On David Cronenberg, The Dark Knight Rises, and Genre Film

This piece was originally going to be about David Cronenberg and genre, in a vague, omnibus kind of way talking about this or that movie throughout his career. That changed Wednesday afternoon when I read an interview Cronenberg and Robert Pattinson gave that was relevant enough to the issue at hand to overwhelm the focus of the (admittedly not quite finished) essay, forcing a complete rewrite. In it, Cronenberg had some harsh words for both The Dark Knight Rises and superhero movies in general:

But a superhero movie, by definition, you know, it’s comic book. It’s for kids. It’s adolescent in its core. That has always been its appeal, and I think people who are saying, you know, Dark Knight Rises is, you know, supreme cinema art, I don’t think they know what the f**k they’re talking about.

A bit harsh, especially toward geeks, but not altogether untoward.

It’s important to keep in mind, of course, that this is not some random comics-hating old guy saying this. This is David Cronenberg. He’s one of the most important genre filmmakers who ever lived, even if it’s hard to pin down exactly what genre a given picture of his is. Something like Scanners is at once science fiction and horror, as is The Fly, as is Videodrome, and so on. Even something like his adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch is no particular genre, but inflected with horror and SF. The term “auteur” gets thrown around a lot with regard to film directors, but David Cronenberg is the thing itself, a filmmaker whose authorship of a given picture is always readily apparent. In his case, some of the defining visual features are the meticulous production design and composition of shots, and thematically his pictures frequently feature driven, isolated, male leads with many layers of personality and motivation, whether or not those layers are immediately apparent. David Cronenberg is a serious filmmaker, and one for whom genre is a key element in his artistic arsenal.

This is all germane to the issue Cronenberg takes with the superhero genre. It isn’t genre, after all, that’s the problem here. It’s not even exclusively a problem with superheroes. The mention of The Dark Knight Rises wasn’t as random as it appears in the interview. Cronenberg’s new picture, Cosmopolis, covers a lot of similar ground. In fact, Cosmopolis is more about a lot of the things The Dark Knight Rises is about than The Dark Knight Rises is. Any number of writers tried to project a lot of current events (the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the Occupy movement, the deleterious effects of capitalism on society) onto The Dark Knight Rises, but none of those projections stick. No matter how much one liked The Dark Knight Rises (and I definitely did), it ultimately is a movie about Batman being awesome.

Cosmopolis, in its elliptical, surreal way, is about things like the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the Occupy movement, and the deleterious effects of capitalism on society. And, despite the presence of the inimitable Robert Pattinson in the lead, there is no way on Earth that Cosmopolis will make as much money as The Dark Knight Rises. (It is, however, really good, as my review attests, at my blog rather than here at Tor.com as Cosmopolis is not quite science fictional enough for these pages.)

Similarities with his own work aside, what of Cronenberg’s dismissal of superhero movies? It takes a fairly close reading of what he actually said in that interview to see that he’s not dismissing the genre out of hand, but rather pointing out an issue with superhero movies in regards to how one’s perspective may vary depending on one’s natural predilection for superheroes: Superhero movies, at their core, are about superheroes being awesome.

For those viewers not predisposed to agree with that principle, there is a natural tendency to say, “Yeah….and?” My friend Isaac Butler recently wrote a piece at his blog Parabasis (to which I occasionally contribute) proposing a solution to this “Yeah….and?” dilemma. It’s a step toward thinking about superheroes as literary characters rather than as one-dimensional archetypes, and the movies about them as being motivated by those characters rather than the audience’s pre-existing attachment to their iterations in other media. That attachment is good enough for some, but it should be noted that for those for whom it’s not are not inherently wrong for objecting to that characteristic of the current superhero movie cycle. Even Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, the arguable pinnacle of the form thus far, are still heavily reliant on what the audience brings to the table in terms of character development. They’re very well-made movies, but even the most forgiving audience would have to work very hard to convincingly demonstrate that they are “supreme cinema art.”

That’s not a label that’s beyond all genre film. Not in the slightest. The only thing I find disappointing in Cronenberg’s professed absence of desire to ever direct a superhero movie is that his sensibilities with regard to genre would go a long way toward toward achieving the state he describes. Not to mention his skill as a director. But it’s undeniably best for all concerned if directors continue to make the kind of movies they want to make and not force themselves to work in forms that don’t interest them. To Cronenberg his. To Christopher Nolan his. To each their own preferred genre. All can co-exist, and all can always improve.

Danny Bowes is a New York City-based film critic and blogger.


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