David Cronenberg vs. the Superheroes
David, you’ve done drama and horror. Some fairly formidable directors have branched out into superhero movies pretty beautifully —is that something you would consider doing?
DC: 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.
- David Cronenberg to Next Movie
I mostly agree with him here, but not entirely. And while he may have a point, the fact that he is saying this underscores his own problem as a filmmaker.
Forget about Dark Knight, the degree to which we have serious furrowed brow discussions of the latest Iron Man or X Men installments and treat what are, as Cronenberg says, children’s movies like they are serious works of art deserving serious discussion of their great themes, shows the degree to which our critical establishment has been overrun by fanboys. Marvel in particular, has played this beautifully, brining in ”respected” directors like Branaugh and Whedon to add just a few glib, portentous flourishes at the edges before they get down to the business of animated giant worms throwing cars at each other.
That is not to say I am against superhero films. There is nothing wrong with an action adventure movie; there is nothing shameful about making children’s movies. By and large, the soul of these films may not be inspiring but they are far less poisonous than the leering, creepy films of a Michael Bay, let alone Eli Roth. But they are children’s action films, and its one thing for fan boys who still collect action figures well into their 40’s to obsess about the details of Iron Man’s jet pack. That’s their disability and we should pity them for it. But for the rest of us who don’t have a huge emotional investment in the Marvel Universe, looking at these films at any depth beyond how much fun do they provide is not a journey likely to give much return on time put in.
Ironically, talking about the superhero films on this level has made both the films and criticism worse. Critics sound like they are chasing an audience and deeply unserious as they attempt to unearth grand themes in the films. While the films themselves have gotten much less fun to the extent they tip their hats to this audience. The ponderousness might give critics something to chat about but it does not confer life onto what are big corporate machines of films.
Which brings us to Dark Knight. Okay, the big themes of the movie might be heavyhanded and overplayed. But underneath that is in Bruce Wayne - in the first and last films of the series - a real character, not a committee creation but an actual tortured person struggling with what his purpose is in life. And then he puts on a cape and flies around punching people, but in this last film, that humanity is never lost. The big philosophical questions may fall short, but whenever one senses a real flesh and blood character in a film grappling with actual problems, that is a film worth giving your attention to, and that does make it more than just a children’s movie. There has not been a single one of those in a single Marvel film.
Which brings us full circle because another place where a person would be hard pressed to find a real flesh and blood character is in the recent works of David Cronenberg. If the Marvel characters are just machines for snapping wisecracks and throwing cars at evil aliens with a very thin sheen of humanity painted on, Cronenberg’s recent characters are graduate dissertations dressed up in costumes, acting out Great Moral Problems every bit as transparently as any Marvel character. I frankly find Chris Hemsworth’s Thor more real than any character in a Dangerous Method.
The fact that he has to knock down Christopher Nolan, that he feels the need to make a statement of his own seriousness shows one where Cronenberg’s mind is and what the problems are with his films. The opposite of a soulless Marvel film can be equally soulless. On both sides you have films attempting to make their characters leap to serve some larger agenda. Just because that agenda proclaims it’s capital S seriousness at every moment doesn’t make it so. In the end, there is no abstract philosophical question as complex as the simplest human being and a filmmaker who even attempts to honestly grapple with characters who would defy his agenda for them, is a filmmaker to be taken seriously indeed. Whatever else you may say about Christopher Nolan, in the Dark Knight Rises he does just that. Instead of throwing stones, David Cronenberg might want to take note.
Photo of David Cronenberg courtesy of Shutterstock.
I have responses to this:
1) I have no problem with taking children’s movies seriously. Or any movie seriously. But the way to take these movies seriously is probably not - at least not just - at the level of story, which is where a lot of the fanboyish conversation tends to go.
2) As much as I love Cronenberg, I am having a hard time coming up with any Cronenberg movies (which I have seen most of) where the characters seem like real complex people as opposed to machines for abstract ideas. (Spider, maybe?).
3) I don’t think psychological complexity is the only thing that makes a movie good, though it definitely can be a thing that makes a movie good. Also it is probably a good idea when your movie is actually about psychological complexity.