Batman has no limits, says Bruce Wayne to his manservant, Alfred, early in The Dark Knight and the accountants at Warner Brothers, which released the movie, are likely to agree. I’m not so sure.
The Dark Knight, praised by critics for its sombre themes and grand ambitions, has proven to be a mighty box office force in a summer already dominated by superheroes of various kinds. But any comic book fan knows that a hero at the height of his powers is a few panels removed from mortal danger, and that hubris has a way of summoning new enemies out of the shadows. Are the Caped Crusader and his colleagues basking in an endless summer of triumph, or is the sun already starting to set?
The commercial strength of the superhero genre is hardly news of course. Ever since Tobey Maguire was bitten by a spider back in 2002, this decade has been something of a golden age for large-scale action movies featuring guys in high-tech bodysuits battling garishly costumed, ruthless criminal masterminds. Some of them — the Fantastic Four pictures, most notably — are content to be entertaining pop-culture throwaways. But most aspire to be something more, to be taken as seriously as their heroes and villains take themselves.
These movies wear their allegorical hearts on their cartoon sleeves, dressing up their stories with intimations of topicality overt, like the Afghan kidnappers in Iron Man, and indirect, like the ruminations on due process and torture in The Dark Knight. They are also stuffed with first-rate actors who, rather than slumming for a paycheck as Marlon Brando did in 1978 in Superman, at least attempt real, fleshed-out performances.
Heath Ledger and Aaron Eckhart do some of their best work in The Dark Knight, as does Robert Downey Jr in Iron Man. Well-regarded directors like Sam Raimi and Bryan Singer have burnished their reputations with the Spider-Man and X-Men franchises, as has Christopher Nolan, director of The Dark Knight and its predecessor, Batman Begins. These filmmakers have become bankable auteurs in the Hollywood economy, affixing their artistic signatures to projects that come with budgets in excess of $100 million dollar, built-in mass appeal and an ever-growing measure of cultural prestige.
There have been missteps and disappointments — Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk; Singer’s Superman Returns; the third installment of the X-Men series, directed by Brett Ratner — but these have hardly dented the power of the genre. And its hold over the attention of studio executives and audiences is unlikely to end anytime soon. Already the studios are locking in release dates for the next rounds. Still, I have a hunch, and perhaps a hope, that Iron Man, Hancock and Dark Knight together represent a peak, by which I mean not only a previously unattained level of quality and interest, but also the beginning of a decline. In their very different ways, these films discover the limits built into the superhero genre as it currently exists.
But to paraphrase something the Joker says to Batman, The Dark Knight has rules, and they are the conventions that no movie of this kind can escape. The climax must be a fight with the villain, during which the symbiosis of good guy and bad guy, implicit throughout, must be articulated. The end must point forward to a sequel, and an aura of moral consequence must be sustained even as the killings, explosions and chases multiply. The allegorical stakes in a superhero are raised — it’s not just good guys fighting bad guys, but Righteousness against Evil, Order against Chaos — precisely to authorise a more intense level of violence. Of course every movie genre is governed by conventions, and every decent genre movie explores the zones of freedom within those iron parameters. Thus Iron Man loosens the reins of its plot to give Downey room to explore the kinks and idiosyncrasies of Tony Stark, the playboy billionaire engineering genius who finally grows up and builds himself a metal suit. And Hancock takes the conceit of a dissipated, semi-competent hero — more menace than protector — and turns it into the occasion for some sharp satirical riffing on race, celebrity and the supposedly universal likability of its star, Will Smith.
—NY Times / AO Scott