It seems an ironic thesis to suggest that somehow blockbuster films and ad campaigns by Hollywood could contribute to the literary merit of comic books. I would argue, however, that the work of people like Christopher Nolan, Jon Favreau, and Zack Snyder have presented comic-book heroes and villains as more than one-dimensional characters in the funnies. Rather, these directors with screenwriters like David Goyer have been able to construct complex cinematic experiences where the suit of Iron Man isn’t necessarily more interesting than Tony Stark’s dick-headed persona and his drinking problem.
I am slightly biased among these films toward the Batman Franchise and Watchmen. Though Moore himself was obviously against the notion of his novel being adapted for film, I would argue that by bringing his work to the screen more people had access to the shift of comic-book possibility in history. In 1986/87 Watchmen broke onto the scene and with Miller’s Dark Knight Returns began to challenge intellectual readers about their prejudices against comics. This was a difficult task in the face of several decades of cheese-ball funny books. And perhaps without these works comics themselves would have never made it out of the toy shop.
To understand the heroism of Moore, Miller and later on the filmmakers I have noted, we must understand the villain of the story. American Psychiatrist Frederick Wertham wrote Seduction of the Innocent in 1954. This particularly ridiculous text argued that popular literature –like comic books– contributed to the delinquency of children; the book reveals that Wertham’s idea of “delinquency” seemed to be most directly related to sexuality. Indeed, Batman and Robin were really gay lovers, and scantily-clad women were “damaging to the eye.” We can chuckle at Wertham’s plebeian conservatism and Freudian neurosis, but this publication was directly responsible for the establishment of Comics Code Authority and thus the censorship of an entire genre of literature.
Comics became low-brow, cheesy, and had Batman solving crimes in Scotland in a kilt. And it would be decades before the tarred-and-feathered medium would the opportunity to be seriously analyzed.
This is where Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns could become our heroes, and indeed they did. The gritty interrogation of crime, corruption, war, politics, and even the investigation of existential identity through Dr. Manhattan’s segregation from humanity via his own superiority, would prove to skeptics and snobs that comic books could be respected as literature — graphic novels. Readers found the funnies weren’t always so funny and that their writers and artists could be as intellectual and complex as the writers of text-only novels or painters of paintings.
So, how does this make the case for comic-book blockbusters contributing to the merit of the comic medium? I would argue that like Miller and Moore working in the face of Batman in a kilt, people like Nolan and Favreau were working in the face of shit like Batman and Robin. They were willing to put their skills as serious filmmakers to treat the stories as mythos. Batman and Iron Man can have as much merit as the voyages of Odysseus.
Film has a distinct ability to cross social barriers and communicate ideas and emotions to an incredible wealth of people. When a comic-book film is treated with respect and passion, it’s value is poured into the audience. Some of these audiences are spurred to explore the base medium itself. My local comic shop had a huge stock of Watchmen on hand with the premier of the movie. This is promising to me rather than disheartening. I don’t see these films as bringing rubes to something I like. Rather, I see these films as helping rubes smarten up as they find literary and intellectual nourishment in something I like.