Saturday, December 3, 2011

Pondering Hero Death In Movies, and Realism vs. Genre Conventions

Man, speculate about a hero's death, and you will get an earful from the fans...

This article on offers up a pretty interesting (and, I think, persuasive) argument for Bruce Wayne not surviving the third of Nolan's film trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, and that the mantle of the Bat will be passed on to a successor. Who knows if it's true. Regardless of whether or not it turns out to be correct, it got me thinking that it would a pretty brilliant way for Christopher Nolan to end the Batman movies he's worked on.

I told this to a friend, who did not agree, and our 10-minute phone call turned into an hour and a half debate about the conventions and rules that should be observed when working on modern mythologies. It was a pretty spirited discussion, and it got me thinking about some of the ways in which we comics enthusiasts transfer our expectations from the original medium of comics to the very different arena of film. A few points that came to mind tend to work in one medium, but not the other. Here are a few of them:
  1. The Hero Must Not Die. By and large, this is overwhelmingly true in the comics. Even when the main character or a major one is killed off, he or she inevitably comes back. Superman, Green Lantern, Captain America, Jean Grey, and even the hated Jason Todd have proved this time and again. I usually blame this on lazy writing, and the fact that fictitious characters (ie, intellectual property) aren't really "alive" to kill in the first place, but even I will admit that in a serialized medium that should in theory never end, it's very tempting to want to bring back characters from the dead. In movies, however, this is less of a problem. Film is, essentially, a re-imagining of the source material, and given how expensive they are to make, one can't reasonably expect them to go on forever. It's reasonable to go in, tell a set of stories, and then effectively end that segment as an interpretation. It's not like films are canon to the comics. I also think that with comics, we're a little spoiled by an elastic timeline that allows us to essentially think of our heroes as ageless. Film does a lot to remove those assumptions, as actors age noticeably over time. Why not take that into account when interpreting the myth for this other medium? What, in essence, is wrong with Bruce Wayne dying at the end of a film trilogy? Wouldn't that be a more realistic end to what has been praised as a realistic interpretation of the Batman mythos?
  2. I Don't Watch Movies For Realism. After all, how realistic is a guy dressing up as a bat and going out to fight crime, night after night? Good point. But saying that entertainment should be devoid of realism makes no sense. Why, then, watch anything that has humans in it at all? Humans are real, last I checked. Why aren't we, as grown up children, watching movies about animated bunnies all the time? Because we need a certain amount of verisimilitude in our fiction, so that we have points at which we can identify with it. There's nothing wrong, in my opinion, with a consistent internal set of rules in which a fictitious world can operate. And, to take it a little further, I think there's nothing wrong with altering those rules within the same mythology when someone else is making their own interpretation. The Nolan films are a perfect example of this. They've been heavily praised for their realism. And realistically, what can we expect in terms of a shelf-life of an individual who fights crime, day-in, day-out, pushing their body every day, for years? My guess is that a decade would be a generous estimate. If you want the legacy to continue, then why wouldn't you do succession planning for it? This is an idea we don't really think about because of the essentially ageless nature of comics, but that we would have to consider when placing our heroes outside the panels and into the "real" world.
  3. Death Is Defeat. And therefore, why end the films on such a downer note? It's hard for me to hear this, because it's such an all-or-nothing approach. I've seen superheroes get trounced seven ways from Sunday, and still live to tell the tale. Is that a victory, just because they lived? And what about dying to protect something larger? Say, a city like Gotham, or loved ones, the way Ultimate Spider-Man did? Are those really losses? I think viewing death as an automatic defeat takes the potential for nobility and heroism down considerably for anyone who is supposed to consider themselves a hero. I'm more willing to accept the phrase that Senseless Death Is Defeat, or that Death For Death's Sake Is Defeat. But any death? Heroic sacrifices are a part and parcel of the superhero life, and those that result in the death of the hero are supposed to be the most heroic of all. I acknowledge that a lot is lost, and the victory would be costly, but I don't think it would diminish in any way the idea that a noble or heroic death is a victory.
These, of course, are my opinions, and I acknowledge there are plenty who will disagree with me. But I doubt I'll be the only person cheering the boldness of Nolan's decision, should Bruce's demise indeed come to pass in The Dark Knight Rises. He's done a good job of taking this mythos and exploring the considerations required for a more realistic superhero in a modern world. I'm sure he'll do the same thing again with this film, and this approach would be an indisputably original and unforgettable way to do it.


  1. I think there is also a lot to be said about the power of heroic death as a sacrament. Much like, say, the death of Jesus in the Bible is supposed to grant his followers forgiveness for original sin and [Spoiler Warning for Idiots] the death of Harry Potter gives all of his loved ones some sort of...anti-magic shell? I don't know. That whole Wizard-Jesus thing was weird.

    Nolan's Batman, from the beginning, has been about becoming a symbol to the people of Gotham that they don't have to live in fear any more. But as implied in The Dark Knight, with the story arc of Harvey Dent, if regular people just stood up for justice the way Batman does there would be no need for Batman. In this light, I think it would make a LOT of sense for Batman to be killed, preferably someplace very public, and through his death the public can be galvanized. Personally, that's what I thought the whole scene in front of city hall that they've been shooting for months was supposed to be about.

    However! I think a very strong argument can be made against Bruce Wayne's death coming from the character of Bane. It appears as though the Bane being depicted in the new film is going to be more of the extremely strong, but extremely cunning Bane from the comics as opposed to the giant meat slab from previous movies. This would lead me to believe that crippling Bruce Wayne, as opposed to killing him, would be more in keeping with his motives. Think of it, Bruce Wayne, Batman, unmasked, crippled, unable to intervene, and forced to watch as Bane unmakes the peace he sought so hard to establish. I personally feel like that's more up smart-Bane's alley.

  2. It would certainly hold up with Bane's approach to dealing with Batman/Bruce Wayne in the comics, though to be honest it did bug me a little that he dragged the broken Bat out to public, bragged about it, and didn't bother to unmask him in public.