Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

May 10, 2010

If Superhero Movies Suck, And I Suspect They Do, Why Can’t Folks Stop Seeing And Discussing Them?


The day before likely box-office juggernaut Iron Man 2 opened in the United States, film critic Matt Zoller Seitz dropped a column on Salon readers saying, in effect, that superhero movies stink, and that they stink as both movies and as embodiments of the comics on which they're based. It's an interesting essay, much more so than the hue and cry of fanboys -- temporarily distracted from secret revenge on Dan Clowes for the superhero movies gag in Wilson -- would have you believe. If nothing else, Seitz names names.

That essay deserves a sustained response. You won't get that here, but hopefully a few random thoughts will do until someone smart does provide such an effort.

1. Superhero Films Vs. Comics Films
I'm usually the first one to jump on critics for conflating superhero films with comics films as Seitz does a time or two in this essay. However, since the article is obviously focused on superhero movies and nothing in the substance of his arguments are fudged away from that commitment by the conflation, I'm going to believe it was hasty phrasing rather than a kind of rhetorical dodge on Seitz's part. I accept that Seitz is talking about superhero films, so I'll leave any and all analysis that includes the relative quality of films like Ghost World and American Splendor at home. I'd be the one taking unfair advantage.

2. There's Nothing Wrong With Having High Standards
The strongest part of Seitz's essay comes out of the simple fact that he pays superhero films the respect of holding them to a high standard. He thinks somewhere between the vast majority of them and, well, all of them fail to meet this standard. I do, too. Others may disagree, but I don't think his or mine is a manufactured or affected distaste. In fact, more than is usual we probably both want these movies to be a lot better, and it pains us to note that they're kind of a disappointing lot. It also proves his point about the rhetorical process that's built up around such films that that just not liking the films is seen as some sort of odd break.

3. Then Again, Many Superhero Films Also Fail To Meet Most Low Standards
I think the idea of these movies as a group of movies is worth talking about a bit, the general impressions of quality that are left by them as a group. Seitz's laundry list of complaints against the genre reads to me like a subset of descriptions of a more basic, overriding fact. That is: the vast majority of superhero films have been horribly executed films. As such, there's not really any secret there to be sussed out. They could all just be better films. I'd suggest that the average film fan watches most of the examples of the genre as it's developed over the last 10 years and the first impulse isn't to say "once again, they fail to understand the comics genre" but "that acting/action/dialogue was a letdown/disaster/big bowl of sucknoodle soup." As a group these films evince a very labored approach to modern blockbuster making, a process where films are brought to life by directors with what seems less like limited understanding of how to make a satisfying action film and more like enthusiasm for some character, shepherded by producers and writers that see the source material as a list of ingredients from which to cook up a big profit-maker. The two Fantastic Four movies are about as bad and forgettable and cynical an exercise as I can imagine: cherry-picked comics moments, dull plots, insipid characters, bad acting, inconsistent tone, unimaginative visuals. Chris Evans received a career boost from these films for coming across the least like a corpse. The two films' lingering image, Jessica Alba's dopey-looking expression of superpowers as arms akimbo + constipation face, isn't a failure of theme or a misinterpretation of the material: it's just dumb-looking acting in a generally cheap and unimaginative pair of movies. Wolverine exudes a similar shudder-and-collapse vibe, a surface-oriented adaptation of a messy pile of comics with confusing action scenes and characters whose greater reality ends at the right and left side of the screen. They're product.

imageI think it's pretty easy and largely apt to make summary cases like this for a lot of these movies. Watchmen focused on little of what made the comic book more than a series of "cool" scenes, and more on spinning, wire-fu Rorschach and juicing up action scenes in a way that capsized the moral case made by the funnybooks and was a lot duller besides. The Catwoman, Daredevil, Elektra, Spirit and Ghost Rider films are clumsily made, cheap-looking in various ways and border on the nonsensical. The Punisher featured a pipe-smoking John Travolta; Spider-Man 3 a jazz-dancing Peter Parker. (The biggest indictment of the Spider-Man films, whose bland effectiveness and crater-like disappointments deserve a separate essay, is they somehow made James Franco boring.) In the world of Unbreakable, it turns out that every single person in Philly's train station is a special guest star villain in a Law and Order episode. Superman Returns and Hulk offer challenging premises and evocative solutions to some narrative problems that nonetheless fail in much more basic ways: Superman Returns' horrific casting in secondary roles and glacial, smug pacing; Hulk's "okay, we aren't able to do this yet" CGI main character (or, as my brother put it when the movie was on heavy cable rotation: "Man, Jar Jar Binks looks pissed"). You might disagree on individual films, but it's hard to argue for the last ten years of superhero flicks as an exemplary wave of movies. Very few emerging film genres have made this kind of money while offering so very little in terms of quality construction, let alone art.

Despite what some of their makers would have you believe, most of the great superhero comic books achieve that status as great comics because of the way they come to life on the page, not because of their conceptual strengths. To return to our original example, Fantastic Four isn't an all-time great comic book because it's about family or exploring -- give me a break! -- it's a great comic book because Stan Lee is a funny and inventive writer and Jack Kirby had one of the great visual imaginations of the last 100 years and exercised it constantly. You can count on one hand the number of scenes in all the superhero films that would be effective, thrilling scenes generally, let alone those that bring it like the King brought it on a monthly basis. In fact, all the superhero movie fight scenes combined make a poor cousin to the hallway brawl in Oldboy or even the casino fight in Kung Fu Hustle.

