Wide-ranging discussion of film topics, mainstream and obscure, as well as humorous commentary. Your projectionist: Brad Weismann.
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
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.