The Issue of Realism In Comic Book Movies

The Issue of Realism In Comic Book Movies

Last year, moviegoers everywhere were treated to arguably the best summer of comic book super hero blockbusters in Hollywood history. Is Hollywood finally realizing that treating the subject with respect is a winning strategy? read on for my take..

Webs were slung, shields were thrown, and backs were broken as audiences were engrossed in the plights of characters formerly followed only by so-called “nerds.” It seems that with each passing year, comic book movies are being treated with more and more respect, and with that respect, more inclusion into what cinephiles would consider to be “cinematic art.”

Since comic book super hero films are now gaining credibility alongside big box office returns, they have consequently ushered themselves into the realm of criticism normally reserved for art house films, historical epics, and stereotypical “Oscar contenders.” Amidst the wealth of criticism surrounding each major CBM release, one word tends to pop up more often than in previous years: realism.

Aside from smaller 2012 CBM releases like Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance and Dredd, three of the larger-than-life heavyweight contenders saw releases along with general critical praise: The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers, and The Dark Knight Rises. Upon reading reviews and listening to audience reactions, two of these three films were regularly associated with the term “realistic.” “The Amazing Spider-Man is the gritty, realistic take on the character,” some said. “The Dark Knight Rises continues Christopher Nolan’s realistic take on Batman,” others explained. Coincidentally, the two “realistic” films (TDKR especially) seemed to take more “plot-centric” criticism then their Marvel-created competition, but why?

When Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy began back in 2001, audiences and critics alike were amazed. Like CBM’s, it was a story of fantasy adapted from a pre-established work that saw huge success in print. Despite showcasing what some might consider “plot holes” or flaws of logic (like the question Family Guy’s Chris asks in the episode, “Baby Not on Board” that points out that Frodo and Sam could have just ridden the giant bird from the end of Return of the King to get to Mordor instead of walking all the way there) most audiences tended not to question the choices made by the filmmaker or the characters regarding the plot; they just simply enjoyed the ride.
So, why search through every ounce of The Dark Knight Rises in attempts to highlight every “plot hole?” Why not treat The Avengers with just as critical an eye? Here’s my opinion:

Whether a director knows they are doing it or not, by the time their film has reached its first plot point (if not much earlier), they have effectively established what I like to call, “the rules of the game.” Each film may have an entirely different set of rules, and some films may even intentionally (or mistakenly if the director sucks that bad…cough…Michael Bay...cough) break those rules. Essentially, these rules act as a stepping-off point for the level of the suspension of disbelief of the audience. From the beginning of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, we are made aware that Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill will be narrating the tale, thus making what’s happening on screen essentially a flashback (since if he’s telling us the story, it must have already happened). This is the main rule of Goodfellas until the end of the film, when Henry steps down from the witness stand during a trial and begins talking directly to the camera; an action he has not done during the entire film until now, thus showcasing Martin Scorsese intentionally breaking his own rule (to great effect).

The first aspect of the “rules” for both The Avengers and TDKR has to be mentioned: the fact that they’re both sequels. The Marvel films that led up to The Avengers (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Thor) each had “rules” that fell in line with those seen in Avengers (thanks mostly to Thor’s “realm-jumping” adventures). Therefore, the omission of the massive levels of civilian death that most likely occurred during the Chitauri invasion weren’t questioned by many. By the same token, The Dark Knight Rises was preceded by two films that basically coined the new Hollywood sub-genre, hyper-realism. The Joker was no longer looked at as a crazy clown but instead, a terrorist.

Now let’s apply the analysis of the “rules” to last summer’s major contenders (as viewed by general audiences, not hardcore fans). In the opening scene of The Avengers, despite having previously never seen any ounce of Thanos or his servant The Other in prior Marvel films, the audience is given a glimpse of some sort of structure in space along with a voice-over from The Other who refers to Earth as a “little world, a human world,” and goes on to say, “…and the Humans, what can they do, but burn.” Instantly, some of the rules of the film are established. The audience now knows that not only will this story involve space in some way, but some sort of evil alien(s) as well. The audience is immediately informed that this film most likely won’t be compared to a film like 1995’s Heat (Like 2008’s The Dark Knight was) but instead to a film like 2000’s X-Men, 2005’s Fantastic Four, or even 1997’s Men in Black. Therefore, when Dr. Bruce Banner makes it to New York City on a moped and “happens” to meet up with the rest of the team during a massive alien invasion, most moviegoers tend not to question the remarkable coincidence.
When Bruce Wayne makes it back to the blocked-off, terrorist-seized Gotham City after escaping the “Hell on Earth” pit prison (seemingly somewhere in the Middle East), an overabundance of heads were scratched and in my opinion, rightfully so. The opening action scene of The Dark Knight Rises (right after the quick scene involving the tribute to Harvey Dent), with its dismantling of a plane mid-flight, featured theatrics more commonly compared to a James Bond film than that of a superhero movie. The use of practical effects as opposed to/in tandem with computer generated visuals was evident, and the actions and dialogue of Tom Hardy’s Bane ensured a “Dark Knight/Jokeresque” implication of a terrorist, not a diabolical super-villain. The tone or “rules” were established early in TDKR as was the case in The Avengers, therefore moviegoers were willing to hold the rest of each film to those sets of standards.

It was reported recently that David S. Goyer, writer of this summer’s Man of Steel and Christopher Nolan’s Bat-trilogy, told the press in some capacity that his take on Superman will be done so within the basis of reality. In the comments section below, some CBM fans were outraged, others were excited, and everyone felt strongly one way or the other. Judging from Goyer’s comments, the rules of Man of Steel have already been hinted at, and that makes me feel just as nervous about the film as I once was only excited. Why the sudden cautiousness? Well, if Goyer wants to base Man of Steel in reality, then he has to realize that he must keep that rule in mind from start to finish. In my opinion, it seemed as though he completely lost sight of his own pre-established rules over the course of TDKR. So, if we see scenes during Man of Steel featuring people who interact with Clark Kent on a daily basis never questioning his uncanny resemblance to Superman, expect heavy criticisms in the following reviews.

So, what is the conclusion of all this? Well, despite some people asking how a comic book movie involving super powers and flashy costumes can include criticisms regarding realism, it is my opinion that realism in films cannot be perceived as one set standard; it must be applied on a case-by-case basis. Realism in film should not be looked at as “the likeliness of plot details to occur within reality,” but instead as “the likeliness of characters’ actions, reactions, and interaction with the plot, setting, and other characters, while keeping the director’s intent in mind.” Perhaps if respected film critics would view CBM’s through this scope, they may not only find a higher level of appreciation evident in their reviews, but also a better understanding of the CBM community as well.
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