My Superhero Problem – And Ours
Comic books, it is safe to say, made me who I am today.
Though I was an unusually literate child, reading above my grade level practically from the time I learned to read, I never enjoyed anything as much as I did superhero comics. I devoured them from my early ’70s childhood up until the early 1990s, when a combination of external factors (women, alcohol, and the need to earn a living) and internal strife (the dawn of the Liefeld Era and the proliferation of X-books) drew me away for a while. I avoided many of the temptations of geek youth; I never saw the appeal of Star Wars or Star Trek, enjoyed Dungeons & Dragons but found most fantasy novels tedious, and had only a passing interest in video games. But superhero comics got their hooks into me early. Even before there was an internet, I immersed myself in the fan scene (God bless you, Fred Hembeck), wrote letters to my favorite titles, bought cheap collectibles, and even wrote my own comics, both original and dismal fanboy spin-offs of existing characters. I had no dog in the Marvel-DC fight; as long as there were two pituitary cases in tights slugging it out, I’d buy it. I still find myself thinking about Batman with a frequency that rivals the way evangelists invoke the name of Jesus.
My disenchantment came gradually, but once it started, it wouldn’t stop. My renewed interest in superhero comics in the early 2000s coincided with two things: the establishment of the internet as the primary means of media communications, and the debut of the first superhero movies of quality. The synergy between the two has been a primary cause of the now-established dominance of geek culture, something I am beginning to view as an absolute negative; taken individually, the preeminence of the internet has stripped us of the ability to pretend that comics fandom isn’t a sewer filled with sexists, racists, and critical standards as calcified as Juggernaut in concrete, while superhero movies have gone from exciting to predictable while eating up more and more studio money, critical praise and rabid popularity. The toxicity of present fandom combined with the disgraceful treatment of creators by the two largest publishers (combined, admittedly, with simple economics) has pretty much driven me away from comics for the second time in my life, and I’m honestly unsure if I ever want to return. Until creators are treated as an essential part of the process, and critical standards rise to the point that it becomes unprofitable to pander to the fanboys’ basest instincts, the medium I loved so much no longer holds much charm for me.
Superhero movies, too, have become deeply problematic, for many of the same reasons. The recent success of the Avengers movie simply spelled out in bold letters some of the creators’ rights issues that have always been present in comics, and have led a brave handful of artists and writers to speak up about the way they are still treated with scorn and condescension even as the characters and ideas they have helped create rake in hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office. The ugly side of fandom, too, is writ large in the arena of cinema; the cultish defense of geek icons manifested itself in particularly nasty ways this year, as nerd bullying reached an absurd tempo when anyone dared to offer a less-than-toadying review of Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises. The level of hype surrounding these and other films was so high as to be alienating, drowning out not only any conversation about non-genre films with small budgets or different aims, but even legitimate critical discussions of superhero movies themselves. The combination of huge profits and a vociferous fan base turned the entire notion of criticism on its ass, replacing it with an echo chamber of ever-escalating rhetoric that reduced both criticism and marketing to duckspeak.
I wrote about the growth and development of the superhero film here, almost ten years ago. While I stand by all of the judgments I made then, and would happily note there were a handful of good superhero movies yet to come, the piece seems quite hopelessly optimistic about the idea that the genre was blossoming into something long-needed and wonderful. While there was still marvelous Spider-Man and X-Men movies yet to come, a charming and appealing Iron Man debut, and two very good Batman films (attributable almost entirely to the strengths of director Christopher Nolan), there was also the horrible, enervating Green Lantern; the tone-deaf mess of Ghost Rider; the utter wreck of the Wolverine solo film; the decline and fall of the X-Men and Spider-Man franchises; the utter botch-jobs of Daredevil and Elektra; and worse (let’s not even mention Catwoman or The Spirit).
A full accounting can be made elsewhere, but more importantly, many of the more dire predictions I made have come true with a vengeance: comic book movies have become the driving force in the medium, with comics themselves being a secondary consideration. The books become more like movies, losing all the unique charms of the format in favor of becoming a farm system for future film deals, while the movies, too, become more like movies, with no attempt at fidelity or even synergy. It’s not a question of being faithful to the stories — indeed, as many superhero films illustrate, too much determination to be exactly like the book can be a hindrance instead of a benefit. It’s more of a question of retaining the qualities that make comics so appealing; precious few have even tried, and only a handful have succeeded. The entire process only encourages fans to think of comics in terms of the movies they will eventually become, and thus it turns fandom into a closed and self-perpetuating loop of self-satisfied fanboys stuck in an endless cycle of media revision. The appeal of the comic-qua-comic fades into a niche market. Movies are made to satisfy licensing deals, with all the artistic quality that implies.
