2012 was a big year for comic book movies. Christopher Nolan’s dark knight rose, the Avengers finally assembled and a troubled New York scientist turned into a giant lizard, created with CGI so terrible you could practically see the strings. Nevertheless, despite the odd technical error, the great success of the comic book movies of the past decade has allowed the trend to continue into 2013 with its head held high. This year will see the release of even more highly anticipated films, including Man of Steel and at long last, a Sin City sequel in A Dame to Kill For. For those of you who have managed to avoid the indulgent collection of teasers, trailers and ‘tweezers’, Marvel’s Iron Man 3 is also hitting cinemas at the start of May.
Why so serious?
There are two key questions to ask of a decade of comic book movie success: what caused this storm of popularity and why did it all become so dark? When Christopher Nolan took on the challenge of reinventing the Batman franchise, the results were a far cry from the camp and colourful Batman of decades gone by. This is partly thanks to writers and artists such as Frank Miller, the man behind The Dark Knight Returns and Sin City. The film noir style of his books has certainly played its part in casting a grey shadow over recent film adaptations, but there seems to be a stronger force at play.
Throughout history, cultural trends and movements have come about during periods of political and social change. It is therefore interesting that one of the most common attributes of recent comic book movies is their interrogation of human morality, particularly in the face of imminent destruction. They are not happy to accept the binary notions of good and evil, but instead focus on the flawed hero and the morality of killing a person on the basis that they are more evil than you.
In 2010, the BBC published an article about the use of comics in the teaching of ethics. The two key questions that arose were, “Why didn’t Batman kill the Joker?” and “If Peter Parker had a superpower, was it his responsibility to use it to help others?” Lecturers were using these dilemmas as an introduction to learning the ideas of Immanuel Kant, and although other lecturers may have sniggered, it certainly worked to gain a few more attendees. But why is all this relevant now?
For the love of peace
In 2001, the seemingly secure bubble of capitalism was infiltrated and suddenly began to look a little more vulnerable. Since then, the threat of terrorism has become a reality, and a particular set of ethical questions has become more relevant. Some who previously thought that all acts could be forgiven have begun to reconsider, while others maintain that they can be, no matter how devastating the consequences.
Kant’s argument excuses Batman for allowing the Joker to live, as he takes the position that an action cannot be judged by its consequences but only by the motives of the agent. Batman’s motives were good, therefore he cannot be blamed for any subsequent destruction caused by the Joker.
Watchmen took Kant’s argument even further, and questioned what it would take to force peace upon the world, and whether it was worth it. This example may be cheating slightly, given that it was first presented in the book in the ’80s, but DC Comics had to print 900,000 extra copies of the book after the film’s trailer was released in 2008 because it was so popular.
For those who have not seen the film or read the book, in order to achieve peace, Ozymandias kills a lot of people to trick the world into thinking that an alien force (either aliens or Dr Manhattan, depending on the medium) has attacked Earth. The intentions of his actions were good, in the long run; he hoped that by creating an enemy that was not on Earth, everyone on Earth would come together as one side of two opposing forces.
It is one of many ideas discussed in the novel and film, and presents one of the overriding questions posed in today’s international and political climate: how much bad does it take to achieve good?
On the other side of the fence, Marvel hasn’t taken itself quite so seriously. Peter Parker may constantly be telling himself that “With great power comes great spandex”, or words to that effect, but for the most part it has kept the fun, fantastical and completely unbelievable tone of its comics.
Of course there are still important questions embedded in the screenplays, such as the thinly veiled nuclear argument of Avengers Assemble that asks whether it is better to be armed against a potential attack and risk international security, or to not be armed at all. When it comes down to it, however, these films may just be popular because the combination of fighting, special effects, sci-fi and witty one-liners is enough to encourage an audience to buy the Blu-ray.
Written by Evelyn Harrison