Can Comic Book Films Be Cinematic Art? Is Cronenberg The One To Decide?

cronenbergBack in August of last year, director David Cronenberg took part in an interview with Next Movie as part of the promotional tour for his film Cosmopolis. Towards the end of the interview, journalist Brooke Tarnoff brought up the popular trend of superhero movies and asked the director his opinions on possibly working on one someday.

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.

Do you think the subject matter prohibits the elevated art form?

DC: 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.

So that’s a no.

DC: 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.

Please make note of that point Cronenberg made of people not knowing what the f**k they are talking about.

Just a few days ago, Cronenberg spoke to The Playlist to promote Cosmopolis’ home video release. His comments on superhero films that he made back in August were brought up by his interviewer , and the director went on the defensive.

“No, I haven’t seen [‘The Dark Knight Rises‘]. See, this is how it all gets distorted. The question was asked, to me. And, of course, when they quote me, they never quote themselves or the question that provoked the response. I was asked, then the journalist woman said, ‘By the way, superhero comic book movies have shown to rise to the highest level of cinematic art – would you be interested in doing one?’ And I said, ‘Wait, who said they have risen to the highest level of cinematic art?’ That’s when I started my little rant. I was really responding to that. She proposed that about the new Batman movies. I had seen the one before this [‘The Dark Knight‘], not the new one, and I think at that time only journalists had seen it. So I wasn’t talking specifically about that movie and I wasn’t criticizing it directly.”

“What I was saying was that a comic book movie is really a comic book movie. Comic books were — especially those comic books which I was raised on (I loved Captain Marvel) — created for adolescents and they have a core that is adolescent. To me, that limits the discourse of your movie if you’re basing it accurately on that, and you cannot rise to the highest level of cinematic art. That’s my take on it. I went on to say that, of course, technically they can be incredibly interesting, since there are very clever people making the movie and of course have a lot of money they are throwing at it. But creatively, artistically, they are incredibly limited. It got bent out of shape that I was dissing Christopher Nolan, which just wasn’t the case.”

Ah, where to begin.

I find it ironic that Cronenberg, a man who thinks arguments can be invalidated because the people making the argument don’t know what the f**k they are talking about, makes and an argument without knowing what the f**k he is talking about.

thedarkknightThere are few things that raise the ire in adult comic book fans than saying that comic books are exclusively for kids and adolescents. And typically, it’s people like Cronenberg who haven’t picked up a comic book in 60 years making this claim. Truth is, comic books haven’t been exclusively for kids since well before Cronenberg made The Fly. Cronenberg’s opinion is especially strange considering he directed a film based on a comic book–A History of Violence. Did he have no idea where the story came from? If he did, did he think that story was aimed at kids? Really? If so, then he should probably be investigated for the oral sex scene he worked into the movie.

And even if comic books were child’s fare and only child’s fare, the idea that art is the domain of the adult is kind of arrogant. Hey, sorry if you found artistic value in films ranging from The Adventures of Baron Munchausen to Where the Wild Things Are, since they were kid friendly topics, they could never be high art.

Even discussing cinematic art is a fool’s errand. Many people think high cinematic art begins with Paul Thomas Anderson (Not P.T. Anderson. Perish the thought!) and ends with Wes Anderson, with maybe Terrence Malick and a few others mixed in. Others think those auteurs are self-indulgent and too often boring. Some might consider Quentin Tarantino and example of high art because of his skill with dialogue and characterization, while others consider him a hack due to the amount he borrows from Asian cinema and 70’s exploitation films. Some might admire Steven Spielberg’s storytelling ability, but many think he can never create art because he’s far too popular. Art, as the maxim goes, lies in the eyes of the beholder.

american-splendorTaking that into consideration, if you were to ask me what comic book films might qualify as art, well, if you have been following my History of the Comic Book Film series, in about a month I’ll be talking about three of them: Ghost World, which if it wasn’t for the stigma of being based on a comic would be consider on the same level as Slacker or The Royal Tennebaums due to the way it looks at the human condition; American Splendor, for the way is challenges the way film narrative is made by including live-action, animation and documentary film making into one movie; and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the most populist of the three, but also pushed the boundaries of what a film can be in the kinetic multimedia age. I’m sure many other fans can make arguments for many other films.

This of course, is just my opinion, just like Cronenberg was expressing his. But he arrogantly made his opinion known with a shaky foundation to stand on. If you want to believe your opinion is absolute, it had better be a well informed one, and one that can not be so easily dismissed.

Avatar für Bill Gatevackes
About Bill Gatevackes 2040 Articles
William is cursed with the shared love of comic books and of films. Luckily, this is a great time for him to be alive. His writing has been featured on Broken, and in Comics Foundry magazine.
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April 17, 2013 1:51 pm

I had that same gut reaction to the assertion about comics being for adolescents. Perhaps certain titles in the superhero genre could be considered along such lines. Most indie stuff I have ever followed is tough for adults to appreciate, much less an adolescent. But, I don’t really resent Cronenberg’s overall analysis of films. I don’t think there have been many “high art” comic book adaptations. But, that’s fine. Since when were they ever supposed to be high art? They’re supposed to be a couple of hours of entertainment. In general, I wouldn’t spend the money for a ticket to… Read more »