Aug 17 2012 11:00am

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

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 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.

That Fuzzy Bastard
1. That Fuzzy Bastard
Interesting thoughts! One thing worth noting is how contemptuous Cronenberg is of movies where the hero is awesome. I mean, The Fly, Videodrome, Dead Ringers, Rabid, A Dangerous Method... In just about every movie he's made, his protagonists are in over their head, passive, caught in a downward spiral, or otherwise doomed. With the possible exception of Eastern Promises, A History of Violence, The Dead Zone and The Brood, where the heroes are at least capable of action even if it doesn't save everyone, he's sort of obsessed with men who fail, a subject the superhero movie doesn't have space for.
That Fuzzy Bastard
2. Earl Rogers
It's not like other media have been used to take the super-hero genre into far darker, more nuanced and sophisticated places than the films ever have.

*cough cough*

Or that there are lot of comics not aimed at children in any way, shape, or form that contain no super-heroes at all.

Nope. It's just big budget save the day power fantasies!

That Fuzzy Bastard
3. franksands
We should have a rule, if someone says comics are only for kids, you lost your argument.
That Fuzzy Bastard
4. John MMM
These kinds of comments infuriate me. They are snobbery in its highest form. What David is saying is that comics are for children and that's supposed to say everything, but what is the subtext there? Underneath his statement he is saying that comics are for children and children are stupid, so anything meant for children has no value. It's completely insulting. Lets not even mention the fact that there are tons of comics out there that center around adult themes.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
5. Lisamarie
I totally agree with 2 and 4 here.

I think the comment IS untoward, honestly.

"It’s for kids. It’s adolescent in its core." - I don't see why it can't ALSO be supreme cinema art if that is the case (I'm sure there is a tvtrope for this idea that 'Real Art is for Grownups' or something like that. But I know people like Tolkien or Lewis would disagree).

But, even that depends on THIS presuppositon:
"But a superhero movie, by definition, you know, it’s comic book. It’s for kids." - ie, that superhero/comic book movies are for kids. Some are...and some aren't.
That Fuzzy Bastard
6. NormanM
The problem with Cronenberg's comment was this part: "It’s for kids. It’s adolescent in its core. That has always been its appeal" That's just not at all correct, either of comics or of the Dark Knight movies (he's closer with Marvel's movies, but is still off the mark). It betrays assumptions about comic books that were developed in Cronenberg's own adolescence in the 1950s and 1960s, and he apparently hasn't revisited the medium or updated his perspective on comics since that time. Which is a shame, really.
Steven Seighman
7. steven_s
It's funny that Cosmopolis will probably attract more of the people he's discarding here than any of his other films, just by who's cast in it.

I think he's defending cinema as he views it, which isn't the way that people who feel strongly about something like a comic book film might necessarily see it. But like Danny said, there's room for both.

Also, wasn't A History of Violence adapted from a graphic novel? Not exactly a comic book as he is probably referring to them in his comments, but still, it's a graphic novel . . .
Danny Bowes
8. DannyBowes
One point that should be reinforced: I don't think Cronenberg was talking about all comic books with his "It's for kids" thing, given the context of the interview I think he was talking about the movies made from specifically superhero comics. Kind of hair-splitting, but before getting too upset about yet another dismissal of comics (which I do find to be a tired argument) it's important to remember that this is being discussed in context of movies, rather than a broadside against comics in and of themselves.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
9. Lisamarie
I guess I don't see why superhero comics have to necessarily be for kids, or why that precludes them from being high cinema.

Granted, I am not necessarily arguing that Dark Knight Rises is high cinema. To be honest, I don't even know what that means. I just know that I enjoyed the movie, it was fun, and it did have some thought provoking/discussion prompting aspects. No, it is not the most profound movie I have ever seen, so I guess I can see his being irritated that people are acting like it is sooooooper intellectual or something like that. Because, yes, there are more serious movies that deal with the same themes and subject matter.
That Fuzzy Bastard
11. markerikson
I think saying "superhero movies are about superheroes being awesome" is like saying The Fly is just a creature feature, or Eastern Promises is just a mob movie. Hell, A History of Violence is practically a superhero movie, just without the costumes. It hits all the right beats, and it certainly ends with a big "this guy is awesome" sequence.

That a movie sticks to the tropes of its genre doesn't preclude it from incorporating a message or commentary. Pretty much every high art movie can be pigeonholed into one genre or another. And more often than not, the movies that attempt to be all about their message at the expense of everything else tend to be weak ones (see: the remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still).
That Fuzzy Bastard
12. S.M. Stirling
By the way, how about we stop trying to use movies as an analytical tool for understanding our society?

