an allegory for addition as he was a warning against the insatiable thirst for victory at all costs. But he was limited by the reality of Nolan’s universe; he had to conform to the same sets of physics and rules that we do here in the real world. And not only does that not work for me, it doesn’t work for the character either… wait a second, hang on, what, the dude can punch through walls now? And wait, let me look at that flashback timeline again – wouldn’t Bane be in his 60s? Does this character actually reside within our reality? Does he… oh wait, never mind, Catwoman shot him and now he’s dead.

Everything suddenly makes way more sense.

So I’d like to subscribe to the school of Hyperrealism. To borrow a phrase, a hyperrealist approach to comic book filmmaking would allow our favourite heroes to operate in a world like ours, but with the volume turned up to 11. A hyper-stylized version of the mundane would find fantastical heroes and villains alike living side-by-side with the general populace. I’ve often heard these approaches being compared to a ‘live-action cartoon’ (which I would regard as a compliment), or being accused of emphasizing ‘style over substance’ (see: Watchmen). To those people, I would ask them to consider where comics came from.

I got into comics because Batman: The Animated Series was so frickin’ entertaining, I started reading Daredevil because I was flipping through an issue and thought ‘hot damn’ this artwork is incredible. Comic book movies need a little bit of style, some pinash, a little bit of that cartoonish element to them, otherwise they’re just vigilante films. In what rational world does a person decide to dress up in a tight, red leather onesie with devil horns atop, when a hood or a ski-mask would suffice? Though, thinking of it, seeing Bullit or Harry Callahan in pixie boots and flesh coloured tights would make those movies well more exciting.

The point is that every comic book movie requires a certain suspension of disbelief on the audience’s part. It is essential, vital, and therefore, I feel, counterproductive for studios to label a film as ‘realistic’, ‘naturalistic’, or the dreaded ‘grounded’. Embrace it the escapist fantasy. Free the film from the shackles of its reality and explore a theme or a concept that an episode of Law & Order ABCXYZ couldn’t.

That’s what I want from a comic book movie. These films are the modern man’s parable; I want to be taught about the human condition in a fantastical element. I want them to offer me something that I can’t get anywhere else, show me something that I can’t see from my window.

Just, please, for the love of God, don’t go back to Oa.

I’m not even going to pretend I know what this is.

And Goddammit I want to see Batman’s grey tights on screen!


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+2 #3 paul carey 2012-11-18 16:28
I am in full agreement, I want to see the fantasy element back in Batman, and am concerned about this "Grounded" version of Superman. Put the guys who make the animated DC films in charge of the live action ones.
+2 #2 Nick Blackshaw 2012-11-18 08:44
Good article, I made similar points in a Batman article I wrote a while back; Marvel films seems to have embraced the larger than life-ness without becoming ridiculous, something Batman embraced to some extent pre-Joel Schumacher.
+2 #1 Luke Riley 2012-11-18 00:05
Hello my name Luke is and I am a writer for Starburst.

If I had only seen the Nolan trilogy I may have disagreed with you, however since DKR I have seen the Batman/Superman feature length animations. Despite the quality of 'The Trilogy' I thought the animated movies really captured the spirit of comic book heroes. Seeing Batman fighting Darkseid was nerdgasm inducing. The writing was sharp and the voice acting was, as always, very good. Seeing Superman fighting alien threats instead of a business man with a grudge was so exciting. I hope, as Zod is the villain in Man of Steel, we get to see the boy in blue fight the Kryptonian general. I want see DC explore their heroes' worlds fully and not limit themeselves.

Warner Bros has a chance to make Justice League something special but like Green Lantern it has the potential to be a catastrophe that could not be saved even if superman flew around the world to turn back time and change history.

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