Hollywood will assault us with its incessant cacophony and crumbling planets in films such as Batman vs Superman, but there is no beauty in it
Hollywood’s exports of comic-book-based movies are actually nothing like comic books. They are more grotesque carnivals of ear-shattering explosions filling out a corporation-ordered laundry-list narrative. (I truly detested Age of Ultron.) They hold none of the mystery that comic books held for me when I was a boy reading Champak and the Silver Surfer; or when I was a tween discovering eroticism in Amar Chitra Katha; or even when I grew up and married and discovered Neil Gaiman’s mind-bending Sandman series of the early 1990s.
Hollywood’s comic book-based movies are more grotesque carnivals of ear-shattering explosions filling out a corporation-ordered laundry-list narrative
Part of the mystery is in comic art. Thus, what Raja Sen says of the newly-released Batman vs Superman: etc etc resonates: that director Zach Snyder fundamentally misconceives the comic medium. Quite damning, since most of Snyder’s films are based on comics: 300, Frank Miller’s fantasy retelling of the Spartans’ battle at Thermopylae against the invading ISIS-like Persians; Alan Moore’s gripping-and-gritty Watchmen, an alternate-universe story in which the superheroes are more like serial killers; and the latest Superman origin story, Man of Steel.
In Snyder’s movies, the colours are muted, as if the life had been bled out of the comic. Colouring in comics — whether it is the pastel fleshtones of Amar Chitra Katha or the shiny toy-store colours of Tintin — is a key to the comic’s language and mood. Even when exploring dark themes, the Sandman comics use a lot of “goth” art and stark colours, but it is never muted. Expert craftsman and auteur Christopher Nolan uses muted shades winningly in The Dark Knight, where bright colours are reserved for Heath Ledger’s face or the Bat-garage. In the 1980s, I stumbled upon Nexus, a sci-fi comic series, and it was the colouring that drew me like a magnet: the colours looked as if the paintbrushes were dipped in a vat of LSD.
Then there’s the villain. A superhero is defined by his/her villain. Since a comic can’t accommodate abstract philosophies, the hero-villain engage in a Manichean struggle — light vs dark, or good vs evil. Of course, Marvel comics also has anti-heroes like Spiderman or the Silver Surfer (DC had Batman operating outside the law), which only sharpened the superheroes’ innate goodness since they weren’t fighting for glory (anti-heroism also gained the empathy of angsty teenagers).
What villain, however, could possibly match up to Superman? He is indestructable (with caveats). His arch-nemesis has usually been the brainy inventor Lex Luthor - implying that Superman is brainless - and it’s no surprise that cinematic Lex Luthors since the 1970s have been portrayed by actors who are superior to those playing the man of steel: Gene Hackman vs Christopher Reeve; Kevin Spacey vs what’s-his-face; and now Mark Zuckerberg (I mean Jesse Eisenberg) vs Henry Cavill. Basically, Superman is okay but ultimately uninteresting.
Still, one had hopes for the new release. After all, there was the possibility it would be based on the kickass 1986 re-imagining of the Batman by Frank Miller, The Dark Knight Returns. (The tone and tenor of his graphic novel was faithfully recreated by Nolan, who used the moniker for his own films.) I used to own a decade-wise anthology of Batman comics starting from 1939: in each era the Batman stories reflect that decade’s zeitgeist. There are eerie forays during the counter-cultural 1960s (including one where Batman falls in love with a ghost and solves her murder but is left heartbroken); but nothing was as scorched-earth dystopian as the Frank Miller series.
In brief: Batman is in his grey-and-grizzled mid-fifties, mutant gangs rule the streets of Gotham, and the US government and its mindlessly patriotic lackey Superman dislike Batman. As the story unfolds, Superman detonates a nuclear bomb in the desert, away from population centres, but the EMP blacks out America. Batman harnesses the mutant gangs to bring order to Gotham. An embarrassed US government orders Superman to take out Batman. Batman, anticipating this, has a few tricks up his sleeve to take on the nuclear-blast-weakened Superman.
Snyder and Corporation appear to have used little of Frank Miller’s narrative and more of his props (like Batman’s exo-skeleton). Whattay shame. No wonder Batman vs Superman scores 31 per cent on rottentomatoes.com.
I initially feared that such artless films would turn my youngsters off from comics, but such is not the case. Instead, they watch Japanese anime and read web-comics on their laptops. I sampled the anime Ghost in the Shell and the online graphic novel Roswell, Texas. They prove one thing: the allurement of a comic is still how well it is drawn and what new colours it discovers for you.
As for me, I may hold off on Batman vs Superman. The Hollywood machine will continue to assault us with its incessant cacophony and crumbling planets, and they may well keep raking in the dough. But where is the beauty in all that?
Senior journalist Aditya Sinha is a contributor to the anthology House Spirit: Drinking in India, to be published in May. He tweets @autumnshade. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org