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False Heroes: Comic Book Movies and a Response to The New York Times Article By Film Critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis

False Heroes: Comic Book Movies and a Response to The New York Times Article By Film Critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis

The New York Times ran an article entitled “Super-Dreams Of an Alternate World Order” by film critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott bemoaning the rise to dominance of the comic book movie. In their own words it has become  “A Hollywood Staple.” While I agreed with the basic premise of the article I don’t feel the subtext of this article was answered, namely: “What is it selling?” In the answer I think we will find out why both lovers and haters of the genre are so frustrated as well as the reason behind the record success.

Dargis and Scott are spot on when they diagnosed the reason for the success of movies like The Avengers, which broke the opening weekend box-office record this summer and tied for the fastest movie to gross 1 billion dollars. The marketing campaign had the effect napalm has in a forest. In general the all-out advertising blitz seen recently with movies like John Carter and Prometheus has left me to wonder what kind of money are the studios putting down? It seems like enough to make another movie. Marketing is only one facet of the issue though. As Dargis points out, there are only six companies that control TV, radio, and movies. That is a huge concentration of power. The culprit behind all of the issues discussed in The New York Times article and the ones I will be dissecting stem from this fact. They are the world order creating “super-dreams.” It’s very plain to see which comic movies are groomed for success. If we compare Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance to The Avengers it’s not even close. The Ghost Rider movie was made in a foreign country and managed to be worse than the first which was already marginal. The Avengers had tie-ins manifesting over years with two Iron Man movies, two Hulk movies, as well as Captain America and Thor. If a person liked any or all of these movies, how could the movie not kill at the box office? That’s seven movies worth of fans.

That was a genius move on behalf of Marvel Studios, because if there is one thing that is notorious in the history of comic-book movie-making, it is that the creators refuse to plan ahead until they see the returns first. If we look at the run on X-Men and Spider Man, which ushered in this new era of comic book movies, it’s very plain to see that the sequels were not planned in advance. Each movie seemed worse. In the case of Spider Man, they became pigeon-holed by their character development choices. Legendary stories like the tragic death of Gwen Stacy, a major event that shaped Peter Parker’s life had to be completely reworked so that it was Mary Jane in the same situation. But she has to live because she does and its a PG movie but that’s another problem we’ll get into later.

Eventually you end up with Spider Man 3 and like that time your NES froze you have to hit reset, which is exactly what Marvel/Disney is doing. Yes, Disney and Marvel merged, to come back to Dargis’ point. Super companies like this can advertise ad nauseum because they own the TV station and the newspaper that put out the ads. It’s an endless cycle. But what has been lost in this discussion is, what is for me, the crux of the frustration for the dim creativity we see at the box-office. What do any of these movies have to do with comic books? Seriously, beyond the hoarding of characters and properties I see very little comic book in these movies. Dargis and Scott like every critic I’ve ever read share the same affliction. In fact, I would wager that most of the movie-going audience does as well, which is why they can accept some of the drivel. They have no idea where this stuff came from.

Let’s look at the adaptation issue first. Making a movie based on a comic book is inherently difficult. First of all the serialized nature of the stories has always made me think that it is a format better suited for television. As I said earlier, diminishing sequels are usually the result of poor planning. But perhaps the greatest issue when considering adapting a comic book comes from the material itself. Recreating the look or even the material of a costume, which is in essence a character apart from the person underneath it is incredibly difficult. The X-Men franchise opted for a complete revamp that eventually bled into the comics. That didn’t go over too well. Also until fairly recently, the technology didn’t exist to even portray these characters accurately. Could you imagine filming The Human Torch with real fire? Ouch and expensive.

