On Hollywood Passing Me By and Not Even Waving
July 17, 2014
I am the wrong person to review the current wave of superhero movies. I say this not because I haven’t seen many of them or because I was not a fan of comic book growing up. Quite the opposite. Rare was there a week in my youth when I didn’t make a weekly pilgrimage to the local comic book store, hoping the secure the latest New Mutants and X-Men comic books. I bought every comic book even remotely connected to DC’s legendary series Crisis on Infinite Earths and Marvel’s groundbreaking equivalent The Secret Wars, and I was one of many that ran as fast as I could to find out whether Robin, alias Jason Todd, had survived the Joker’s attempt on his life. I was even a fan of such comics as Elfquest, Zot, and Mai The Psychic Girl.
At some point in my youth, I decided it was time, as Corinthians puts it, to set aside my childish things. I therefore stopped collecting comic books and gravitated towards collecting films and literature. Occasionally, Hollywood produced a big screen adaptation of a comic book, and more often than not, I went to see it. I enjoyed the first two Superman films with the underrated Christopher Reeves in the title role, disliked the third one for its regrettable reliance of comedy, and declined to see the fourth one, in which Superman decides to rid the world of nuclear weapons. When Tim Burton released his version of Batman, I was game. I enjoyed the first one, liked the second one a bit less, and gave up on the series after what I viewed as a lackluster follow-up. After all, just how many times should an audience have to see Bruce Wayne’s struggles to cope with the death of his parents?
It never bothered me when these films were not truthful to the comic book. I enjoyed Ang Lee’s The Hulk primarily because the origin it spun was different than the one in the comic book, and I was utterly bored during the first Spider-Man film, precisely because it included the origin story that I was already familiar with. What is the point, I wondered, of making a movie in which everything that is going to happen is known before the film’s opening credits even begin? I felt the same way while watching Bryan Singer’s first X-Men film. Much of the film’s drama surrounded questions of who Wolverine was and how he became this way, two questions that readers of the comic book were already able to answer. Imagine my surprise and elation at seeing a completely unfamiliar tale in Christopher Nolan’s superb films Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.
My favorites of the comic book genre so far have been the ones with much darker contexts or deeper character development. Along with the first two films in Nolan’s trilogy, I was impressed with the second and third X-Men films. They touched upon serious themes, such as persecution, genocide, and the search for purpose in a world in which mutants must stay in the shadows. The first Iron Man film was set in the present-day and included subtle commentary on such timely subjects as the war in Afghanistan and the proliferation of military-grade weapons around the globe. And Sam Raimi’s second Spider-Man film contained a remarkable amount of character development for both Peter Parker and Mary Jane, and audiences generally wanted them to somehow wind up together.
Unfortunately, both Iron Man and Spider-Man 2 end with what have become two staples of modern-day superhero films, the climactic battle and the death of the film’s villain. The latter has become my least favorite trend. After all, wouldn’t it be better to keep certain villains around a bit longer? Wouldn’t audience have liked to see Jack Nicholson’s Joker return or for Willem Defoe to return as the Green Goblin? At the very least, it would have spared audiences from having to watch an ethereal version of the elder Osborne chastise his son for not avenging him. Are we supposed to see scenes like this as imagined, genuine, or just examples of gimmicky writing?
But I digress. It is clear that superhero films have become repetitions of the same formulaic pattern. The beginning of the film introduces a villain, the villain rises, there are early encounters between the villain and the hero, which the villain always somehow escapes from, and there is the long, destructive final duel, in which our hero is victorious. The first film in a series always tells an origin, and later films introduce villains familiar to long-time fans of the comic book. At some point, studios feel the need to up the ante and make a sequel even bigger than its predecessor, so they add an additional villain or two. This usually means our hero needs help and gets it from his arch enemy or a heroic character that just happens to have been introduced to the series earlier in the film. And then, for no reason at all, the studio will suddenly announce a reboot, and the madness will start all over again. We’ve seen it all before, and in today’s Hollywood, we’ll likely see it again and again. After all, if audiences are willing to pay to see lackluster reboots and paint-by-number sequels, such as Iron Man 2, what incentive is there for anyone to try anything different?
So who are these films being made for? I believe that there are three primarily groups. The first group is comprised of comic book enthusiasts, for whom authenticity is of the utmost importance. This audience wants to see the comic book they grew up with on the screen, and they can become perturbed by even the slightest change in hair style or origin. This is the group that is currently up in arms over the changes in the upcoming rendition of the Fantastic Four, and their argument basically boils down to: “But it wasn’t that way in the comic!” The second group is today’s youth, the generation for whom the origins of many of Marvel’s and DC’s creations are brand new. As my niece and nephew reminded me some time back, their generation may not have grown up reading comic books. They are the generation of video games, the NBA, and the Internet, and many of them who watched the first Spider-Man film were seeing Peter Parker get bitten by a radioactive spider for the first time. The last group is the biggest of the three, comprised of ordinary people for whom movies have become a means of escape. This group views films as entertainment, and if a movie takes their mind off their daily travails and allows them to either laugh or cheer, they are content with it. And who can blame them? The first Spider-Man film was released shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and since then there’s been nothing but chaos – wars on concepts, domestic spying programs, revolutions that lead to uncertainty, military coups, financial implosions, and long stretches of unemployment for far too many people. It is understandable then that many people are looking for both temporary relief and a reason to cheer. They find these things in characters like Peter Parker, Wolverine, Tony Stark, Thor, and Steve Rogers, characters who put their own ambitions and desires on hold for the greater good. These are the kinds of people audiences would have admired and looked up to in real life.
To other people, movies are more than just a distraction. Movies help to shape their worldview, educate them about present-day complexities, and cause them to think about issues and question their prior assertions. This group has an idea of what film can be and wants more films to be like that. It is not that they hate Hollywood, but that they want it to demand more of itself and its customers. They likely agree with Sean Penn, who has said that film is too power a medium to be just a form of mindless entertainment. I don’t mean to imply that there’s anything wrong with seeing a film like Thor 2 and walking out satisfied. After all, I gave the film three stars. However, I have little interest in the recent Spider-Man reboots or the upcoming incarnations of the Fantastic Four and Batman. I want something more substantial. Shouldn’t we all?