Wednesday, December 16, 2009

#17 - Comic Book Movies

It was the decade when...

Real heroes wore spandex.

In either an example of deep cultural regression or the artistic blossoming of a formerly adolescent genre (yeah, the former), the "based on the comic" superhero film came to dominate the box office in the Aughts. In three of the past ten years a superhero film was the highest grossing movie and many, many other films minted small fortunes churning out culturally familiar properties of various and often dubious quality. There may be nothing new under the sun, but the exhaustingly repetitive narrative devices employed by these movies ought to make one or two servings enough for any person to consume in a decade, but, as the plethora of sequels and spin-offs attest, the appetite for these modern pop-myths is all but insatiable.

Unpacking the forces in our collective consciousness that have created such a vast market for the superhero is an almost impossible task. The superhero movie is, in a way, a perfect product of late capitalism: they're escapist, they have a synergistic connection with past consumption, they create a market for various consumer tie-ins and finally, they encourage (then nullify upon exiting) infantile will-to-power fantasy scenarios for an audience who, high of the buzz that comes from imagining yourself as super-humanly strong or able to control the weather, return for the next iteration to get their "super-fix." It's easy to dismiss the success of these movies as merely the teenage crowd spending their parents cash on the weekend, but, when a comic book film explodes into multiplexes to become the second highest grossing film of all time...something bigger is afoot.

How many superhero films were there this decade? I've lost count.

Well, there is X-Men 1-3, maybe the best comic-to-movie films of the Aughts. With their obvious but not wholly ineffective analogies to racial and sexual discrimination, these were movies that, if not deep, couldn't immediately be called shallow. That's something of a victory in the genre. The X-Men films, particularly the witty and thrilling second installment, had both guts and a brain. The same can't be said for Hugh Jackman's solo endeavor, The X-Men spin-off Wolverine, a brain dead, mirthless exercise in pyrotechnic excess; coasting on the brand name's laurels Wolverine didn't even bother to make its title characters CGI claws look realistic. At this point they could have simply shot the film with Jackman in a child's Halloween costume and the zombie-fied fans would still line up.

Spider-Man 1-3 printed money, Peter Parker's transformation from uber-geek to uber-mensch supplying the fantasy template for four-eyed nerds everywhere. Even when the quality fell off the deep-end, as it did in Spidey's 3rd strained outing, the masses flocked, at that point beaten into a kind of willful submission. Sam Raimi, once a director of inventively silly horror films (The Evil Dead) or tightly wound, dramatically fulfilling suspense stories (A Simple Plan) found his talents subsumed by the panoply of special effects and pop-culture excesses that made the Spider-Man movies the successes they were. He also made a fortune.

Fantastic 4 and it's sequel Rise of the Silver Surfer, shocked box office soothsayers with their surprising performance. The B-Level Marvel property got C-Level productions values supplemented by the kind of cornball dialogue best suited to Saturday morning cartoons. The movies looked more like direct-to-VHS duds than mainstream theatrical releases. And yet, they were hits, all but cementing in movie executives minds the knowledge that crappy films based on existing properties are a far better investment than trying to do anything original.

The onslaught was relentless. Daredevil and its spin-off Elektra, are remarkable only in that Daredevil, starring a blind Ben Affleck, actually mustered up enough business at the Box Office to garner a spin-off. Who knew? Ghost Rider starred Nicholas Cage (as a flaming skull on a motorcycle) and Sam Elliot (as a flaming skull on a horse). The two rode their Mephistophelean vehicles into the President's Day weekend record books. Catwoman purred into film history as one of the most abysmal films of all time. But oh that outfit! Iron Man, blissfully shy on action-packed hysteria, mainly existed as a vehicle for Robert Downey Jr. to chew his very expensive scenery. At least the film knew what it was doing. Ang Lee's ponderous The Incredible Hulk was so ill-conceived (the director visually displayed the graphical boxes of a comic strip throughout the movie, as if the audience would rather see the storyboard for an action sequence than the sequence itself) that an honest-to-God do over called HULK was put into production in short order. It too underwhelmed. Also leaving audiences begging for less was Bryan Singer's sporadically charming though blandly cast Superman Returns. Perhaps the square jawed ethos of the title character - he of truth, justice and (especially) the American Way - had come to seem a vapid ideological outlook in an era where "the American way" meant invading sovereign nations to plunder oil reserves.

Devotees of Alan Moore's work talk about his seminal graphic novel Watchmen as if it were War and Peace, The Sorrow and the Pity, and Great Expectations rolled into one. No hyperbole is too grand. When the movie came out no one ever seemed to notice that Watchmen, both the movie and the graphic novel, was an anti-hero scribe costumed (in spandex and with a bright blue cock) as one of (all of?) the stories it was trying to undermine. Disenchanting at every turn, Watchmen is a kind of miserablist superhero anti-fantasy. A novel can be read at a pace dictated by ones own temperament; in the cinema, with it's incessant and unstoppable motion forward in time, the result of such consistent misanthropy can be frustration instead of engagement. The film, in a series of half measures, couldn't quite figure out just what the Hell it was trying to sell; slavish devotion to the source does not an honest adaption make. Maybe throwing more caution to the wind would have proved liberating but no doubt the army of nattering Watchmen-heads would have come at the film with daggers. It was a no-win situation for director and audience.

Batman Begins hit the reset button on the Warner Brothers tentpole franchise, hoping that a total restart could make audiences forget the so-campy-even-drag-queens-stayed-away aesthetic that Joel Schumacher had brought to the series. Legions of fanboys, anxious to justify their childish obsessions, ate up Chirs Nolan's solemn and "realistic" take on the series. The patina of seriousness seemed to confer artistic legitimacy on the caped crusader. When Begins's sequel hit the multiplexes the bleakness and humorlessness all but swallowed the whole film, making for a comic book movie that practically invited you not to have fun. The response: total worldwide box office domination of a sort not seen since an ill-fated Leonardo DiCaprio shouted to the Atlantic Ocean that he was "King of the World." The Dark Knight is a wholly silly film taken by audiences (and many critics) as a piece of serious art. If you're 19 and just read Thus Spake Zarathustra for the first time perhaps you'll be hood-winked by the Joker's declarations of ideological purity but anyone who asks that adult art address serious moral and psychological questions in a original and profound way will find The Dark Knight to be little more than a Trojan horse, the facade of seriousness hiding a series of ever more incoherently staged, and choppily edited action sequences. The emperor has no batsuit.

Then there were films that attempted to comment on this cinematic phenomenon, like the comedy My Super Ex-Girlfriend or the Will Smith vehicle Hancock. The former was simply dismissed while the latter, despite some success, underperformed. (Though given its stars amazing track record, only record-breaking ticket sales could live up to expectations.) An all out Zucker-level spoof called, duh, Superhero Movie is memorable only for its impressive Tom Cruise impersonation.

Perhaps the best of all superhero movies in the Aughts was Pixar's hilarious and moving The Incredibles. With a lark of a premise about over-the-hill retired superheroes, the picture proved a piquant analysis of contemporary family dynamics, the vagaries of middle-aged compromise and the necessity of self-fulfillment, all of it basted with a light moral certitude of a distinctly Randian variety. While the film was no Objectivst propaganda piece, it' endorsement of the talented few rising above the masses received a more nuanced and effective treatment here than anything in The Fountainhead. The Incredibles, while a cartoon, has more humanity in it than all the X-Men you could swing a stick at (though I really wouldn't try it). Now that's super.

You AUGHT to remember...


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