I didn’t read many superhero comics as a kid – you just couldn’t get hold of them where I lived. My comics were the Beano, the Dandy, and the occasional Whizzer & Chips. My only written brush with Up, Up and Away came from the weekly adventures of Bananaman, who was, so far as I can tell, never a member of the Justice League or the Avengers (although, that’s something I could see Grant Morrison changing, if ever he has the chance). Like most folk my age, my superheroes were on TV. Cartoons like Spider-man and his Amazing Friends and The Incredible Hulk. The live action Adam West Batman. And, of course, the Christopher Reeve Superman films. By the time I finally got into comics in a big way, at around the age of twenty, it was as much nostalgia and glimpses of half-remembered characters that drove me onwards.
Why am I drivelling away about this? Well, for years and years after being bitten by the comic bug, I found myself having to repeat the same mantra to disbelieving family and friends: Superheroes aren’t just for kids. And it’s true. There’s a lot of darkness and emotional weight beneath the colourful panels and over-the-top action. Done well, a superhero story is really just a backdrop against which character drama is played out (and, yes, quite often resolved through a timely placed knuckle sandwich). Makes comics sound like soap opera, doesn’t it? Well, they are. But then so’s Battlestar Galactica, Babylon 5, House of Cards, 24… The list goes on. However, what separates a good (or even great) comic from a bad one, is its ability to entertain adults and children at the same time.
A lot passes kids by, either because they don’t have the context to understand it, or they lack emotional connection to feel the impact – especially when they’re looking forward to the next joke, or the villain getting a much-deserved, morally grounded, thrashing. That’s how a story with plenty of emotional grit can still be suitable for all ages. However, it was only when Iron Man hit cinemas that it looked like my Superheroes aren’t just for kids mantra could finally be retired. Something about that film finally brought the spandex set (and a second-rate, often poorly-written hero like Iron Man) to the masses in a way that the movies of the late 90s/early 2000s just didn’t.
As far as I can see, the Marvel Studios films are successful because they understand that superheroes can appeal to all ages. In Avengers Assemble and the like, there’s plenty to keep the kids (and big kids) occupied, regardless of the darker themes bubbling beneath the surface. Hawkeye’s been murdering people against his will? Don’t care; Hulk Smash! Granted, there’s often dialogue I wouldn’t want to explain to a six year old me (invariably centred on Black Widow – thanks Joss!) but chances are I’d have misheard it as something else anyway. (For years, I had no idea what ‘It was as if a thousand oysters cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced’ actually meant.)
You can probably see where I’m going with this. Marvel Studios makes films for all ages. They understand that superheroes aren’t exclusively for kids, or for adults – they have to appeal to both. They should appeal to both. Warner Brothers? Not so much.
I’m not seeking to debate the quality of the DC films versus the Marvel ones. (For the record, I loved Batman Begins, think The Dark Knight runs a little long, and boggle at the choppy plotting of The Dark Knight Rises. Green Lantern was fun, but flawed. Man of Steel, I’m… conflicted by.) By and large, taken as homogenous masses, the stables of films are of a similar craftsmanship. Move on, nothing to see here.
My point? Warner Brothers make superhero films for adults, and only for adults. They’re bleak, miserable and almost completely bereft of humour. They’re often nightmarish (remember that field of skulls bit in Man of Steel?). The good guys do reprehensible things, because the (sometimes squirrely) plot has manoeuvred them into that tarnished position. These films are, as the current parlance has it, Grimdark. The usual explanation is that they’re ‘more realistic’ than their competitors. I’m not sure that a body of work that includes flying space aliens, talking holograms, rerouting cell phones to act as sonar vision, magical leg braces, and bat mind control devices can truly be said to be realistic. They’re just a different kind of a fantasy.
Again, this isn’t about the recent DC films being bad. They’re often good (or even great). It’s impossible to deny that there’s a vision driving them, and that vision is pursued with style. And Rao knows they make money. It’s almost impossible to make a Batman film that bombs at the box office. Even Batman & Robin didn’t do too badly. At the same time… Where are the Superman and Batman who can inspire kids, the way Christopher Reeve and Adam West inspired me? Yes, I know there’s a Lego Batman movie on the way, but that’s not really the answer, is it? Hey kids, go watch your cartoons while the grownups watch films with real people in. (Weirdly, Bruce Timm’s earlier animated superhero fare does a better job of being all-ages entertainment than the films, as does Brave and the Bold).
I’m not talking about bringing back the 1966 Batman, I’m just suggesting that there’s room between the bleak Nolanesque films and Biff! Pow! Wallop! for something else to be explored.
Pssst, Warner Brothers. Superheroes aren’t just for grownups.