Why do fictional heroes take themselves so seriously?

One of the pleasures of Darrow is trying to decide where an article goes. We have many different articles that can sit in different categories, but, if I do say so myself, this one had me scratching my head: fictional universes.

It’s a broad church and for avid readers of this site, you’ll know that we have a lot of love for good films and television. I recently wrote an article discussing what I’d love to see in the new Batman v Superman film. Prominent on my wish list was for the tone to be dark, gritty and to carry on the real world realism of the Bale/Nolan-era while being a bit more comicky (that’s my neologism for the day).

I’ve mulled this for a few weeks and there’s something that baffles me as to why it is never picked up on. The trailer for the new Batman has Ben Affleck, widely derided before the film has even been released, fighting bad guys in a skin-tight grey caped ensemble. But never mind what we the audience think, the question is why do people in the film universe consider this unexceptional? All they ever report and talk about is that Batman’s a vigilante, dressed as a Bat, but not what he’s wearing reminds them of comic book characters.

How about Superman? Despite the fact that they literally drained the colour from Man of Steel and removed the tights, why does this fictional universe not comment on his uniform and heroic derring-do? Even from the original 1978 film right up to Superman Returns, no one in-universe batted an eye at a grown man wearing his underwear on the outside of a costume.

The question is as true for literary universes as film universes. Did Dorian Gray read about Oscar Wilde, was Sherlock Holmes inspired by the original great London detective or did Gatsby think, ‘hey, I’m as lonely as that guy Fitzgerald wrote about?’ Comic book films are the best example of the question because their heroes are such a colourful and memorable example that surely some character would remember seeing before. Right from DC to Marvel and every other fictional universe that has elements of the ridiculous that are taken seriously, the same question applies.

How many times have you seen it? From The Terminator to Captain America no character ever says, ‘heck, Superman is a superhero like the ones I used to read!’ Comic books and fiction never seem to exist in fiction, and it makes you wonder what form of literature and entertainment that they actually have. The knock on effect is that culture in that world would be entirely different. What would we be like if comics had never existed?

There are some exceptions. Kick-Ass is one of the best films of the decade, telling the story of a young man who decides to become a superhero precisely because he’s aware of them from his love of comic books. The comic book antihero Deadpool (soon to be played on film by Ryan Reynolds) knows he is a fictional character and he regularly breaks the fourth wall.

And this is the thing. Both defy the traditional superhero genre precisely because they acknowledge that comic book heroes exist in the fictional universe in which they’re set.

The same is true of the other genre defying and equally brilliant Unbreakable. Here Bruce Willis’ character becomes aware of his character having a superhuman ability to survive and it’s up to comic book fan Samuel L. Jackson to explain that these stories are simply modern legends; exaggerated representations about humans who have extraordinary abilities who have existed since the dawn of human history.

When you start down that line of questioning you get very much into a dream within a dream, a mirror within a mirror within a mirror – the matryoshka doll. In other words, did a young Bruce Wayne grow up reading about the adventures of Catman? Did young Clark Kent grow up reading about the adventures of Übermensch who came from another planet to defend humanity?

I appreciate that this is entertainment (Superman opens with a comic book opening and Marvel has a beautiful flicking of the pages comic intro after all) but all critics seem to do these days is assess how real a film is, all while ignoring this question. Imagine Riggs and Murtaugh stopping a car mid-chase and thinking that their exploits reminded them of all the famous buddy cop films they watched.

Possibly the most unexpectedly comprehensive exploration of this entire dynamic was, wait for it, The Last Action Hero. The film which is widely derided is actually a fitting exploration of Arnold’s most famous characters. It’s also a glorious look at the manufactured, implausible and often clichéd world on screen that we critique for not being like ours enough (yet we never consider if it’s plausible, or normal, or has been heard before for the inhabitants of that world).

So there you have it: Arnold Schwarzenegger is the one to pick up an ontological gauntlet and give meaning to “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players”. Who would have guessed?

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