News surfaced earlier in the week that reported Sony are reportedly less than pleased with how The Green Hornet is turning out. What are they unhappy about? Oh yes, the fact that the movie from Seth Rogan and Michael Gondry about a man who fights crime in an emerald business suit with a domino mask and a Japanese man-servant might not be delivered with the poe-faced gravitas that the very concept deserves. Apparently, it’s campy.
For those unfamiliar with The Green Hornet, fear not. His closest brush with mainstream pop culture came in the 1960s with a camp television show. Think of it as 1960s Batman‘s little brother. It starred Bruce Lee as Kato, introducing him to Americans. However, Batman has had the chance to evolve in the public mind over the past forty-odd years. The Green Hornet has not.
Let’s face it, this is because of Batman, that cunning comic book character. The Dark Knight was, as the name would imply, dark. It was a gritty and bold exploration of the nature of man as a violent beast and the perpetual cycle of violent escalation that we find ourselves in while trying to live our day-to-day lives. Or something. I was distracted by the explosions. Anyway, it made a boatload of cash (why is ‘boatload’ an empirical measurement? ah well). Hollywood has drawn a connecting line between those two factors.
I had honestly hoped they would have gotten this out of their systems by now. Punisher: WarZone should have been a grim (yet strangely camp – thank you, Dominic West) catharsis for them – a chance to vent their violent urges. And it worked. no more talk of a darker and edgier Superman film. No more mention of a gritty Captain Marvel film (he’s an eight-year-old kid, for cryin’ out loud!). Of course, Sony have hinted they want a darker Spider-Man reboot. In fairness, their idea of ‘dark’ Spider-Man is putting Tobey Maguire in tight jeans with hair gel, so we’ll see how that plays out.
Of course, it’s arguably a general reflection of the superhero trend in general. The Dark Knight proves that dark superheroes can be critically and commercially successful on screen, while Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns proved it on the page in the late eighties. That sound you hear is the sound of cash registers opening inside the heads of company executives, whose pupils have all spontaneously taken the shape of dollar signs. Even the European ones, strangely enough. Suddenly your product is infantile if it doesn’t feature an anti-hero, a downer ending, a gritty moral dilemma and enough gunfire to run a small-scale civil war.
Comic books themselves have been through this fascination. The nerdier among us refer to periods of comic books with the pretentious term ‘ages’. There’s the Golden Age, the wacky Silver Age and the Bronze Age – each with their unique foibles. The period immediately following The Dark Knight Returns was called (appropriately, albeit ominously) the Dark Age. It was based on the somewhat faulty assumption that “dark” is synonymous with “deep”. Here’s a list of some of the stuff that was happening during that time:
Superman died (he got better). Batman had his back broken (he got better… then he died… he’s getting better). Green Lantern became an omnicidal maniac and died (then he got better). The Punisher became hugely popular (he got… less so?). Spider-Man villain got himself a really-trying-too-hard new name of the Lethal Enforcer and became an anti-hero (he got worse). Gotham City became the worst place to live; in the world; ever (it goes something like this: ebola outbreak -> earthquake -> anarchy -> booted out of the United States). The X-Men skipped from one end-of-the-world scenario to another crapsack genocidal future with alarming regularity, while Wolverine skipped from one Marvel book to another. The crazy part? I’m not making any of this up.
The somewhat incredible notion was that the darker and edgier and grittier a series was, the more mature it was. It was astonishingly childish – more adolescent than mature, to be frank. I’m not saying that nothing good came of this period of comic books (indeed many claim The Death and Return of Superman as one of the best in-continuity stories about the character), but that it also severely damaged a whole host of mainstream properties that just weren’t designed to handle that sort of gritty and depressing feeling.
What’s wrong with the Fantastic Four being light and fluffy and the very optimistic spirit of adventure? What’s wrong with Spider-Man being a slightly cheeky, down-on-his-luck, but ultimately upbeat hero? The argument is that such approaches are overly simplistic, but so is simply tarring everything a blacker shade of… well, black. That metaphor got away from me, I’ll concede.
Not all comic book characters are Batman. Not all thrive in a soul-destroyingly depressing world of sin and vice with no real chance of doing any good while bringing nothing but suffering to the ones they love. What’s wrong with acknowledging that maybe a guy dressed up in a suit and fighting crime is a little bit ridiculous?
The word ‘camp’ is a loaded term when it comes to these adaptations. Because it immediately calls to mind a certain movie; a certain Joel Schumacher Batman movie, complete with bat-nipples and bat-credit-card; a certain film where an ice-themed villain delivering the line “Ice to see you!” is the comedic masterstroke of the film. Yes, it’s Batman & Robin. Arnie may as well have been playing Mister Cheeze. To give you an idea of how terrible it was, Chris O’Donnell is now supporting LL Cool J on television. And teen sensation Alicia Silverstone can’t get a steady job.
I’m going to throw an idea out there. It’s radical. Please don’t hate me. Batman & Robin was a terrible film because it was a terrible film. If you somehow found a way to remove the terrible writing, acting and direction – somehow leaving a disgusting Austrian-bodybuilder-shaped cheese mould, you would have an infinitely superior film. Had the movie been played straight, it would have somehow managed to be even more terrible. The universe might even have had imploded.
The Adam West Batman show gets a lot of misdirected hate for its camp qualities. I can understand that, I really can. I won’t proclaim it a pop culture masterpiece or pretend that it represents a crowning moment for the character. Yes, it’s the embodiment of everything that was wrong about the character as he was portrayed at the time, but it’s also paradoxically responsible for imprinting the character on a whole generation. It may nearly have destroyed the character at the time, but it is also a reason the character as remained in pop consciousness. Sure, you can make the argument that the image of Batman as a square crime fighter with his own dance movies does all sorts of damage, but I think you might be taking it all too seriously. Like The Incredible Hulk, people remember that show, and it has lived on in cultural memory and done its service. Plus, to be honest, it represents the best kind of dumb fun.
And, truth be told, it’s ridiculous to think a work is shallow or devoid of merit because it isn’t packed with notions of depressing realism or because it’s self-aware enough to be funny. Richard Donner launched the concept of the superhero movie with the bright and cheerful Superman and almost-as-cheerful Superman II – these are films where Clark deals with the angst of losing Lois by flying so fast around the world that time literally runs backwards. In contrast, Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns is a much more emotionally complex movie (and, by no coincidence, a lot physically darker), but didn’t enjoy nearly the same success – because the tone simply didn’t fit the character.
Even the Spider-Man movies which launched the current superhero trend were reasonably lighthearted. My favourite scene of the trilogy involves the eponymous webslinger being forced to ride the lift in his costume, making idle chatter with a fellow passenger. Perhaps Bryan Singer’s X-Men movies could be tagged as dark – with their stylish black leather outfits and torture flashbacks to the experiments which haunt Wolverine – but they weren’t the only superhero success story of the first half of the decade. The key is that there’s room for all sorts under the superhero tent.
Michael Gondry and Seth Rogan were never going to turn in a dark urban fairytale or a modern noir film. That’s just not their style. So, what’s wrong with celebrating a little diversity?