Thursday, July 24, 2008

Heroes With Limits

A.O. Scott muses about the limitations of the superhero film:

The disappointment [of films like The Dark Knight] comes from the way the picture spells out lofty, serious themes and then ... spells them out again. What kind of hero do we need? Where is the line between justice and vengeance? How much autonomy should we sacrifice in the name of security? Is the taking of innocent life ever justified? These are all fascinating, even urgent questions, but stating them, as nearly every character in “The Dark Knight” does, sooner of later, is not the same as exploring them.

And yet stating such themes is as far as the current wave of superhero movies seems able or willing to go. The westerns of the 1940s and ’50s, obsessed with similar themes, were somehow able, at their best, as in John Ford’s “Searchers” and Howard Hawks’s “Rio Bravo,” to find ambiguities and tensions buried in their own rigid paradigms.

But the cowboys of old did not labor under the same burdens as their masked and caped descendants. Those poor, misunderstood crusaders must turn big profits on a global scale and satisfy an audience hungry for the thrill of novelty and the comforts of the familiar. Is it just me, or is the strain starting to show?
I love the comparison with Westerns, especially insofar as it suggests that superhero films are our own attempts to deal with the nature of civilization and savagery, and the myth of American origins. I can't wait thirty years to see a superhero picture as subversive and good as Unforgiven.

Note: my own preference for film titles is to italicize or underline them, just like book titles. Times style seems to dictate quotes, like for television series or poems. (Likewise, my own preference would be to italicize/underline TV show titles and put the titles of individual shows in quotes: i.e. "College" is the fifth episode of The Sopranos.) Also, we shouldn't drop articles or words willy-nilly: John Ford's film is The Searchers, not "Searchers." Can't we get this straightened out?

1 comment:

bk said...

I share your style preferences. When I'm teaching referencing rules, I tell my students that generally the 'bigger' things get italicised and the 'smaller' things get quotation marks. So television programmes are italicised and episodes are in quotation marks, book titles are italicised and chapters are in quotation marks, journal titles are italicised and articles are in quotation marks. What is the appeal of inconsistent rules?