How many? Super Heroes tire a genre

Batman has no limits," says Bruce Wayne to his manservant, Alfred, early in The Dark Knight, and the accountants at Warner Brothers, which released the movie, are likely to agree. I'm not so sure.

The Dark Knight, praised by critics for its sombre themes and grand ambitions, has proven to be a mighty box office force in a summer already dominated by superheroes of various kinds. But any comic book fan knows that a hero at the height of his powers is a few panels removed from mortal danger, and that hubris has a way of summoning new enemies out of the shadows. Are the Caped Crusader and his colleagues basking in an endless summer of triumph, or is the sun already starting to set?


The season began with Iron Man back in May, which anticipated The Dark Knight in striking many reviewers as a pleasant surprise and hordes of moviegoers as a must-see. The July Fourth weekend belonged to Hancock, which played with the superhero archetype by making him a grouchy, slovenly drunk rather than a brilliant scientist, a dashing billionaire or some combination of the two. In that case, the reviews were mixed, but the money flowed in anyway. Even the lackluster Incredible Hulk, back in June, managed a reasonably robust opening, as did Hellboy II, a somewhat more esoteric comic book movie.

The commercial strength of the superhero genre is hardly news of course. Ever since Tobey Maguire was bitten by a spider back in 2002, this decade has been something of a golden age for large scale action movies featuring guys in high-tech bodysuits battling garishly costumed, ruthless criminal masterminds. Some of them - the Fantastic Four pictures, most notably are content to be entertaining pop culture throw aways. But most aspire to be something more, to be taken as seriously as their heroes and villains take themselves.

Still, I have a hunch, and perhaps a hope, that Iron Man, Hancock and Dark Knight together represent a peak, by which I mean not only a previously unattained level of quality and interest, but also the beginning of a decline. In their very different ways, these films discover the limits built into the superhero genre as it currently exists.

I don’t want to start any fights with devout fans or besotted critics. I’m willing to grant that The Dark Knight is as good as a movie of its kind can be. But that may be damning with faint praise. There is no doubt that Batman, a staple of American popular culture for nearly 70 years, provided Nolan (and his brother and screen writing partner Jonathan), with a platform for his artistic ambitions.

But to paraphrase something the Joker says to Batman, The Dark Knight has rules, and they are the conventions that no movie of this kind can escape. The climax must be a fight with the villain, during which the symbiosis of good guy and bad guy, implicit throughout, must be articulated. The end must point forward to a sequel, and an aura of moral consequence must be sustained even as the killings, explosions and chases multiply The allegorical stakes in a superhero are raised — it’s not just good guys fighting bad guys, but Righteousness against Evil, Order against Chaos - precisely to authorize a more intense level of violence. Thus Iron Man loosens the reins of its plot to give Downey room to explore the kinks and idiosyncrasies of Tony Stark, the playboy billionaire engineering genius who finally grows up and builds himself a metal suit. And Hancock takes the conceit of a dissipated, semi-competent hero - more menace than protector — and turns it into the occasion for some sharp satirical riffing on race, celebrity and the supposedly universal likability of its star, Will Smith.

But in both cases, as soon as the main character is suited up and ready to do battle, the originality drains out of the picture, and the commercial imperatives take over. The Dark Knight has some advantages from being the second movie in a series, with less need for exposition and basic character development, and its final act is less of a letdown.

By arrangement with Inernational Herald Tribune

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