Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Super Over-Reach

Joe Queenan criticizes Hollywood for the proliferation of Superhero movies.  While there are some decent points buried in the piece, the article is pretty contradictory and also overlooks some key points. 

Are there too many superhero movies today?  Probably.  The studios realized that this stuff sells worldwide (the Chinese like 'em), and they realized they needed to keep putting out movies to keep the rights (hence the reboots of Spider-man and Superman).  But the lamentation here reminds me of the old "Star Wars" killed the movie industry stuff.  Yes, there is a desire to gamble on the big profits of an Avengers rather than spend less money on a mid-budget complex tale of some kind.  But independent movies still exist, and Hollywood is always swinging to the latest trend like a web-slinger, so I am not so worried.  Of course, the funny thing is that the biggest franchise over the past decade is not based on comic books but book books--Harry Potter.

Anyhow, it is the case that movies get played out--that the first second series of Batman movies with Michael Keaton started to suck.  Oops.  The new Dark Knight peaked with the second movie, as Heath Ledger's Joker distracted folks from the tremendous plot holes better than Bane did in the third movie.  The first Spider-man series peaked again with the second and then the third was not so good.

But sometimes there is progress, as the Hulk movies were not very good, but the Hulk in Avengers was pretty terrific.  Queenan is wrong about Captain America and the Avengers--both movies were fun and interesting and pretty darned coherent, unlike his post, which travels all over the place.  And then he gets, um, stupid:

"All superheroes are Republicans" he says.  Really?  Are the X-Men Republicans?  Given that the comic books and the movies contain heaps of parables/metaphors/parallels to gay rights struggles, fights against racism and pleas for tolerance, they don't appear that Republican.  Tony Stark is a defense contractor that realizes his sins and develops remorse.

Yes, superhero movies have problems with women.  And that does come from the comic books. The problem is not comic book buyers "may not even be interested in girls. They are certainly not interested in girls with superpowers."  Have you seen the comic book art?   I was trying to find a picture of Jean Grey as the Phoenix the other day, but it was difficult as nearly all of the pics emphasize her breasts to the point of being nearly porn (see to the right).  But there are also positive female role
models in the comic books and in some of the movies: Storm, Kitty Pryde and Rogue in the X-Men books (and a bit less so in the movies), Black Widow in the movies and heaps of women in the Avengers books...  The real problem is that people have been messing up the making of a Wonder Woman movie that would help ameliorate the bias, and that does speak to Hollywood's problems.  But we can now sell movies in the world with super female protagonists: Lara Croft to name the most obvious case.  Hunger Games is also pretty successful.

"Superhero movies are made for a society that has basically given up."  Really?  X-Men and Spider-man (the first series) started before 9/11 and before the financial crash.  Many of these movies were made in the boom times before 2008, so the timing is just a bit strange.

Queenan contradicts himself towards the end:
it would be a mistake to say that all superhero movies are the same. The Dark Knight movies are dark. The Iron Man movies are funny. The Hulk movies are goofy. The X-Men movies are complicated. Captain America was camp, Thor a bit silly, The Avengers sillier still. The Spider-Man movies are closest to conventional movies, placing ordinary people in difficult situations. The Spider-Man movies also feature a romance that seems quite believable, unlike Iron Man.

 Exactly.  Trying to impose a meta-narrative on this is just as silly as the costumes these folks wear (remember George Clooney's Bat-nipples?).  The real meta-narrative is this: action movies sell well around the world as the action does not need dubbing/translation.  Superheroes are bigger action movies, so blame the Chinese for buying the stuff and for Hollywood focusing on ... trying to make money.  The joy of the 21st century is that people can make their own movies and disseminate them without spending hundreds of millions of dollars.  The internet does have a magic way of helping quality get out there.  And that gets to a second reason why the big action movies will be with us for a while--they work best on the big screens.  Other kinds of movies can be downloaded and watched at home.  My family tends to save its movie money for those movies that look best on the big screens and now find alternatives to Blockbuster to catch the smaller ones.

I agree that we can and should over-intellectualize the movies--my blog is chock full of playing with the ideas in these movies and seeing what they say about our concepts and vice versa.  I just don't want to impose a false view that all of the stuff is the same.  Just like any era in the movies, there is good stuff and bad stuff, and some of the good stuff does not sell and some of the bad stuff does.

And, yes, I was interviewed yesterday for a CBC show that will be on today about my reactions to this article.  My guess is that my appearance will be far shorter than this blog post.

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