Once a Comic Geek, Always a Comic Geek

Since I laid claim to the movie beat this morning, I wanted to point to Ross Douthat’s post this afternoon on Iron Man 2 and his approving link to Matt Zoller Seitz’s longer jeremiad against superhero movies at Salon. I don’t want to dive too deep into this because I am probably actively repelling traffic at this point, but I felt I had to chime in (below the fold).

The basic thrust of both Ross and Matt’s articles are that superhero movies, due in part to the subject matter, source material and narrative conventions, are inherently limiting (Matt does a good job of contrasting zombie movies to support his point). And as a stand alone, I would agree; superhero movies based on comics have a difficult tightrope to walk to appease the franchise die-hards while roping in new viewers and often end up being somewhat formulaic. But I think there are two separate weaknesses here, specific to Matt and Ross individually.

Taking Matt first, his problem is not with the substance of the stories being told, as his comparison to zombie flicks makes clear (all zombie flicks are exactly the same, all that changes are the locations and the reasons for the zombies). He simply wants the stories told in more interesting ways. Again, this is fair enough as it goes; I want more interesting superhero flicks too. But, I think he glosses the evolution of comic book movies:

Superman (1978)-> Batman (1989)-> X-Men (2000)-> Spiderman (2002)->Batman Begins (2005)

That progression (incorporating the original Superman sequels, the original Batman sequels and the current franchises) represents a pretty significant cinematic evolution of the treatment of superhero characters and source material. Gone are some of the over-produced and over-the-top treatments that marred even the original Superman and Batman films. The two anchor Marvel properties (X-Men and Spiderman) were quantum leaps forward in terms of character development and narrative from even Burton’s original Batman. Batman Begins started reintegrating the superhero universe in a world more like our own. What they all have in common, however, are stories that required some development and offer identifiable personalities and characters. Moreover, the zombie movies that Matt champions, while maybe being more creatively filmed, are much, much worse from a story/narrative point of view (none of the zombie films have the type of protagonist/antagonist relationship seen in Batman/The Dark Knight [Batman-Joker], or X-Men [Professor X-Magneto], or Spiderman 2 [Spidey-Doctor Octopus]). Compared to Matt’s prefered zombie canon, I would choose the Marvel/DC canon, even if the zombie flicks are technically more advanced. Story matters and you can only watch zombies get shredded for so long (regardless of the comedic twists found in Shaun of the Dead).

As for Ross, I think his gripe isn’t so much with superhero movies as with Hollywood more generally. I don’t want to call the National Review’s movie guy naive, but its not like they would start inventing new material if forced out of the comic movie business. We would simply get, based on the trailers I saw before Iron Man 2, action films based on TV series, amusement rides and SNL skits instead. I for one am grateful that the slop we get now is as palatable as it is.

In short, the 1970s are not walking through that door to deliver us from hackish direction, dry writing and visionless decisionmaking. Unfortunately, we are going to be stuck with that until something bigger changes in Hollywood.

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4 Responses to Once a Comic Geek, Always a Comic Geek

  1. Aaron says:

    The evolution of superhero properties tracks well with the evolution of other properties. There’s an initial property with a fan base, which is grown through sequels and transformations. Eventually someone gains control of the source material and is able, for a variety of reasons, to re-frame or re-contextualize the works. This happened negatively for the Star Wars universe, because Lucas is a greedy idiot with a brain-sick child’s sense of storytelling, and it happened successfully for BB because Nolan is … not George Lucas.

    BB was unique in the sense that the property had been so degraded by Joel Schumaker and his bat-suit-with-nipples-lunacy that Nolan was given a wide degree of freedom. That’s a case of the fan base being numerically expanded, yet the hardcore fan base that refuses to accept modification of the source being weakened by such bad handling. The changes Nolan made were so drastic that we got The Dark Knight, which basically was a movie with a superhero mask on, if you can pardon the bad analogy.

    Also, pointing out that Ross Douthat is decades behind a cultural meme (in this case, Hollywood Is Out Of Ideas!) is hardly news.

  2. williamnot says:

    I agree on the Schumaker point, but would also add that there is a difference in reference point as well for the first 4 Batman movies and the last 2. The first four were all somewhat grounded in the original conception of Batman and Gotham (with Schumaker importing more of the 60s campy TV series). The later 2 are based much more on the Dark Knight and Killing Joke era Batman (which ironically enough was occurring just a little before the original Batman movie), so the source material was much grittier and darker.

    I should also add that 300, Sin City, and Watchmen also significantly moved the ball as Matt defined it. I shouldn’t have limited things to just the DC-Marvel universes.

    And yes, Ross is the oldest 30 year old on the planet.

  3. Aaron says:

    But do you think that Nolan would have had the freedom to move to the newer source material if the old source material hadn’t been so f***ed out by the crappy movies? Even the second Batman movie, with DeVito as the Penguin seems (and as far as I can remember, always seemed) pretty … tired.

    And most importantly, do you have any of the Gaimen Sandman series? I’ve only read the first six.

    This conversation has now become boring to everyone but us.

  4. will.i.am.not says:

    That’s probably true. Really only the original Burton movie was any good (it’s taken many hours of therapy for me to admit that Ledger was a better Joker than Nicholson).

    I don’t have any Gaiman. But I really want to get some old school Alan Moore and Frank Miller this summer (it seems like graphic novels are all I really have free time for anymore).

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