The first entries in my series "Nazis, Nixon and 9/11: Comic Book Movies as the Film Noir of the 21st Century" explored the ways in which the disillusionment created in the wake of the corruption revealed during the World War II and Watergate eras inspired filmmakers to examine more closely the shadowy nature of good and evil. Film noir of the 1940s and the films of the American New Wave of the early 1970s both presented a world of ambiguity in which the stark dividing line between the good guys and the bad guys was blurred.
The 21st century analogue are the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the comic book movie. The comic book movie genre has upended the conventional reaction of filmmakers in the wake of a generational event exposing the magnitude of evil both within those who attack us and those charged with protecting us. Comic book movies as a general rule have disposed of elements like disillusionment, cynicism and wholesale rejection of the myths of epic heroism. On that last score, in fact, comic book movies resemble Greek, Roman and Norse mythology far more than they do the American cinema of the 1940s and 1970s.
With two very notable exception, one of which paradoxically utilizes the heroes of ancient mythology to examines the shadowy world of film noir with a comic book milieu.
The world epic mythological heroes seems a strange place to try to locate the conventions film noir when making a comic book movie, but "Thor" manages to do just that. Interestingly, moral ambiguity permeates the mythological realm of Asgard, while human world on earth reflects the Bush-era "you are either with us or against us" sense of ethical absolutism. Thor is presented as a hero devoid of all heroic qualities excepting those associated with being a warrior. Loki is a suspicious figure who frequently reveals far more useful qualities of leadership. The interplay between Thor and Loki resonates with the shadowy world of film noir that makes it difficult to determine the difference between the protagonist and the antagonist, but also brings to mind what may be viewed as Shakespeare's prototype for film noir: "Henry IV, Part I."
Thor is Hotspur to Loki's Prince Hal. Like classic film noir figures, Hotspur and Hal move along the narrative lost in a murky world of shadowy identification of the classical attributes of the epic hero. Loki, like Prince Hall, is 100% right: Neither Thor nor Hotspur are qualified to assume the throne. The fact that in this version the Hotspur character is the one to achieve redemption rather than Hal merely confirms that thesis that human values are inherently corrupted beyond categorization. While Thor indulges in egotistical posturing both in Asgard and on earth, Loki consistently surprises with revelations of character and the convoluted nature of his principles.
The most explicit connection between comic book movies and film noir (aside from "Sin City" which has all the look but none of the depth) is "The Dark Knight." Here is a comic book movie that actually seeks, to a lesser degree than "Thor", to blur the line between hero and villain. Although Christopher Nolan pulls back from going to the lengths that Kenneth Branagh was willing to go in an effort to show the more ambiguous moral nature of his hero, there has always been an overriding sense of fascism to Batman that calls into his question his ethical purity.
On the other hand, the Joker is provided extended opportunities to reveal that beneath the smear of villainy distorting his face lies a more thorough understanding and appreciation of the complex noirish sensibility that we do not live in a world of moral absolutes. The Joker's dialogue so clearly elevates him to a philosophically sentient height above Bruce Wayne that it is quite easy to argue that in the grand scheme of things it is he, and not Batman, who is the real Dark Knight of Gotham City.
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