Because movies are made by -directors-, and directors are often quite good at making movies.

But this doesn't make them any more acute at social analysis than, say, actors are. Or stockbrokers. Or whatever.

To paraphrase what the mogul said, you got a message, text it.

Furthermore, movies are not equivalent to novels. They're equivalent to short stories or novellas.
That Fuzzy Bastard
13. like it is
The very first shot of the Batman character in Nolan's oft-lauded TDK from 2008 which the Hollywood hype machine and fans alike have mythologized as some sort of cinematic watershed work for motion pictures in the superhero genre, shows Gotham's protector bending the barrel of a poseur-Batman's semi-automatic weapon ala Superman.

Yeah, going to have to go with Cronenberg on this one.
That Fuzzy Bastard
14. Jed Pressgrove
A couple of points. First, steven_s, a graphic novel is a comic book, ultimately.

Second, markerikson, A History of Violence does have the "this guy is awesome" climax, but the denouement suggests that his antics are problematic for his family life.
That Fuzzy Bastard
15. Len Goldstein
David is right, there is nothing about the superhero genre that can be categorized as "supreme cinematic art" it's all just explosions and action and while I don't agree with his statement that comic books are only for adoloescents that is an art form of its own, not the films is what he's saying. The only film Nolan has done that is high cineatic art was 'Inception' he challenged his audiences to think and also his earlier film'Memento' was the samw way. Cronenberg is an artistic filmmaker but I was hugely disappointed with 'Cosmopolis' Strike one.
That Fuzzy Bastard
16. Michael Anthony Novak
I think this argument goes a little off the rails when it concedes the idea that superhero movies are "about superheroes being awesome." This is to say that superheroes are something other than us because of their powers or resources. It's the same thinking that makes a "celebrity" something other than human.

But superhero movies, in amplified and exaggerated form, are about people, even if people of extraordinary virtue or circumstances. Bruce Wayne creates something extraordinary of himself. Peter Parker accepts great responsibility. Clark Kent takes the power to rule and uses it to serve. To dismiss that drama as adolescent is to miss the most important — and most essentially human — aspects of these stories.
That Fuzzy Bastard
17. Trike
Meh. One could say similar things about horror films. (And many have.) I mean, they're aimed primarily at those looking for simple jolts to their autonomic nervous systems. Once you get past "boo" and being grossed out by blood and gore, what is there? At their core, horror films are just made by and for deviant fetishists.

See how easy that is?

Here's the deal: whatever it is someone is into, I can find 30 million people in America alone who think it's the stupidest thing they've ever heard of.
That Fuzzy Bastard
18. Pendard
I took what Cronenberg said a little differently I think. I thought he meant that superhero movies are adolescent by definition and that is their appeal. In other words, they are appealing specifically because they are simple, unnuanced, morally black-and-white adventure stories where good guys fight bad guys and defeat them. Superhero movies are not complicated, and they do not provoke deep thought -- they entain our inner kids, not our inner adults.

Although The Dark Knight Rises has the trappings of a more complicated movie, at its core it is the same as something like Sam Raimi's Spider-Man or The Avengers. Whatever differences exist are just differences in tone, not differences in form. I didn't get the sense that Cronenberg had a problem with superhero movies as long as people acknowledge that the appeal is essentially a childish one. His objection to The Dark Knight Rises was that a lot of people seem to think that this movie is a piece of cinematic art. I have the same problem with that he does -- when you elevate something that is only "pseudo-intellectual" to the rank of intellectual, you're dumbing down the whole culture. People should just enjoy things for what they are, but they'd rather pretend things like The Dark Knight Rises are more intelligent than they really are because it makes them feel smarter for enjoying it.

And one last thought before I wrap it up: Superhero stories SHOULD be adolescent. On the rare cases where someone has tried to write a superhero story that is intellectually adult (e.g. Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns) the effect has always been to deconstruct the genre. Because when you really think about it, superheroes are not awesome -- the whole idea of anonymous citizens who take the law into their hands, using brute force to attempt to deal with complicated social problems, is extremely disturbing. It borders on a fascism when you really think about it -- which is why it's a good not to really think about it and just enjoy the adolescent fun!
That Fuzzy Bastard
19. D'oh
so I guess my hopes for a Cronenburg DR. STRANGE movie are out the window.

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