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For a few decades near the middle of the century, Westerns were the genre filmmakers turned to when they wanted to say pretty much anything. There were pacifist Westerns (Ox-Bow Incident) and patriotic Westerns (Dodge City), anti-McCarthyism Westerns (High Noon) and anti-Vietnam Westerns (The Wild Bunch). Westerns could be excellent or terrible, but they dominated movies at the time, the genre that packed the theaters like no other.
Today, instead, we have superhero movies, and up until this point there have only been a few kinds of them-- the ones where one guy becomes a superhero and beats up the super bad guy, the ones where a guy is born as a superhero and beats up the super bad guy, and the one where a bunch of people get together and beat up the super bad guy. Wash, change costumes, repeat, rake in dollars.
But then, this weekend, The Dark Knight happened, and millions of people who may know nothing more about Batman than the bat signal—surely not all of them saw Batman Begins-- flocked to movie theaters around the world to catch a classy, exciting adventure that just happened to involve a cape. Christopher Nolan is the first director to really tell a comic book story that leaves no trace of its pen and ink origins, but now that Batman has leapt off the page, there may be no going back.
The comic book movie genre is really only getting started-- in the next five years, and probably longer, we're going to see a ton of movies based on comic books, everything from well-known Marvel figures like Captain America to obscurities like Red Sonja. If these movies are going to be relevant, and are going to bring in the Dark Knight audiences who were in it for the quality more than the familiar characters, filmmakers are going to have to accept Nolan's tactic of starting with a comic book hero and branching out into all kinds of directions. And if they want to keep us from getting sick of superheroes, they're eventually going to have to ditch the source material.
Comic books, those old printed relics, have meant a lot to a lot of people over the course of their existence. And their stories have gone in lots of directions over the years, particularly with characters like Batman and Superman who have been with us for so long. But comic books are just the jumping off point-- movies based on them will never say anything new when they're recycling stories written about in the comics 20 years ago. Nolan has proven that, to make a comic book movie that is truly great, you only need a little bit of source material and a lot of imagination. Why not send Batman to Hong Kong to fight crime? Why not ditch Robin? Nolan is treating the Caped Crusader the way Westerns directors treated Wyatt Earp—a vaguely defined figure who can tell a million different stories in the right setting.
If comic book adaptations are going to continue thriving, they have to get away from the origin story pattern and start spreading into new genres. The Dark Knight is a political thriller, and Seth Rogen's upcoming Green Hornet seems likely to be an action comedy. We're a nation fully immersed in superheroes these days, even though many of us don't know the difference between the Marvel and DC Universe. We don't need the details to be willing to buy a ticket. With that kind of trust, the comics themselves are only the beginning of where all these iconic characters can go.
There are lots of different kinds of comic books, of course—the upcoming Watchmen is likely to be as different from Superman as The Wild Bunch was from Stagecoach--and they will contribute to the growing stable of comic book adaptations that are about much more than men in tights. But to get to somewhere great, to get our superhero obsession to have something to say, the makers of these comic book adaptations have to open them up, roll the pre-existing mythology into a ball and use it sparingly, if at all. If these movies are hoping to become meaningful on a large scale, they shouldn't come with required reading attached.