Aesthetic Drift #9 by John King
Dramatic Stakes, and Why Dawn of Justice Will Likely Suck
Thirty years ago when Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns series appeared, this epic of what would happen to superheroes in the future changed the culture of comic books. Miller introduced an expressionistic art style that could be crude and gothic. Miller worried about the physics of the world Batman inhabited, so that the world was as real as the art was wild. And by making his heroes old, he inadvertently revealed American culture’s doubts about whether these pop culture icons could be meaningful with about fifty years of continuous storytelling occurring with many of the same archetypal characters.
In The Dark Knight Returns, Batman would have his final confrontation with his nemesis, The Joker. Batman would have his final confrontation with his other nemesis, Superman. All of this seemed so intriguing in large part because of the dramatic stakes this finality implied. We see Batman’s heartbeat. We see our heroes, even Superman, bleed and suffer. We see The Joker die laughing.
If you want people to read your fiction or watch your play or film, the dramatic stakes need to be high. Highly abstract emotions and average slice-of-life narratives might be appealing, but they are most appealing when they turn out to be related to high-stakes storytelling. Gatsby has to die trying to outmaneuver the American class system in the name of love. Isabel Archer must learn that her freedom and pride were high prices to pay at the expense of her truest friendship, the depths of which she should have seen earlier. And Batman must try to slay Superman to prove the truth of his own perhaps unhealthy convictions.
High-stakes define character in indelible ways, and watching such storytelling changes us, when those stories are good.
This is why Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is likely to be terrible.
Besides the actual animated adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns, no other movie seems to be leaning quite so heavily on the Miller comic. In Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, we are going to see Batman in battle armor face off with Superman, but this will not be their final confrontation. Instead, this looks to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, in which they can quip to one another about how cool Wonder Woman is, since a glib Lex Luthor will create a new villain that makes the rivalry, the fatal ideological and psychological conflict, between Batman and Superman irrelevant on their way to kicking a lot of CGI ass.
John King (Episode, well, all of them) is a podcaster, writer, and ferret wrangler.