The year was 1962. The camera pans across a casino filled with the rich. At one table, we see an elegant woman playing cards and conversing with a man. They engage in some banter, and she asks for his name. The camera cuts to a incredibly young, handsome Sean Connery and he replies “Bond…James Bond”. And so the fantasy began. James Bond is one example of a hero that was an escapist fantasy for 40 years. He has the style, he goes to the most exotic places. He beds the most beautiful women and takes down the most sinister of bad guys. And he never dies. He is an ageless, invincible characters that people saw as an escape. A world where Bond could do no wrong and everything would be set in the right place.
At least…that is how it USED to be. Up until 2006, Bond was coasting on the cheesy one-liners and ridiculous gadgets. Then came Daniel Craig. Casino Royale was the first book in the James Bond franchise, and the film reinvented how we saw a famed hero. All of a sudden, Bond loved someone. We briefly saw this in the 1969 James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service where Bond was briefly married. But his job led to his wife’s fatal demise. Casino Royale was much more potent. A caustic, haunted character who learns that his job prevents him from any emotional detachment. The film’s final third is devoted to the relationship between Bond and Vesper Lynd. Craig’s first outing as Bond is really a romantic drama disguised as a fantasy action film.
Audiences and critics took kindly to this subject with rave reviews (a 94% on the aggregate review site Rotten Tomatoes) and a large box-office haul (nearly $600 million worldwide). It was proof that this reinvention of Bond was attractive to film goers.
A mere two years later, the next James Bond film was released (Quantum of Solace) but that was not the big film that year. Batman had returned in a way that no one thought of. Fueled by the death of Heath Ledger after his final complete performance as The Joker, The Dark Knight shattered all expectations any had for the superhero genre by creating a bleak depiction of Gotham City. Batman is no longer beating up the bad guys with a “POW!” and a “OOMPH!” with a horrible costume. The Joker has no plan for Gotham, he is out to cause chaos. A villain that has absolutely no motivation for mayhem is the most frightening thing about Christopher Nolan’s epic masterpiece. It dares to question just how much of a burden there is on a hero whether they wear a mask or not. A line by Harvey Dent sums up the conflict that Nolan introduces in The Dark Knight. “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain”. Batman was never this complex, dark or dramatic as it is today. And Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy turned Batman from a cheesy joke to the most immersive superhero experience in film today.
And with $1 billion at the box-office, The Dark Knight had a massive cultural impact on audiences. These ambitious, nihilistic, cynical themes mixed with a grand action scale picture allowed The Dark Knight to be easily accessible, but also incredibly deep with its motifs and characters. And that is why many superhero movies are still compared to The Dark Knight today.
So why is this happening? Why has entertainment all of a sudden become so deeply personal with its audience. Is there no other way to go? No. I would argue that this is the next step in the evolutionary process of our heroes.
The Dark Knight, Iron Man and even children’s fare like Toy Story 3 depict their heroes that make choices in regards to their environment, the people they affect and the people they want to help. The enhanced sense of realism allows us to believe that these heroes are in a world that relates to us. That they are truly the best of us making the decisions that we cannot make. Some would argue that this loss of detachment distances us from the entertaining aspect of these films. I say it enhances it. “Gotham needs a hero with a face” says Bruce Wayne. And now we need heroes that we not only can see and hear, but believe and fall for through their trials and barriers.
Another trend that is emerging is the idea of an anti-hero. How can something like be watchable. The main characters are supposed to be characters that guide us through their story and put us on their side right? Apparently not. With movies like The Social Network and immensely popular TV shows like Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead and Mad Men depict characters who are deeply flawed yet immensely relatable (to a point). In the premiere season of Breaking Bad, Walter White is a beaten down husband; controlled by his two jobs, his wife and a kid with cerebral palsy. Having been diagnosed with terminal cancer, he has nothing to lose. He chooses to cook the purest methamphetamine known to man using his chemical skills mixed with Jesse’s knowledge of the business. As the seasons progress, this humourous and stressful relationship changes drastically where Walter becomes a different man and every character switches tones based upon the events of the show. Is Walter White a monster? Maybe, maybe not. Yet this is where the shows biggest strength lies. The actions of the characters have consequences on others and themselves. Breaking Bad is groundbreaking for how it develops characters but also maintain cinematic quality on a cable network by challenging the conventional creation of character opting for honest results over cheap theatrics.