But recent advances in technology and costuming have solved most of these issues. Iron Man for example, could not be any better. I can live with the Captain America costume despite it being too futuristic for WWII, because I couldn’t help but think damn Red Skull looks sick. But even if you have the look and the passion to create an authentic vision there is still no guarantee that it will be good. Daredevil (which admittedly didn’t have the look) is the classic example. That movie was a labor of love and turned out terrible. When you think about how Daredevil helped resurrect Marvel Comics in the early 2000’s with the work Kevin Smith did on the Marvel Knights imprint along with Joe Quesada, the movie should have slayed. Ben Affleck wrote the introduction to the Guardian Devil TPB and was a fan. Kevin Smith makes movies and brought comic books back from the dead…on Daredevil, a B or C tier hero. Not only that, but the movie drew heavily from Frank Miller’s legendary run on the character in the 1980’s. When I watched that movie it was like they flushed it all down the toilet. There was easily three movies worth of material within the Frank Miller stories. They used none of it, save for the names of these characters: Daredevil, Elektra, Kingpin, and Bullseye who was ruined more than anything I’ve ever seen aside from the ice skating scene in Batman and Robin. That scene did more damage to ice skating than Tonya Harding or a hockey lockout ever could.

Dargis and Scott are right to point out that our basic love of these heroes stems from a deep affinity for their archetypal portrayal of the values we hold paramount, like truth, justice, and equality. Adapting these virtues should be a cakewalk but as Dargis and Scott  point out, the huge returns these movies create are not necessarily indicative of those mores. However good vs. evil is what these movies typically boil down to and now we come to the most egregious problem with the comic book movie: namely that all nuance of the source material has been stripped for mass market appeal. I have to fundamentally disagree with Dargis and Scott on their analysis of this aspect. In fact both their arguments came across as off-target as their ire started to come back across at the comic book fan. As A.O. Scott writes:

“What defensive fans fail or refuse to grasp is that they have won the argument. Far from being and underdog genre defended by a scrappy band of cultural renegades, the superhero spectacle represents a staggering concentration of commercial, corporate power.”

I think that the last part of this statement rings true. The concentration of power has produced results, but Scott proclaims that no one can argue with a billion dollars in profits. Actually I can. How long did it take Avengers comics to reach that mark? Has it even reached it? The audience watching these movies is much wider. Local comic shops would love for people to exit the theater and head straight for their store. They just don’t. There might be an initial bump in sales but that fades. It’s part of the long-standing boom and bust cycle of the comic book medium. If we look at the X-Men movie franchise, at the time President of Marvel Bill Jemas remarked that he couldn’t understand the complicated tangle of storylines of the title’s various books. To fall in line with the imagery of the movie and to attract movie-gowers to the comics, everyone got the new leathery uniforms and the number of titles was condensed. This aggravated fans who were forced to live with it until the movies faded from consciousness and the comics could hit reset.

The first part of Scott’s statement is just wrong. Comic book fans didn’t win any argument. They live with these things because this is what is presented to them. It’s like being a Mets and Buffalo Bills fan: I’ve just had to learn to live with disappointment as they consistently suck. The fact that Spider Man is a household name and has a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is not a mark of victory. If anything, the Spider Man movies prove that the makers care little about pleasing comic book fans. In many ways they can’t because they have to market the movie to every age possible. Could you imagine what would have happened if Spider Man accidentally killed Gwen Stacy by snapping her neck as he tried to save her from the Green Goblin? Would the parent of an 8 year old accept that? Thematically it was a brilliant moment in the comic. The Green Goblin throws Gwen from the George Washington Bridge and Peter Parker tries to save her but the impact from the shock of “webbing” Gwen snapped her neck and killed her. The guilt caused by his costumed escapades and the inherent danger that being Spider Man placed on his friends and family, forced Peter Parker to examine his uncle’s words one more time: “With great power comes great responsibility.” The second movie tried to play this card but all of the meaning was lost. Really this is the end of adolescence, yet in the third movie we see emo Peter Parker acting douchey and not at all responsible.

Moments of seminal importance are rarely seen in a summer blockbuster designed to preserve the “American Eden” as Dargis proclaims. Based on their own arguments about the consolidation of power and the need to sell tickets to feed the machine, how can you expect that type of candid, brutal reality, that heroes don’t always win. The authors of this article both missed another critical distinction here between print and the movie. Instead they placed blame towards the fans themselves.

“Comic book fans need to feel perpetually beleaguered and disenfranchised, marginalized by phantom elites who want to confiscate their hard-won pleasures. And this resentment finds its way into the stories themselves, expressed either as glowering self-pity or bullying machismo.”

