The Daily Beast’s Sujay Kumar has gone and done a wonderful thing. He wrote a story about comic book movies that I (largely) agree with.
In his piece, Kumar interviewed two writers, Miles Millar and Alfred Gough, who are at least partially responsible for the fantastic Spider-Man 2. They are both just as distraught about the state of comic book movies as I am, which is a very refreshing thing to hear. That give an interesting diagnosis of what went wrong and why.
But I don’t agree with everything in there. First off, Kumar refers to The Dark Knight as a “fanboy darling” when in reality it’s kind of just an everyone darling. On that same note, he quotes the writers of Spider-Man 2 as saying they thought TDK was a “hot mess” for a couple of frustratingly vague reasons, which is silly but it it’s also whatever.
With the TDK criticisms out of the way, I also disagree with their overall assessment of why CB movies have become so obnoxious. Now, that’s awfully presumptuous of me, because they write super hero movies and I don’t, so I don’t actually have any idea what I’m talking about. But their criticisms are directed mostly at industry-insider stuff: Comic book movies have “become pieces in a bigger machine” they say, “It’s become convoluted corporate destinies.” Comic book movies, according to Millar & Gough, have suffered because studios rely too much on them for their “tent-pole” value.
The problem with all that is that it’s nothing new. When Superman debut in ’78, it was a huge hit. The second highest grossing movie of the year and a cultural phenomenon (Grease is the movie that beat it). Because it was successful, they made about a million sequels and none of them were good. All of them were made as a part of the “convoluted corporate destiny.”
Same goes for Batman. First one is crazy successful, so the studio orders more and demands them to be more kid-friendly and ties them directly to toy companies. There has always been product placement (Michael Keaton wore Bat-Nikes in the first film) and pop music soundtracks (remember how Macy Gray was randomly in a parade in Raimi’s first Spider-Man?).
Millar & Gough kind of paint a romantic yesteryear portrait of “we used to do it for the art, man” type stuff that rings very false to me. Since the day Richard Donner signed that contract with Warner Bros or whoever he signed it with, studios have viewed comic book adaptations as nothing but potential blockbusters.
So this is where my beef — which I’ve been trying to spit out for some time now without any articulation worth linking to — comes in. What bothers me about CB movies is that they’ve figured it out. Studios have figured out how to make sure that super hero movies are successful. Or at least they think they have.
Comic book movies have been a thing for a while now. There is not a time during my conscious being that there haven’t been comic book movies for me to look forward to. BATMAN came out the year after I was born and the 90s was saturated with cooky comic adaptations.
The Mask, The Rocketeer, Dick Tracy (technically comic strip) The Shadow (technically pulp and radio), Batman Returns Forever (&) Robin and Mask of the Phantasm, Stalone’s Judge Dredd, Men in Black, the first Blade, The Crow, Spawn, Tank Girl, Mystery Men yada yada yada. The list probably goes on past that. Not all of those movies are good (I haven’t seen all of them) but there is a whole lotta creativity in that list. Some pretty bizarre movies. The ones that are failures (B&R, Spawn) are failures on a messy and massive scale.
Half the fun of going to see CB movies was just seeing if they pulled it off, and how. Batman Forever is a nutty movie with very little substance. It’s all flash, but it’s a pretty unique flash. Same goes for Dick Tracy and the Mask. The aesthetic of comic book movies was creativity. Weird puppets and stuff in Men in Black, that kind of thing. The problem we have in 2015 is that it is so much more difficult to stand out creatively when you’re using CGI. That’s just a reality I think everyone needs to come to terms with. No one in the world ever thought puppets looked realistic, but they did look imaginative. We are so saturated in CGI that it all just kind of blends together. It only stands out when it’s really bad.
Add to that, Marvel — which lets be honest here, is the primary studio responsible for the bland feeling curmudgeons like me get at the movies —has basically figured out a formula of balancing city-destroying action with Whedonesque wit to plug into every movie. They’re pushing this narrative that CB movies should first and foremost be “fun” in the most marketing sensitive use of the word. What Millar & Gough call “cartoony” and “comicbooky.” It’s working very well, to the tune of billions of dollars.
“We used to hear the word ‘comicbooky,’ which is always a disparaging word,” Miller told Kumar. “I think ultimately I look at these movies and guess what? They’re now comic-booky and I don’t think that’s a good thing.”
The great irony here is that “comicbooky” in that derogatory sense is exactly what every filmmaker and fan wanted to avoid a while back. I remember watching the special features of Batman & Robin when the SE came out on DVD and audibly gasping when I heard one of the cast members recite that Shumacher used to announce on set every day that everyone needed to “remember that this is a cartoon.”
In comic circles it was always well understand that the good movies were good because the director understood that comic books were serious things, stories about real flawed people, struggling to make sense of imagined worlds full of chaos and despair. Otherwise, what’s the point of having heroes? We were living in a post Miller and Moore world. Miller taught us that superheroes only make sense if the world they inhabit is in need of saving, not just from aliens but from itself. Moore taught us all that super powers do not free a character of his or her flaws, they exacerbate them.
But now it seems like you can’t turn on your Internets without hearing some influential comic book movie guy spouting off nonsense like “people have had enough” of dark superhero movies, or that we aren’t “ready to be post-modern about it yet” and should be focusing on lighter fare.
A few years back everyone was talking about how we might be entering into a golden age of CB movies. No one talks like that anymore. I think that’s because just as everyone was figuring out how to expand the borders, some whipsmart exec whose name rhymes with Bevin Peige realized that border expansion was not necessary. In fact, the stricter the borders the better.
And it really is a genius approach. I mean, think about what used to impress people in CB movies. When Spider-Man 2 came out everyone was all abuzz about how strong the emotional core of the film was. “It’s a real movie, full-blooded and smart,” Roger Ebert wrote at the time. “Genre-defying” was the buzzword of the day, and directors wore it like a badge. Del Toro created a mystical monster movie, Nolan a gritty crime drama. Now, people get excited because Captain American 2 has a plot that’s actually worth trying to follow, or because Rocky Racoon swears. I liked both of those movies, but anyone who says they are genre-defying or innovative is kidding themselves. The only genre they defy is Marvel’s. They seem exceptional only by comparison.
But, of course, there is no end. After people were bothered that Man of Steel actually tried to grapple with what the ramifications of having Superman around would be, DC is trying to reinvent itself as the new Marvel. The New 52 isn’t performing as well as they hoped, and they need to sell books. Granted, they’re clearly trying to be the darker counter-point, but that probably won’t save them from the fact that their movies are about to become 2-hour trailers for some other movie in the franchise.