As I watched David Cronenberg‘s new film Cosmopolis, I thought a lot about The Dark Knight Rises, and that led me to thinking about eXistenZ and The Matrix. Those last two movies came out within weeks of each other in 1999, and while The Matrix went on to be the mega-successful take on living in conjunction and conflict with machines, it was eXistenZ that really tried to dig deep into the ways in which our lives are being changed by interfacing with digital technology.

And so I came to Cosmopolis and The Dark Knight Rises, and the relationship there is probably pretty obvious. While Nolan’s movie pays a lot of lip service to issues of economics, social status, and the levels of power displacement that are associated with wealth and poverty, it is Cronenberg’s movie that really tackles some of those ideas with determination.

All of which is a roundabout way to get to some quotes provided in a Cosmopolis promo interview. Asked about moving into the realm of superhero movies, Cronenberg dismissed the idea, calling the form adolescent, and not ready to be treated as an “elevated art form.” And in some ways, it is difficult to disagree with his unvarnished assessment. But are superhero films destined to always be a limited form?

Here’s the big stuff from Cronenberg’s interview with NextMovie, beginning with a response to a question about “formidable directors” moving into the superhero realm:

I don’t think they are making them an elevated art form. I think it’s still Batman running around in a stupid cape. I just don’t think it’s elevated. Christopher Nolan’s best movie is “Memento,” and that is an interesting movie. I don’t think his Batman movies are half as interesting though they’re 20 million times the expense. What he is doing is some very interesting technical stuff, which, you know, he’s shooting IMAX and in 3-D. That’s really tricky and difficult to do. I read about it in “American Cinematography Magazine,” and technically, that’s all very interesting. The movie, to me, they’re mostly boring.

Of course, there’s some exaggeration and a small inaccuracy there (3D) that people will take issue with, but I would agree that a good portion of the most interesting stuff going on in Nolan’s Bat-films is technical. And asked whether the superhero subject prevents such films from becoming an elevated art form, Cronenberg replied,

Absolutely. Anybody who works in the studio system has got 20 studio people sitting on his head at every moment, and they have no respect, and there’s no…it doesn’t matter how successful you’ve been. And obviously Nolan has been very successful. He’s got a lot of power, relatively speaking. But he doesn’t really have power. [Q: So that's a no.] I would say that’s a no, you know. And the problem is you gotta… as I say, you can do some interesting, maybe unexpected things. And certainly, I’ve made the horror films and people say, “Can you make a horror film also an art film?” And I would say, “Yeah, I think you can.” 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.

In many ways there, I think Cronenberg is quite correct. Superhero movies do as well as they do precisely because they are a glossy, fun, and often shallow treatment of basic conflicts. That’s the very root of their escapist power and appeal, and also of their value. The best superhero films such as The Avengers and Spider-Man 2 go at those things — those elements that could be called limitations — head on, and become great entertainment as a result.

But there are very few superhero films that have yet managed a combination of that entertainment and a more serious reflection on issues beyond the superficial level of conflict. The Dark Knight often works on that level, I think, while for the most part The Dark Knight Rises does not. The stuff that Cronenberg explores in Cosmopolis is primarily used for set dressing in The Dark Knight Rises.

Now, at one point, the same argument about juvenile nature could have been made about horror films, and I think Cronenberg is unquestionably one of the filmmakers that pushed horror into an elevated realm. So it’s easy to say that he’s being shortsighted about the potential of superhero films; if horror could make that jump, why not comic book films?

The answer is mentioned in that second block quote: money and power in the studio system. Cronenberg’s defining horror films were made on a vastly different scale than a film like The Dark Knight Rises, and working in that form allowed a freedom that very rarely exists, if ever, in superhero films. Certainly the superhero films that people talk about when discussing them in this context are big movies that are too tied to four-quadrant appeal and deep marketing plans to ever play with ideas in the way that a far cheaper horror film can.

(One could also talk about films like Super and Defendor, even Kick-Ass, small or smaller superhero movies with freedom, but I don’t think those movies are what anyone is talking about when they jointly mention superhero movies and Nolan. And Kick-Ass doesn’t knock down any argument about superhero films being adolescent.)

So there’s a point where Cronenberg is wrong. “But a superhero movie, by definition, you know, it’s comic book. It’s for kids. It’s adolescent in its core.” Horror films were once adolescent in their cores, too — lurid movies that played on big, obvious fears and appealed in an exploitative manner to audiences looking for a thrill. They often still are. Is there a way for Christopher Nolan to make a Batman movie that doesn’t require two hundred million dollars, and could therefore give him the true power over the material that Cronenberg thinks Nolan lacks? As an absolute, sure, but given the corporate nature of the major superhero characters, that is very unlikely to happen. Just ask Joe Carnahan.

So, functionally, Cronenberg may be correct, though I don’t agree with all of his points used to draw the conclusion. As superhero films remain shackled to the tentpole ideal (even as that ideal is crumbling a bit) they will almost certainly be limited by the large budget that supposedly allows them to do anything.

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