It is for these and other reasons that I’ve avoided seeing a lot of superhero movies for a while. But I backslide, and I worry. I backslide, because despite the clusterfuck it’s become, the world of comics is still important to me. It’s not easy to walk away from something that was so essential to your development, and the massive infusions of cash should mean the possibility of unprecedentedly good work, even though it hasn’t turned out that way. There is no reason the superhero genre shouldn’t be capable of creating a few works of genuine cinematic greatness; it is no more inherently limited a subject than westerns, sci-fi, or any other genre that has occasionally coughed up a masterpiece. And I worry, because while I absolutely believe that some art is worth ignoring altogether, I see the level of talent involved in some of these films and become concerned that I’m dismissing them not based on a sincere belief that I won’t like them, but because of the obnoxious hype and fanboy obfuscation that surrounds them. Is Joss Whedon bewilderingly overpraised? Did Christopher Nolan make one magnificent film that is mistaken for two magnificent films? Are we suffering under a tyranny of sub-adult cinema? Absolutely. Does any of that have anything to do with the individual quality of the superhero movies? With a heavy sigh, I admit: no, it does not.
So, here’s this.
It was, to say the least, surprising when Kenneth Branagh was announced as the director of Thor. Though never exactly an auteur, the man was if nothing else a determined upper-middlebrow who prided himself on his purity as a dispenser of Shakespeare for the people, and had that whiff of British class that made him a bit of a shock as the helmer of a popcorn movie about the silliest Avenger. Still, maybe the choice wasn’t all that shocking after all; I always felt that Branagh was at best a middling interpreter of Shakespeare, prone to unsubtle bombast and thunderous obviousness. Despite his reputation, Branagh was no Welles, no Olivier, not even an Almereyda; he was more of a stolid expensive couch of a director, tut-tutting at the likes of Baz Luhrmann without substantially improving on him. Maybe he’d find his muse in the faux-Shakespearian pompousness of the God of Thunder as interpreted by the House of Ideas.
Sure enough, Thor was…well, it’s wrong to call it characterless, because it was full of characters, although most of them were wasted. It was just a tad generic, which brings me to one of my biggest problems with the superhero/sci-fi epic in the CGI Age: the more computer-generated action there is, the less flavor they have. Since the director — even a non-auteur like Kenneth Branagh — has basically no hand whatsoever in the production of the CGI, it has an impersonal, distant feel. It’s all the same morphing and roaring and blasting. It’s not that it’s bad, as such; the big showdown between Thor and the Destroyer here was quite impressive and exciting. It’s just that it could have been done by anyone. You could have put anyone in charge of the movie and it would have been the same, because it wasn’t directed; it was programmed, by the same people in the same companies using the same software and the same ideas as in all the rest of these movies. It lends the whole proceeding an air of impersonality, and that’s a big mistake in a genre that relies on personalities.
Another stumbling block Thor hit right off the bat was that it seemed, well, badly lit. I don’t want to push this button too hard, because I’m fairly sure this had less to do with the film and more to do with the way I saw it (on Netflix instant), but the opening scenes in Asgard were murkier and darker than anything I’ve seen since the subterranean dank of M. Night Shyamalan’s disastrous adaptation of The Last Airbender. I couldn’t make out what was happening until they finally sent Thor to Earth, which had the benefit of natural light. The sound, too, was pretty abysmal, with the dialogue nearly inaudible but the fight scene volume cranked up to 11; given what these movies are peddling, it’s hard not to think this is deliberate.
There wasn’t much happening story-wise, here, either; those familiar with the arrogant-prince-exiled-to-learn-humility gaffe probably found it awkwardly applied (nobody but Odin seemed to have much trouble with Thor’s behavior, and you could measure the degree to which he changed by the length of an inchworm). During the few times Branagh actually gave the characters some room to breathe, though, the movie’s charms became a bit clearer: the attraction between Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster was genuinely watchable, if a bit short-lived; Idris Elba had his moments, and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki nearly stole the show (and gave the Branagh production its one touch of cod-Shakespearian grandeur) by playing the trickster as a petulant, sniping brat rather than a sneering, Machiavellian conquerer. Sif and the Warriors Three aren’t given much to do, but it’s a treat to see them on screen for old-time comics fans, and they provide someone for Thor to react to in order to shake off his unsuitably modern characterization.
(One other note regarding Sif, Hogun, Fandral and Volstagg: it takes them absolutely forever to get to Earth, making what is otherwise a snappily paced film seem interminable. This happens a lot in action movies where it’s necessary to keep a lot of balls in the air, whether in terms of story or character; at least half the running time of The Two Towers seemed to involve Merry and Pippen trudging the fuck through the forest on top of an ent. Even if it means disposing of fidelity or antagonizing the geek fanbase, directors: get your characters to the goddamn fireworks factory, already.)
Overall, Thor was an acceptable superhero action film; it had some nice character moments, some humor that wasn’t completely oversold, and one terrifically solid action sequence. Unfortunately, it beat us over the head with the fantastical CGI moments, put in at least one action scene too many (and it was the one at the very beginning, which means it blew a lot of goodwill right off the bat), and the visuals were both generic and overbearing — if Branagh retains one distinctive characteristic, it’s his love of pointlessly vertiginous overhead shots which aren’t as spectacular as he thinks they are, but certainly are effective in giving viewers a headache. It lacked bad qualities enough that I can’t rate it a failure, but it also lacked anything good enough to be particularly memorable; I only watched it two hours ago and it’s already beginning to recede from my mind. Whatever else you can say about the God of Thunder, you shouldn’t be able to summarize a movie about him with the word “forgettable”. Branagh could have learned from a reading of Walt Simonson’s stint as the creative force behind Thor: he played up both the bombastic and the bizarre, so even when his stories didn’t make sense, they were unforgettably grand and strange.