Many critics have even compared the show to some of the most celebrated works of fiction in cinema, television and even books. Audiences have responded as well with multiple Emmy nominations and it is AMC’s most watched show (as of 2012).
The Social Network from director David Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin depicts a generation in the fast lane. Everything is an instant update, a quick text or an e-mail away from one another. Mark Zuckerberg (played with brilliance by the young Jesse Eisenberg) is a symbol of hypocrisy, cynicism and disconnection of our generation. This man who has built the largest social media construction on the fact of the Earth has barely anyone to call his own friends. His creation becomes his only refuge from the world of feeling, friendship, lifestyle and relationships around him. The prophetic opening to the film where his girlfriend Ericka breaks up with him sets up the film for an inevitable ending. Where he has become the asshole that Ericka claimed and he still remains completely isolated from everyone around him. When we are introduced to the groupies that sleep with Mark and his best friend Eduardo, we always see Eduardo’s interest and Mark’s girl evaporates in the film. All of the people that Mark connected with are torn down in the name of his media mogul mind.This entire journey is seen through the eyes of a man on a mission to become that big shot that no one thought he could be. A loser who writes his “snag bullshit” from a blog, Zuckerberg is one of the most unlikable lead characters that presents us with some painful and poignant points about our generation of social media users.
There seemed to be these established boundaries in film and television. And more and more of these barriers are falling every day. You can’t market a character who murders, cooks meth while keeping it a secret to his family! Yes you can. James Bond doesn’t cry! Yes he does and has. You can’t allow bane to completely break Batman in spirit and body. Well, it happened. These heroes are an example of the best of us, but these films are making them seem more like to begin with. They deal with issues theater similar to our own. Bruce Wayne goes bankrupt in The Dark Knight Rises with those opposed to him trying to take over the business for the purpose of terrorism. A wild plot sure, but enhanced by how real the problems for Wayne, Bane and the company seem. Batman took the blame to keep the city fighting for themselves against crime. He is the greatest hero because he made those around him more heroic.
Again we see this attraction to inherently real main characters over superfluous, invincible ones. Has the pattern ended? Will this pattern of dark, moody, emotional pieces continue? It appears so. A teaser trailer was recently released for Paramount’s Iron Man 3 starring Robert Downey Jr. This film features director Shane Black who is taking over Iron Man from director Jon Favereau who helmed the first two films. Black has been quoted as saying that Iron Man 3 will take a step in a new, dark direction. The trailer features little of the humour and anglo-American attitude that was presented in the first two installments and is instead filled with alarm and worry. The trailers features the Iron Man suits being blown to pieces, Tony Stark’s home being shred by missiles and Iron Man himself being dragged down into the depths. This trailer’s tone is eerily familiar to Nolan’s conclusion to The Dark Knight Rises, where the hero is physically and emotionally broken. The trailer ends with Stark dragging his own broken suit through the snow on the sled. Talk about morbid.
Stripped to their bare bones, our protagonists face a greater threat than the villains and plot barriers in their films. They are their own worst enemy. They are supposed to be an example of justice, heroism and protection for those of us who are weaker than them. But as time is going on, film and television seem to be bringing the heroes down to our level. Their own emotions and fears are put to the test and how they change when faced with these problems. They are struggling to maintain their position of authority, while still seem like the best of us chosen for a higher purpose. Maybe its to save babies from burning buildings. Maybe it is to stop terrorists from taking over the world. Or maybe it is simply saving themselves from themselves. It is about the power that they ahve to defeat these internal woes and conflict. For those out there who maybe are not the biggest fan of this dark, post-modern age of heroes, this is merely another chapter. They will become symbols in a new time on a world with a new face. That is why they will always stand tall. They become the heroes we need when we need them. But this chapter has just begun and out heroes are changing right before our eyes…