A.O. Scott is completely lacking in comprehension here. Who do you think reads comic books? Answer: the beleaguered and disenfranchised. It’s cool to like playing with your Hot Wheels when you are a kid. But eventually you get a real car and the Hot Wheels get put in a box in the basement. It’s not okay to get a real car and put on a cape and a mask and make menacing faces. At that point, it’s not the fact she won’t go to the prom with you, rather it will be the trip to the asylum that does you in. And who are these comic book heroes anyway? Well they are usually the marginalized. The reason you find that the movies aren’t very comical, is because they aren’t comedies. Usually they are steeped in tragedy. Partially I have to blame the image of Superman and Smallville, which Dargis describes as an Eden in America. Yeah it is a snap shot of Americana, and he is an iconic figure clad in red and blue, but how did he get there? Oh yeah, his planet exploded leaving him as the sole survivor of his race on a foreign world that didn’t understand him and feared his power. Only because of the compassion of his adoptive parents and his friends did he adjust to that reality and become the hero capable of standing up the machinations of the truly power mad like Lex Luthor.

And if Smallville is Eden than Gotham is the sin of Las Vegas, the government corruption of Chicago, and the crime of 1980’s New York City. I had to laugh at the fact that there are people who think these movies are dark. Even the Nolan Batman movies are loaded with comedic moments to break the tension as every comic book movie that comes out is. I just can’t imagine Frank Miller’s Batman appearing on a big screen, beating a guy to a pulp only to have a cop say freeze, you’re under arrest for crippling that man. Batman of course doesn’t respond in a visible way, but in his mind he thinks, “He’s young. He’ll learn to walk again.” It just isn’t going to happen on a big screen. Because here is the underlying principle behind Batman: he’s crazy. He saw his parents murdered in front of him and “swore an oath to rid the city of the crime that took his parents lives.” He didn’t become a lawyer or a judge or a cop. Instead Bruce Wayne took the thing that frightened him the most as a child and adopted it as his visage so he could scare the living crap out of anyone who tried to terrorize his city.

Protecting The American Way has rarely been the focus of most comics. It’s mainly been window-dressing or at the very least a prism to view our problems because life is more complicated. That is in part why comic books have been attacked at various points in its history. As Scott pointed out: “Elite opinion regarded comic books as juvenile, disreputable, even dangerous.” Often, comic books have been a medium that tackled injustice when few did. Because it is “fringe” entertainment for the “disenfranchised” it proved to be a perfect fit for these stories and readers naturally gravitated toward it. X-Men was and is completely dedicated to the idea of social equality in the face of those who suppress it. Part of the reason Scott and Ta-Hehisi Coates who wrote an Op-Ed on X-Men: First Class were perplexed that the “film noticeably refrained from connecting its chronicle of prejudice…in post-war America to the contemporaneous civil rights movement” is because they are the metaphor for that. I understand their argument that it didn’t make a direct link, but again why would a studio who wants to make money alienate the entire south of The United States? Either they will get it or they won’t. It’s actually quite a genius way to get racists to realize they are dumb. What X-Men fan hates Wolverine or Storm, a Canadian who’s obviously a socialist with his free health care and Storm who is well, from Africa? Oh wait, Wolverine has awesome claws that go “snikt” and Storm controls the weather. Pretty much impossible to hate someone for that regardless of their anti-American background.

While the movies often downplay these origins, ignoring them completely in favor of a flashy and condensed for time versions or because they hired Halle Berry, the implications remain for those who care. You just have to dig deeper as these movies are intended not to offend anyone so the money can flow more freely. For this reason I didn’t understand Manhola Dargis’ complaint that:

“the movie superhero remains stuck in pre-feminist, pre-civil rights logic that dictates that a bunch of white dudes, as in The Avengers, will save the world for the grateful multiracial, multicultural multitudes. What a bunch of super-nonsense.”