My old man, when he was as old as I was when I first started reading comics, owned a copy of Captain America #1. He mentions this every time the subject of comics comes up; I’m not sure if it’s because it’s the only thing he knows about them and can’t think of anything else to say, or if he just enjoys taunting me with the information that when he was seven, his mom threw something in the trash that could have bought me my first house. Anyway, I’ve always had a weakness for Cap, even though he’s one of those characters who never seemed to be handled quite right; when his title was good, it was only okay, and when it was bad, it was terrible. I had reasonable cause to hope that Captain America: The First Avenger would be worthwhile; it was directed by Joe Johnston, a sort of specialist in gauzy Americana who had helmed The Rocketeer over 20 years ago. That film, though not without its flaws, was filled with charm, a well-thought-out visual scheme, and a genuine appreciation for its pulpy origins — all qualities that would aid a Captain America film if left intact.
It certainly starts that way; the scene where our hero is discovered frozen in ice after seven decades is well-done and genuinely creepy, the introduction of the Red Skull is quite promising as nobody projects utterly confident menace like Hugo Weaving (nice cheap shot at Raiders of the Lost Ark there, too), and Johnston (and set designer Rick Heinrichs) show us a WWII-era New York that isn’t exactly accurate, but looks like the kind of WWII-era New York you’d see in comic books. Which is, difficult as it seems for most such movies to figure out, exactly what they should be striving for. I was less distracted than some viewers by the CGI grafting of Chris Evans’ head on a marathon runner’s body early on in the film; more of a distraction was Evans’ mediocre acting, which is especially regrettable as the script actually have him something to do: you really got to feel not only his abandoned, reckless urgency to get into the war, but what a piece of shit he felt like for his body’s betrayal of his desires, and how his act is a selfish and selfless one at the same time. (There’s a moment where he watches a newsreel where a generic Little Timmy pitches in on a scrap metal drive, and Evans looks downright pissy, like the kid let all the air out of his tires.) It’s also nice to see Sebastian Stan, so appealingly louche in the late, lamented Kings, getting some work as Bucky, and the reversal of their circumstances makes for some good character moments.
Johnston and his screenwriters also do a nice job of populating the film with little easter eggs for longtime fans without getting too cutesy or obvious; the first appearance of Arnim Zola is a clever visual bit that rewards readers without indulging in what would be, in context, an absurdity. This is a key to making films that are successful as films in the superhero genre; slavish fidelity to the source material rigidifies and confines them, even calls into question the point of making them, but a complete disregard for it robs it of its point and alienates its core audience. A superhero movie worth its salt has to oblige its source material, even adore it, while remembering its strengths as a film. And, unlike most of the films on the Marvel side of the equation, Captain America at least makes an attempt (largely driven by Stanley Tucci’s Dr. Erskine) to project its conflict into a moral framework, although one with as little ambiguity and struggle as most WWII films made in America.
Captain America gets worse as it gets longer. I’m not normally opposed to tone-setting, but there’s not much there here, and over the space of two hours, a plot this sparse starts to seem like padding rather than mood-building. It still has plenty of appeal, and Johnston’s crew knows how to stage a fight scene (a quality inexplicably lacking in far too many contemporary action films), but it starts to run out of gas in its middle passage, which makes the big tragedies and confrontations still to come a long time in coming. Too much delay makes a viewer far more willing to notice flaws that would otherwise be all too easy to ignore. There are plenty of treats along the way, and certain set-pieces, starting with the Red Skull’s Wagnerian aerie, that prove memorable enough to make me think the movie will prove re-watchable, which is a bit of a miracle for a superhero movie. It’s nothing like the triumph of the first two Spider-Man films, but until it starts to drift in the second hour, it’s got a color all its own.
Neither of these movies did much to restore my confidence in the direction superhero movies are taking. The first was formulaic and ultimately disposable, wasting its characters by giving them no breathing room and smothering them in generic CGI overkill; the second started out with promise, but let itself go on too long and ultimately succumbed to what I fear may be inherent limitations of the genre. Both contain good performances, but neither contain great ones, and only the second aspires to a distinctive look or feel. They are also part of some marketing concoction called the “Marvel Cinematic Universe”, which again unearths a specific disadvantage: technical requirements and a timeframe measured in years (as opposed to the weeks of television or the months of comics) will always dampen the immediacy that’s required to sustain the continuity and character arcs that work so well in those other formats. I know these films are leading me to The Avengers, but I don’t much care. What works in media with consistent creative teams will not work here. Taken as individual films, Thor was a mild disappointment and Captain America was a mostly pleasant diversion; and there’s nothing wrong with either of those things. But taken for what they represent — the dominant mode of Hollywood filmmaking today — it’s easy to see them as part of the problem.