Neverland of Superheroes and the World That Doesn’t Grow Up

Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT and Zack Snyder’s WATCHMEN represent the peak of the superhero genre, and for the public the most resonant superhero works to date, even if they couldn’t be more dissimilar in styles. Their aesthetics are a contradiction of the other, with Snyder’s images working through a fashion that is colorful and outrageous, with numerous superhero costumes and engaged by considerable CGI; Nolan’s contains a tactile realism that is mostly naturalistic, where real stunts are preferred and costumes aren’t popular. Snyder’s filmmaking is also occupied by cultural music and slow-mo techniques, and Nolan’s is more distant and less vivid. Yet, their stylizations aside, in terms of subtext and thematic thesis, these two couldn’t have more similarities.

At the end of THE DARK KNIGHT, reminiscent of the 1953 western, SHANE, Batman (Christian Bale) leaves into nowhere with a kid calling him to come back, ever the believer of superheroes. But Bruce Wayne finds himself preoccupied with not just a kid that needs to believe in something inspirational, but an entire society. Throughout the film, he seems to have the concern of a parent, one that wants to move on in life, to leave his children to be independent and get a normal living for them as much as for himself, but isn’t able to. That Nolan’s film concludes with Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) as the hero to believe in might be something of moral ambiguousness, but in subtext, it is further an exclamation point to the film’s thesis that this is a world dependent on belief in parental figures and overly relies on them. Bruce Wayne twists them, and attempts to rebound the responsabilities to a dead Dent, and thus ironically, to the people.

WATCHMEN delves more overly into this: Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode) cites Alexander The Great as an important inspiration for his life’s work, and so is the entire comic-book by Alan Moore and the film by Snyder made of idolization and influential figures as well; to politicians such as Richard Nixon; to Gods such as Dr. Manhattan (Billy Cudrup); to parents such as Sally Jupiter (Carla Gugino); and to superheroes such as Hollis Mason (Stephen McHattie). In particular with Dr. Manhattan, everyone envisions him as an American Superman, which is emblematic of a culture that needs to adore a lead face. Like the title suggests, humanity needs to feel watched over, made of children who are parentless, who are fanatical and who thus must follow a superior person for guidence. Like Bruce Wayne, Veidt still tries to break such nature, also ironically shifting dependability to a false Dr. Manhattan, and thus, the world.

Both films are aware of their fanaticism and exploit it within their stories, with heroic characters that revere to other heroic characters, and we, fans of heroes, watching stories about fans of heroes. They contain a meta-fiction – in particular Moore’s comic-book – in which the superhero genre’s existence is explained as a manifestation of people’s need for idols (if the last American election isn’t evidence, and the fact that both candidates had to discuss why their favorite character was Batman, I don’t know what is). These entries seem to attempt to shatter such thing, as if they were the end of their genre; to deconstruct a format that relies on archetypes being autocratic and adored (through this, the parallels between superheroes and dictatorial men and religious beings come to flourish, as celebrated idols), into a society of fans finally becoming independent.

“I leave it entirely into your hands” is the final line in Moore’s comic-book and in Snyder’s film, and it is aimed to a kid that is a stereotypical fanboy. It resonates as a supplication (in Moore’s novel, at least) for a world to grow up – “to take responsibility,” as the newspaper editor tells him. In Nolan’s film, Bruce Wayne, too, leaves citizens to be responsible for their fate as he battles his nemesis in the movie’s climax, allowing them to save themselves. They seem to implore the end of the need for their existance; not so much celebrations of individuals, but a desertion of them and a plead for their collective followers, themes that Alan Moore has covered in other books, such as V FOR VENDETTA.

Both TDK and the literate/cinematic works of Watchmen attempt to bridge closer the viewer’s reality with the genre’s fantasy, and in different styles, on a zeitgeist resonance. But not so much to fulfill fantasies about superheroes fixing the problems and conflicts of the times, but to show the limits of escapist art from these characters, and in a perverse way, their shallowness; by the end of each narrative, the superheroes end as an abstraction, hitting a wall of reality in which they must accept their falsehood. “I can change almost anything,” Dr. Manhattan replies in regard to his superpowers, “but I cannot change human nature,” also accepting his irrelevance as one individual, perhaps as a mere comic-book character. Their worlds are saved, ultimately, with the defamation of archetypes, as people are made responsble for people; the images of their endings constructed as celebrations of citizens who do good by themselves. Batman and Dr. Manhattan leave into the unknown, and into different lights, their images broken in a reality in which “schoolboy heroics” ultimately are, as their eternal comic-book continuities, redundant.

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