08 Oct 2012 09:48 am

Why the Rise of the Superhero Movie Isn't the Fall of Hollywood

One of my favorite things about comic books is that they are in many ways a direct reflection of a generation's values, whether they are seen on a superhero's cape or in a more subtle indie comic. Unfortunately, with comic book movies taking in big bucks at the box office, that's not how critic David Denby sees it. While interviewing The Wrap to promote his book, Do the Movies Have a Future?, Denby lamented how much comic book movies have cost the soul of the movie business.

"I'm not sure they're creating an adult audience with Batman and 'The Avengers' parts seven, eight, nine and 10," he told TheWrap. "After five sequels, I'm not sure there will be any interest in a man and a woman talking at a table, which may be the most exciting kind of drama, but you have to cultivate a taste for that kind of complexity."

First of all, the studios aren't necessarily creating a specifically adult audience with Batman and "The Avengers". One of the great things about comic book films is they appeal to both adults and children. You could argue appealing to children makes them more sophomoric, except that doing so gives children a reason to start reading comic books and start reading in general, cultivating the very taste for "that kind of complexity" Denby is talking about. This isn't to say there's not too much bloated spectacle in Hollywood, but putting all of the blame specifically on comic book movies is ultimately counterproductive.

The problem is that Denby sees the two as mutually-exclusive. "The big studios have broken their unspoken, unwritten contract with America, to offer some version of the country's soul," Denby said. "Instead there is more and more fantasy and more and more pixelated fighting in the dead space of digital air."

It's interesting that Denby mentions fantasy as something that isn't a "version of the country's soul". L. Frank Baum wrote "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" as an American fairy tale. Nearly one hundred and twelve years later, "Oz" remains a fantasy giant movies, video games and comic books. But beneath the fairy tale surface, critics have found statements about the American frontier, railroads and oil barons nestled within Dorthy and Toto's tale. The soul of America can be seen in a variety of ways, whether it's in a superhero's cape or some magic slippers.

To understand the superhero's kung-fu grip on Hollywood, you really have to understand what sparked the Golden Age of comic books in 1938. We were, at best, just coming out of the Great Depression, and only a few years from entering World War II. Seventy-four years later, we're at best coming out of a recession and still bogged down in Afghanistan. I'm not saying the challenges of this generation and the Greatest Generation are one and the same, but I am saying there's a common sense of uncertainty.

Comic book movies give audiences not only the opportunity to escape this uncertainty, but also watch someone do something about it. In the first Marvel movie, "Iron Man", Tony Stark hightails it to Afghanistan to stop a terrorist massacre. In "The Dark Knight", Batman captures a crook trying to avoid persecution in Hong Kong. It's no different than watching Captain America, Batman and Robin or even Superman punch out Hitler on the cover of a monthly comic book.

Eventually, however, these problems will go away. Economic recovery will speed up. The United States will withdraw from Afghanistan. People will run out of problems to escape from. The comic book film bubble will burst, and studios won't be in a rush to buy every property based on a comic book or graphic novel. There's a chance that Hollywood, now flush with cash from the recovery, will spend it on the indie conversational pieces Denby mentioned, but there's also chance Hollywood will just find another spectacle to replace the comic book films - let's not forget, before the superhero boom, there were also aliens, asteroids and sparkly vampires.

And then in a couple decades, the cycle will begin anew, with a new wave of crises gripping our country.

Sequential art, the storytelling behind comic books, has been around as long as the hero narratives of Odysseus and Achilles, if not longer, dating back as far the pyramids of Egypt and the drawings on cave walls. To say they don't reflect something about the soul of their respective culture is like saying a mirror is defective. Whether they are a son of Zeus or just bitten by a radioactive spider, heroes aren't anywhere, Mr. Denby, and neither are the stories we tell about them.

(That's it for this rant. Check out a new Blue Yonder Wednesday)

Oarboar (Guest), 09 Oct 2012 04:45 pm

Well put. People like Mr. Denby forget that the success of Star Wars in 1977 didn't keep, say, My Dinner With Andre from getting made or achieving critical success. People also forget that there was a whole lot of B-list scholock getting made along with the classics of yesteryear.

For some reason I'm thinking about a friend of mine who went with his girlfriend to "Tree of Life" and "Melancholia" the same day last year, and then listened to her go off for three hours on how great they were and how people were such barbarians for not flocking to them.

He quickly came to his senses and dumped her.

RDPulfer, 09 Oct 2012 06:54 pm

I'm glad to hear it (that you liked the blog and your friend broke up with her).

And there's not a fine line between fantasy and "auteur" filmmaking, lest we forget that George Lucas did "American Graffiti" before "Star Wars" and Joss Whedon is doing "Much Ado About Nothing".

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