Yikes. This an egregious over-reaction. I understand a certain level of frustration, but as Scott proclaimed earlier they are really just giving the public what they want. In the case of The Avengers, Scarlett Johansson has received much of the flack for being the token femme fatale. But in reality the choice of having the Black Widow be a member of the Avengers, something that didn’t happen until years after they were created, was the more “feminist” choice. The quintessential female member of The Avengers is the Scarlet Witch, who wears red lingerie and has a less “manly” power: probability. I say less manly because it isn’t “Hulk Smash” or Captain America throwing his shield. Actually her powers reach such a level that she alters the entire Marvel Universe. But in lieu of magic math lasers a more visceral power was chosen. So the choice was made to add a gal who can kick but along side the boys. Red panties and a cape out, black leather one piece you’re in. The modern woman doesn’t take your garbage with out a roundhouse to your face and she doesn’t wear underwear like that pansy Superman. The tragedy isn’t the choice to use Black Widow but rather that her entire back story was stripped away to make an action girl. Then again the USSR doesn’t exist anymore and her defection wouldn’t make sense to the tweens who think USSR (pronounced “user”) is a new drug the trailer park chemists make.

Of course the fact that Nick Fury was played by Samuel L. Jackson also escaped the purview of Dargis. Nick Fury wasn’t originally black. This change came about when the Ultimate Universe was created in the early 2000’s. I can only imagine Marvel was making some kind of statement with this. It must have been pretty important though if they decided to put it in their $220 million movie.  So it’s not all about “white dudes” despite the red states’ cries otherwise. It’s also about green dudes. It’s really the stereotyping of the genre that bothered me with the article. If I were to believe this article, comic book fans are raging, elitist, power-hungry white child men. Raging and elitist I’ll give you as anyone who has ever frequented a comic book store and heard some of the arguments that break out can attest to. But that’s usually a question like: Who’s stronger Super Man or Hyperion? But attaching a mantle of actual elitism is ridiculous. Comic book fans have no power. Our favorite titles come and go like a Joss Whedon show on Fox.

Furthermore, show me one genre of anything where a female or black sub-character gets a stand alone series and becomes a mainstay like Elektra or Black Panther. Show me one genre where they get to be heroes every month when their title drops. Show me a genre where female characters like Jean Grey can be the most powerful person in the universe. There is no other genre that can even come close to the type of egalitarianism that is a hallmark of our American comic book tradition. That’s the real shame of the comic book movie. They took that spirit and sold it in a blister pack at 200% mark up so they could sell you a cup of soda, never stopping to think hey, maybe we should treat this material like a treasure instead of profit.

I’m not mad at Manhola Dargis and A.O. Scott for ripping this mockery of an industry. I’m disappointed that they started with the real culprits, the studios, and then turned it on the fans, like we “wanted this.” The irony was not lost on me that the entire back page of their article was an ad for the new Spider Man movie. Comic books on film have come and gone since the Christopher Reeves Superman which busted, to Tim Burton’s Batman, which was awesome and Joel Schumacher’s which was garbage and ruined the genre in the 90’s. Then we had the revival in the 2000’s when the studios merged with the actual comic book companies and finally realized that if you put out a product with even a minimal amount of quality it can make money and occasionally huge money. But it has to be carefully choreographed and homogenized so that it fits through the narrow straw of unforgiving and terribly dull American expectations. I imagine that’s why a steady diet of explosions while flipping in slow motion go over so well. That can’t offend anyone’s sensibilities unless you’re The Flash. Then again, he isn’t real anyway.

I still maintain that the best comic book movie ever made is the first ten minutes of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman in which we see a robbery unfold as Batman stalks the thieves to a roof top. He could easily end their miserable lives but instead he holds this criminal off the roof as he begs Batman not to kill him. Batman responds, “I’m not going to kill you. I want you to do me a favor. I want you to tell all your friends about me.” The criminal cries out “Who the hell are you?” The response: “I’m Batman.” That is it. That is the entire essence of the character. No fake modulated voice or throat straining screams as the Bale Batman relies on for intimidation. No, Batman is very calm and collected and maybe insane as he jumps off of the roof and disappears into the night. We may never see anything like that again because the modern comic book movie is no different than any other modern day summer blockbuster. They all mostly follow the same formula and that equation ends with dollar signs.

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