There is nothing remotely subtle about The Dark Knight Rises. Everything the characters say and do is designed to inform of us of who and what they are. Batman may be a “complex” character, but he’s fairly easy to understand. And so is Spider-Man, and so is Hamlet, Faust, and the nordic God Thor, Sherlock Holmes, and Cyrano de Bergerac.
Like it our not, Batman, Spider-Man, and other big comic book heroes are poised to be around just as long as “classic” canocial characters. If you’re irritated they remade Spider-Man too fast or you’re worried they’ll remake Batman to soon after Dark Knight Rises, just wait until they remake all of this stuff for the 40th time in the 22nd century.
A recent article from The Los Angeles Times is a great example of what is, in my opinion, a misunderstanding or less-than-thoughtful explanation of the remake/reboot phenomenon. In the piece, Neal Gabler rails against the young generation of millennials who “don’t think of movies as art the way so many boomers did.” Now despite being a problematic us-versus-them argument, I don’t think there’s any compelling evidence to suggest the appreciation of film as art has anything to do with the reboot phenomena, nor being young. Being ignorant and unappreciative of great stories knows no generational boundaries.
The real problem here is that Gabler’s analysis seems to suggest that remakes (or re-stagings if you will) of beloved stories and characters is somehow an epidemic brought on by an ignorant generation’s lack of understanding about the artistic merit of films, and therefore a new phenomenon. But remakes are nothing new. For centuries around the globe, there have been countless remakes of plays by Shakespeare that probably didn’t look a lot like they would have looked in The Globe. And sure, scholars of Shakespeare still freak out about various inteprations, updating, omissions, abridgements, etc, but for most of us, Hamlet is a story that we will see at some point in our lives and be all the better for it. Is Batman, who is over 70 years old at this point, really any different in the big cultural picture? Is Spider-Man?
To put it another way: Did Steve Martin’s Roxanne harm the essence of Cyrano de Bergerac? No. I love all versions of Cyrano. And I like both the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man AND the Andrew Garfield Spider-Man. The Gerard Depardieu version of Cyrano may be the defentitive one, but it doesn’t mean the José Ferrer version sucks. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is now considered along the same definitive lines as the Gerard Depardieu version of Cyrano. So, if they remake Batman, we can’t freak out.
Most children who are familiar with the average crop of fairy tales rarely read the Grimm Brothers or Hans Christian Andersen originals first. And while this might be a shame, it doesn’t mean anything has necessarily been ruined, nor does it indicate a lack of appreciation for the stories. A good number of people who saw the Avengers movie did understand these characters from their comic book roots. Another, larger portion of the population didn’t read comics before or after.
Should we care? Is this that big of a deal? It’s not like comic book source material which is commonly adapted into film is really, really subtle and complex. Further, it is possible that these iterations of big, broad characters and themes work better as films. Nobody who puts on a serious production of a Shakespeare play thinks “oh, ours will just be okay.” They want to do the source material justice. And that’s what’s happening every time our culture remakes a superhero.
The Dark Knight Rises is epic and operatic. The only thing separating Batman from a character from a Verdi opera is that he doesn’t break into song. (Probably because of that gravely bat-voice, but you get it.) These stories are over-the-top. These aren’t ultra-realistic, quiet stories which illuminate a specific part of the human existence. These are big stories. Love. Hate. Revenge. Duty. Betrayal. Obligation. This is Shakespearean stuff, and if Shakespeare were around now, he’d probably be writing plays about superheroes.
Comic books (like television) are created from the input of a lot of different artist voices, from writing to design to art direction. And while I could extend some theatre metaphors about the natural collaborative process with the artwork, that’s not the point. The point is that comics have always had several different narrative voices at work on these heroes over the course of decades. Meaning that by the time the stories get translated into big, watchable movies, all of those narrative voices are condensed down into a single composite story.
And because there’s so much material not adapted into the film version, why wouldn’t someone want to make another one? More interestingly, though, the fact that comic books do have a composite narrative, means they’re more accessible to a large group of people. Most people don’t think Batman = Bob Kane or Batman = Christopher Nolan. Most people think Batman = ME. The public thinks they own Batman, which is how mythology works.
Who is the author of the Greek myths? It’s not exactly Homer. Because we are the ones who have kept it alive over centuries by retelling the stories in a myriad of different forms.
My guess is that what bothers people most about the reboot phenomenon isn’t the quality, or the disrespect for previous films, or even the cynical money grabs from the studio. Instead, it’s the speed. It just seems like too much too fast. And there, I sympathize.
But it’s not oppressive. (And sure, there might be some less-than-altruistic motives here. But it’s not like Shakespeare didn’t enjoy money.) Either way, these characters, these heroes, are the new mythology. 100 years from now anthropologists will be writing about the origins of these characters in ways we can’t imagine. You’re watching the future of human storytelling unfolding.
We’re not going backwards, nor are we out of ideas. We’re doing what we’ve always done and what we’re always going to do: Tell our favorites stories over and over again.
Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com.