Friday, February 25, 2022

Defending the Invincible


What’s wrong with the superhero film?

 As of this writing, Spiderman: No Way Home is the third highest grossing domestic box office film in history. Of the two positions in front of it in that category, one is occupied by Avengers: Endgame. Superhero movies are staggeringly popular, crossing demographic boundaries in a single bound. Yet they receive little love from some critics and filmmakers, and do not achieve the awards recognition that “serious” films do (except in technical areas – all those nifty special effects!).

 So what is the problem? Listen to what these respected director have to say:

 Denis Villeneuve: “Perhaps the problem is that we are in front of too many Marvel movies that are nothing more than a ‘cut and paste’ of others. Perhaps these types of movies have turned us into zombies a bit . . . “

 Martin Scorcese: “Many of the elements that define cinema as I know it are there in Marvel pictures. What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk. The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes. . . .  The situation, sadly, is that we now have two separate fields: There’s worldwide audiovisual entertainment, and there’s cinema.”

 Ken Loach”: They’re made as commodities . . . like hamburgers . . . It’s about making a commodity which will make profit for a big corporation – they’re a cynical exercise. They’re a market exercise and it has nothing to do with the art of cinema.”

 Ridley Scott: “****ing boring as ****.”

 Francis Ford Coppola: “A Marvel picture is one prototype movie that is made over and over and over and over and over again to look different.”

 David Cronenberg: “A superhero movie, by definition, you know, it’s comic book. It’s for kids. It’s adolescent at its core.”

 Alejandro G. Inarritu: “They have been poison, this cultural genocide, because the audience is so overexposed to plot and explosions and shit that doesn’t mean nothing about the experience of being human.”

 Despite their popularity, superhero movies are consigned to the cultural ghetto – a well-heeled one, to be sure. Public and critical opinion appear poles apart on this subject. Can we take them seriously? It’s difficult to get a grip on something you don’t take seriously. Where do these animosities come from? How valid are these arguments?

 First, take into account the long-standing cultural bias in America against the source material -- comic books. The stereotypical perception has been that comics’ primary appeal is to children and semi-literates. The rise of the ‘graphic novel” movement has budged that critical estimation a bit, but not by much. To art lovers, it must be kid stuff. This is nothing new --

 “Of all the lively arts, the Comic Strip is the most despised, and with the exception of the movies, the most popular.” Gilbert Seldes, The Seven Lively Arts, 1924

 Then there is an understandable envy about the amount of financing and resources that are dedicated to superhero projects, movies that are part of a larger franchise and take hundreds of millions of dollars and the participation of thousands to create. Given the struggles serious directors go through to get what they need to make their films, the ease with which Hollywood industrial cinema constructs its superhero films must be enraging.

 The thing to remember is that, as titanic as the production values are, we are still just talking about genre film. The superhero film is the dominant genre of the day, just as film noir, the screwball comedy, and the Western were in their respective heydays. Superhero films are of a piece: populated by unambiguous, costumed heroes and villains, and featuring conflict resolution through violent action. They are, in other words, melodramas (with explosions and wild, garish visual effects). Melodramas do not reward introspection. Its characters are flat and do not change.

 There is nothing wrong with genre – the bulk of genre films can be quite dull, mired in convention, indistinguishable from the rest. (Scorsese has made his share of genre films, and later ones such as The Departed and The Irishman show signs of creative fatigue. Also he’s made his comic book film – his 2011 Hugo was based on the illustrated novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret.) A few exceptional genre films transcend the category and achieve higher status at a later date. We are too early in the superhero genre boom to make that evaluation. In fact, the wide popularity of the superhero film could peter out at any time. The sheer volume of them will begin to wear out the average moviegoer’s interest, and another as-yet unknown dominating genre will take its place.

 These are commercial films, meant only to entertain. They are franchise films, which maintain iconic characters that are treated as brands, with the attendant issues of creative control. But to dismiss the phenomenon is to miss out on a chance to extract meaning from it, juvenile though its content may be.


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