Why have our summer cinema screens been ruled by the superhero? Are The Dark Knight and Iron Man really two of the most wonderful movies ever made, or is there something else going on that makes people even consider a movie like Hancock acceptable entertainment? The University of Wisconsin's Professor of Film Studies, David Bordwell, has some thoughts on the subject that he'd like to share.One of the first things that Bordwell wants to establish is that, no, Iron Man and The Dark Knight weren't actually as good as you may have thought they were. Instead, he suggests that society's tastes are changing for multiple reasons, including (but not limited to) the increasing importance of special effects in movies, the shift away from auteur cinema towards franchises, a move from Westerns to Superheroes, and... well, actors who love to over-act:

Today your serious actors shape-shift for every project-acquiring accents, burying their faces in makeup, gaining or losing weight. We might be inclined to blame the Method, but classical actors went through the same discipline. Olivier, with his false noses and endless vocal range, might be the impersonators' patron saint. His followers include Streep, Our Lady of Accents, and the self-flagellating young De Niro. Ironically, although today's performance-as-impersonation aims at greater naturalness, it projects a flamboyance that advertises its mechanics. It can even look hammy. Thus, as so often, does realism breed artifice.

Horror and comic-book movies offer ripe opportunities for this sort of masquerade. In a straight drama, confined by realism, you usually can't go over the top, but given the role of Hannibal Lector, there is no top. The awesome villain is a playground for the virtuoso, or the virtuoso in training. You can overplay, underplay, or over-underplay... Such is the range we find in The Dark Knight... The Joker's darting eyes, waggling brows, chortles, and restless licking of his lips send every bit of dialogue Special Delivery. Ledger's performance has been much praised, but what would count as a bad line reading here? The part seems designed for scenery-chewing. By contrast, poor Bale has little to work with. As Bruce Wayne, he must be stiff as a plank, kissing Rachel while keeping one hand suavely tucked in his pocket, GQ style. In his Bat-cowl, he's missing as much acreage of his face as Dent is, so all Bale has is the voice, over-underplayed as a hoarse bark. In sum, our principals are sweating through their scenes. You get no strokes for making it look easy, but if you work really hard you might get an Oscar.

In the end, Bordwell doesn't come to any real conclusion, but claims to have found hope that interesting cinema can still exist within the superhero sphere in the form of Hellboy II. Just don't tell him that, thanks to BPRD, Lobster Johnson and Abe Sapien, Hellboy is just as much a franchise these days as Batman. Superheroes for sale [David Bordwell.net] (Via.)