4. All Films Are About Moments Now
The second strongest part of the essay is that Seitz points out -- correctly, I think -- how many of the better superhero films register when they do because of strong moments or memorable scenes within the fabric of a narrative rather than a strong, overall story. He cites the scene in Dark Knight where Heath Ledger hangs his head out the window and takes in the moment like a teenager drunk for the very first time. I think that and the moment where Ledger kind of shimmies in that nurse's outfit are the best moments in the film. I don't remember the scene in Superman Returns he cites as powerful, which makes me suspicious that it's worth remembering. But hey, I have my own list: Wolverine impaling a guy's foot in X-Men 2, that kid giggling as he scoots across the jungle floor in The Invincibles, Batman yelling at the upside-down guy in the first Nolan Batman, the sublime sound editing when Dr. Octopus and Spider-Man fight on the side of the building in Spider-Man 2. I think this is an important observation, because it may explain why such films have been popular without ever quite being good films from beginning to end. A scene that punches a hole in your thinking can be worth any number of skillfully executed plots, at least in terms of impression left. How much of Spider-Man's crossover success and appeal was due to a solidly constructed and evocative love story and how much of it was that hilarious wet kiss and prominently displayed pokies? I have my guess. One of the reasons that superhero comics are as popular as they are with the core fanbase is that they need fixing; you read the comic book in front of you and the version in your head that's so much better. I wonder if there isn't an equivalent with superhero movies.

5. I'd Say Iron Man Did Have A Great Scene
As an aside, I think Seitz is wrong that the first Iron Man film doesn't have that one memorable scene like the other movies did. It does -- it's the scene were Pepper Potts has to adjust Tony Stark's new heart, reaching into the body of the man she likely loves in a moment of forced intimacy that's disturbing and touching and funny all at once. Iron Man was welcomed by audiences in part because it and its lead performance felt new after a summer of disappointing movies with a "3" after the title, but I thought that scene worked very well even if I don't remember a single thing about the fight with Jeff Bridges' character.

6. For Many Folks, Great Or Lively Performances Can Make For A Satisfying Experience All Their Own
I think Seitz gets away with too much via his suggestion that the primary distinction of the first two Superman films was an element of Christopher Reeve's commitment to his role. I think that's okay with movies: certainly a same-era film like Kramer Vs. Kramer was distinguished almost solely by a quality of its lead performance. In addition, modern movies like The Wrestler or Crazy Heart or The Insider are dominated by one actor's performance. Why not a Superman movie? I think if all you remember about the first two Superman movies is Chris Reeve -- whom I thought a desperately boring actor for much of his career -- pulling off an unlikely charmer of a performance by playing the straight-arrow stuff with just a whisper of a wink that makes you aware this guy knows what he sounds like and his resulting cool self-possession makes him super just standing in a room with more typically neurotic dopes, you're doing just fine. Ditto the accomplished shifts in tone Hugh Jackman is able to communicate in the first X-Men movie as he's sending out those powerful waves of general handsomeness, and Heath Ledger's consistently interesting choices in Dark Knight. It's not so bad for a character to take over a movie in this day and age, and I don't understand how this could be a weakness of superhero flicks. If someone makes the lead character incrementally more interesting in a superhero comic book, it's a cause for celebration.

image7. There Are Different Ways To Do Superhero Movies, But Only One Of Those Ways Reliably Makes Their Studios Nine Figures
I don't think Seitz is convincing when he suggests that superhero movies are rigid in terms of theme and/or tone, or at least I think he stacks the argument in his favor. If you include superhero movies like the one where John Ritter dresses up in a promotional costume in order to seduce Anne Archer or Alan Arkin's daffy The Return Of Captain Invincible or the operatic and campy mayhem of Heroic Trio you get a wider range of approaches. That these aren't films as likely to be made right now suggests a rigidity in the business of Hollywood rather than in the genre's ability to make varying approaches work onscreen. I also think there's enough difference in, say, the general warmth with which New York City is portrayed in the Spider-Man movies, the chilly distancing that defines the people of Metropolis in Superman Returns, and the sweaty discombobulation of folks in Dark Knight's Gotham City for a fair round or two of comparisons and contrasts. In general, it's hard for me to indict a cookie-cutting mentality in modern superhero films the year we're getting two summer movies with stone cold killers partnered with daffy blonds.

8. So where does that leave us?
I think Iron Man 2's step back from record opening box office and the mediocre US box-office performance for Kick-Ass indicate the end of the genre's initial, immense grace period, a new act in their development that was probably instigated by the 1-2 punch of the first Iron Man movie and Dark Knight. Those two movies were immense pleasures for their respective, gigantic audiences; it's hard to imagine success for too many movies that don't provide at least a rough equivalent of their thrills -- or movies that don't seem to work that way not being viewed as something most people can see six months later at home. In other words, I can't see a bad Marvel movie made on the relative cheap hitting the $200 million mark opening in February. Not anymore. I also think you're going to see fewer movies deconstructing superheroes like Kick-Ass or even Mystery Men and even fewer like Hancock because there's so little there there. One of the reasons a lot of people grow tired of superheroes as comics readers is because it's a relatively narrow genre that's harder than many to connect to some sort of human experience. Can you think of a fresh take on the superhero formula that would lend itself to film elements of which haven't been seen yet? Not just: "she's actually a sitting judge!" or "he's a middle-aged fat guy" but more-than-surface differences? Really? You're a better man than I am if you can, and you deserve an agent. The future seems like it will favor even more greatly the iconic characters: the half-dozen that penetrate the popular imagination and the twenty or so that have some sort of easy-to-understand concept -- Billionaire In Robot Armor, Space Cop With Magic Ring, Master Magician With A Hole In His Heart -- that also lend themselves to some sort of general, easy expression of a broad theme. I would also bet they'll hit more frequently according to the quality of the pleasures they provide, even the fleeting ones. Especially the fleeting ones.
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