Just When Things Were Getting Interesting: The Premature Death of the Superhero Genre

The Premature Death of The Superhero Movie

One of the pains, or sometimes a benefit of film criticism is keeping up with other critics and taking in their suggestions. Not wishing to ruffle feathers (at least at this point), I have noticed more than a few film critics saying enough is enough regarding the “superhero” movie genre. The often meaningless aesthetics of these big budget monsters is blamed on being based too strongly on comic books. But does this complaint stand up?

Some biography is needed. I began reading (not collecting) comics fairly late, around the age of thirteen, in the early 1990s. It, literally, was the best and worst of times as some of the best comics were being produced, sold at a fairly good price, and the range was amazing from Vertigo to traditional superhero comics. I was a fan before comics became a money making venture for the studios. I can still remember having to explain what I saw in comics and why they were worth reading.

The simple fact is that few to no film critics actually read, much less understand the comic book format and understand its problems and potentials as a story-telling medium. Actually, very few actors actually read and understand comic books either. This is not to say that had the film industry known what it was adapting things might have turned out better.

Yet the fact is that we’re dealing with a default case. Few to none of the rising filmmakers and certainly not those in power are going to take truckloads of comics home and deeply study them. To be sure, it’s obvious that Nolan and a few others have, at the very least, perused some of the better graphic novels. But this is like watching Psycho and thinking it provides a solid understanding of all Hitchcock films. It would be pointless to argue the strong case for comic book films. Most have been either only mildly good or absolutely horrendous. Yet as a comic book fan and being able to compare easily many of the stories plundered, the issue rests squarely on the shoulders of the filmmakers who seem to have no empathy and even less interest in getting these stories right. Why then the hostility by critics to comic books?

Part of this is, as I have tried to indicate, simple sheer ignorance. The real reason is the tendency, as always, to confuse form and content. The content of many comics is melodramatic. The sudden gaining of powers, apocalyptic battles, and so on. But the form, as any reader of Alan Moore can testify, is very vibrant, loose, and remains open to many wonderful permutations.

Returning to films, someone seeing Kubrick’s The Shining might be disappointed it really isn’t a “horror” film in the usual sense. The story, on the surface, is “about” a man set on killing his family. It’s horrendous stuff. The movie is really about the process of Jack Torrance’s madness. Most critics, like most people, operate by the Michael Bay principle that unless something is COMPLETELY SPELLED OUT, it doesn’t exist.

I would take a very radical position in saying that a real comic book movie has yet to be made. There have been a lot of films using the appearance and theatrics of super heroes, but almost none that tap into the very real and powerful mythologies and stories a Mike Mignola or Grant Morrison work has achieved. Yet just because – like that rare beast, a great comedy – there have been almost no good comic book movies to point to doesn’t mean they don’t exist. It just means the people who ought to be making them haven’t been given a shot at doing so.

Just why this should be so is, frankly, a deep mystery. David Fincher starting out as a director of music videos didn’t prevent him from making a good film. Nor did Kubrick’s background in photography or Lynch’s background in painting prevent them from being successful filmmakers. Why have comics been so unlucky?

There are lots and lots of complex historical reasons as to why in America, Britain, and Canada as opposed to Japan and continental Europe; comics have been forced into a rather modest category of juvenile literature. Suffice to say, like horror before it, the comic book genre will have to put up with a good deal more of failed experiments before a solid foundational effort like Carpenter’s Halloween can set the stage for better works. And, unfortunately, that is the problem. Time is necessary for people with a genuine appreciation of the medium to mature and step forward. Given the uneven record so far, it will take a while indeed before comics should gain critical respect.

One should distinguish between not too-badly-done comic book movies and good ones, but the sad fact is that up until now, all we’ve had are comic-book-movies-made-by-people-totally-uniformed-as-to-what-comics-are. That’s a mouthful, but it needs to be said. Will creators who have actually read more than a few obligatory issues of Batman do better than their predecessors? The argument I have tried to press is simply this: let’s wait and then pass judgment. Though, admittedly, we might be waiting awhile.

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