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.