‘Superman’ onwards, the screen has sagged with the torment of superheroes, which is why ‘The Avengers’ is such a relief – if only till the upcoming ‘Batman’ movie.
The big news of last week was The Avengers, which became the first film in Hollywood history to earn over $100 million in its second weekend in the United States. (Most films are lucky if they manage that figure in their opening weekend.) What does this mean, besides the inevitable calculations for a slew of sequels? One, that we are still susceptible to buzz. Two, that no amount of superhero-movie ennui, which we claimed after a stretch when the multiplexes seemed to be playing nothing but superhero movies, will dampen our desire for a really special superhero movie. And three, that we do like superheroes who don’t seem to be ripe candidates for the therapist’s couch. One of the biggest legacies of The Avengers may be the revelation that you don’t have to reinvent superheroes with new-age traumas and yawning reservoirs of unexpressed angst, that they can make jokes and carry on in the manner of clowns in slapstick comedy and be none the less heroic.
The tradition of the tormented superhero, on film, dates back to Richard Donner’s Superman, which was released a year after Star Wars transformed the screen into a wall-to-wall repository of pre-digital-era special effects. In this film, Superman, played by Christopher Reeve with twinkling eyes and a granite jaw, sets right dangling aircraft and prevents California from being nuked into the ocean’s bottom, but his most impressive feat isn’t for public good. He tinkers with the space-time continuum, turning the earth back on its axis to save his sorta-girlfriend from death – and by unleashing his powers for such personal reasons, he laid the groundwork for the superhero who is as much a savior of the world as a prisoner of the self. Of course, this act was presented as a splash of swashbuckling heroism, that he would do anything to save his girl. (The subtext revealed itself only when you really looked at what he did in order to save his girl.)
Superman II, made after the predecessor became a huge worldwide smash, became even more personal. Torn between the planet that gave him his strength and the girl who gave him her heart, Superman gives up his powers and turns human. Looked one way, this is a thrilling romantic gesture, forsaking everything that’s super about him to become a mere man. But taken another way, this is simply the deepening of the schism between public duty and private desire – and that’s what Tim Burton picked up on when he made Batman, a little more than a decade after Superman. (The intervening years yielded nothing special; the subsequent Superman sequels became sillier in tone, and only the most fervent completists remember Supergirl.) The success of Batman turned into a commandment the agony over the split personality merely hinted at in Superman, and the best film in this tradition is undoubtedly M Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, which details the gradual awakening of a man with superpowers.
With The Crow, Blade, Hulk, the X-Men films, Daredevil and Ghost Rider, the screen – Iron Man apart – was darkened by inner demons, and the darkest demon of all was Batman as seen through the eyes of Christopher Nolan, who presented the superhero as the most tortured savior since Christ. And no amount of euphoria over the lightheartedness of The Avengers is likely to dampen the anticipation for The Dark Knight Rises, which will surely be the latest exhibit in the superhero gallery of gloom. More box-office records are likely to be smashed, though the superhero film that I’m more intrigued about this season is The Amazing Spider-Man, directed by Marc Webb, whose only other film (and his first) is (500) Days of Summer, which, in its own way, was about a tortured soul and the attempts to alleviate it. Will this Spider-Man reboot lean towards Avengers-style levity or plunge into Dark Knight levels of nihilistic drama. If I were a betting man with a sense of humour, I’d go with the former, if only because it isn’t often that a story that begins with a spider is spun by a man named Webb.
Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.
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