Super-Same?

I read with eager interest both Matt Zoller Seitz and Tim Wainwright’s contributions to a back and forth on the merits (or lack thereof) of current superhero films. Matt’s original essay, appearing on Rogerebert.com, argues that the current state of the superhero film is one of stagnation and creative cop-outs. Specifically, Matt bemoans how most superhero movies approach their action sequences.  

For Matt, these issues plague so many superhero films that the whole genre feels like a packaged deal. Indeed, audiences are rendered incapable of demanding higher quality by studios that are proficient at “conditioning” them to expect the same ole thing. Speaking of the studios, Matt says

 Their goal is to minimize financial risk and avoid a scenario in which viewers buy a ticket for the latest Marvel picture and get something substantially different from what they’ve been conditioned to expect. The studios don’t want another Ang LeeHulk” (a Freudian psychodrama with split-screen imagery that was truly strange and special but didn’t really work). They want “The Avengers.” If that’s not possible, they’ll settle for “Iron Man 2,” a mostly terrible and trashy film that’s intermittently funny and asks almost nothing of the viewer and that fits into a much larger puzzle made entirely of square pieces. 

 

Writing at The Atlantic, Tim Wainwright accepts that superhero films are fighting formula-ism. But he makes an interesting case that the genre is still very young and has yet to mature. If we accept the premise, then it follows that it would be wiser to watch and wait than accuse superhero blockbusters of choking artistic cinema. 

It seems that to get genre fare that approaches art, expect to wade through a lot of trashy entertainment. The quality and range of the western and zombie canons probably have little to do with the inherent crudity of genre, and a lot to do with having been around long enough to offer opportunities for different generations and artists to add their own touch…

And thinking about how few superhero movies there are, and how much less time the genre has had onscreen, actually suggests that Marvel’s specific achievements are critically undervalued. Consider how, out of the eight Avengers-related movies, none have scored under 65 percent on Rotten Tomatoes (yes, a metric to regard with caution). Most are highly regarded by critics and fans alike, and The Avengers was hailed as a near-perfect PG-13 blockbuster action movie. This is especially impressive given that 3D and CGI technology is still in the pioneering phase (remember, we’re only five years out from Avatar).

 

I offer a few observations:

1) It seems that we need to clarify what exactly is the issue. Seitz begins his essay discussing the predictable and bombastic cinematography of most comic book action scenes. But he switches gears towards second half and wonders about the effect of studios on manufacturing audience expectations through consumerism. In my view, the second question is a waste of time. Studying the effect of big corporation-produced consumer products on sociological trends is fascinating, no doubt, but it really doesn’t say anything about the movies. 

2) The critic vs audience dynamic is clearly at play here. Wainwright makes a point of questioning whether the artistic valuations of the popular audience will ever align with those of them that “search for true beauty for a living.” Pathos aside, I think this is probably true but unfortunate. There’s a reason that “The Godfather” and “Gone With the Wind” are legendary titles; they fuse together the values of artistry and  narrative elevation that the medium of film strives for every time a motion picture is played. But does “There Will Be Blood” do that? What about “Pirates of the Caribbean”? Is it possible that a movie can be worth the audience’s time even if it is guilty of pretentious philosophizing or mindless adventure music? I think so. 

3) The troubles with the generic-ness of current comic book fare are not actually unique to this genre. Seitz compares superhero movies unfavorably to zombie films, as an example of how a genre film can show creativity and humanity without changing its basic set up. Let’s consider however war films. In 1998 Saving Private Ryan was the top grossing movie and Janusz Kaminski’s hand-held, chaotic cinematography won the Oscar. What happened? A slew of similarly looking and sounding war pictures released in the following years. There was some notable divergence, but Spielberg and Kaminski’s thumbprints were highly evident. I take this as an example not of the lack of passionate filmmaking within superhero pictures, but of the general tendency for filmmakers to follow trends. The camerawork in “Ryan” was itself influenced by what Kaminski had done 5 years earlier for “Schindler’s List.” I don’t think its necessary to make every industry repetition an example of cinematic apathy. 

I see Wainwright’s point in the relative novelty of the superhero film, but I think it is worth pointing out that from 2002-2012, 40% of the top grossing yearly movies were comic book-based. That’s an amazing market share, but like everyone who is marginally familiar with Hollywood knows, the box office is a trend driven industry. Its every bit as likely that a new, exciting, artistically excellent kind of picture will set records in the coming years. And, of course, will be given a seemingly infinite number of sequels. 

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