Monday, March 3, 2014

Of Capes and Cinema

Marvel  vs. DC.

To some, this argument is as inconsequential as “Chocolate vs. Vanilla.”  To others, this is as important as Republican vs. Democrat or Protestant vs. Catholic.

To us geeks, it is a very important argument. I have friends who are staunch Marvel fans, pointing to Marvel’s deeper characters and struggles with real-life problems as evidence that their title is superior. For DC supporters, the argument stands that without DC, there would be no Marvel, and that the DC pantheon of heroes reads more like the gods on Olympus than acrobats in tights.

But, this is a movie blog, so, I’m going to discuss Comic Book Movies, which is a whole other ball of wax.

First: What is a comic book movie? Is it any film wherein the source material is a comic book/graphic novel?  If so, than films like American Splendor, Ghost World and Road to Perdition are comic book movies, but, when most folks think of the term “comic book movie,” these films and others of their ilk are not what spring to mind.

So then, is a comic book movie any movie that deals with superheroes? Well, The Incredibles only became a comic book after the success of the film. What about The Shadow?  Hancock? (Actually, the less said about that film, the better.)

Are we then, for the sake of this blog, going to restrict our definition of “comic book movie” to any movie wherein the source material is a comic book and it deals with superheroes?

What about 300 or Sin City?


As you can see, the very term “comic book movie” is becoming obsolete, just as no one refers to a film based on a play as a “play movie” or a film based on a novel as a “novel movie.”

Once upon a time (I’m looking at you, pre-Twenty-First Century Cinema), a “comic book movie” was full of bright colors, bad acting and was generally aimed at seven year-olds or their mental equivalent. (Allow me to commit cinematic blasphemy and admit that I believe that most people’s love of Superman: The Movie stems less from the quality of the picture and more from nostalgia. There. I said it. Let the hate mail pour in.) However, when the kids that read comics grew up to become filmmakers, they wished to bring their favorite heroes to the screen in a serious and respectful manner. As a result, Hollywood looked to their local comic shop for inspiration and found, much to their surprise, that sequential art offered up a wealth of potential films. Everything from action and adventure to biography, to love stories to horror to comedy to westerns to, well…everything. Comics, in terms of genre, are just as varied as the movies.

Then the floodgates opened.

When you make a whole bunch of films from one subgenre within a short amount of time (let’s say the last fifteen years), you’re going to get some stinkers. For every The Dark Knight, there’s Elektra, Ghost Rider, Catwoman and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. There are films that work as films, but let down the fans due to unfaithfulness to the source material. And there are films that please the fans, but leave the rest of us scratching our heads.

Let me speak for a moment about a recent film based on a comic: last year’s Man of Steel. This film polarized its audience, some loved it, some hated it, some were indifferent towards it (such a statement is true of any film, but hear me out). Audiences were expecting another whiz-bang, smirking adventure film, like the first two Superman films starring Christopher Reeve and were instead given The Last Temptation of Christ in a cape.

A great deal of criticism has been lobbed at Man of Steel, the majority of which is, I feel, unfair at best and biased at worst.

Complaint: Superman destroyed half of Metropolis fighting Zod. Think of all those innocent people and the property damage!

The Avengers destroyed half of New York (a real city, by the way, unlike Metropolis) and no one batted an eye. Prior to this carnage, Diane Lane, as Ma Kent, is in her wrecked home, gathering photo albums together. Clark tries to console her, apologizing for the destruction, to which she replies, “It’s just stuff.” And that is all we see destroyed- stuff. Buildings, cars, etc. Never people. People are in peril, Superman flies in to save them. The death of innocent people is an assumption, devoid of empirical evidence. Oh, and while he was flying around breaking all that stuff, he also saved the entire planet. Small price to pay, the entire planet and all life on it for a few buildings. It’s like complaining about the fireman chopping down the front door to get you out of the burning building.

And as for the argument that Superman’s destruction of Metropolis will only fuel Luthor’s argument against him…well, duh. Don’t you think that was kind of the point?

I think the DC films are viewed as failures because we, as a society, have grown so jaded and cynical that we can’t accept these modern gods. We want our heroes like us (or at least how we think we are), flawed, sarcastic people who bicker, argue and eventually do the right thing. Marvel has always been about the people behind the mask. Peter Parker’s crappy life, Tony Stark’s alcoholism, Bruce Banner’s self-imposed exile. DC is about the mask. Bruce Wayne exists to be Batman and there is nothing in his life that doesn’t  connect to his alter ego. In fact, there is no Bruce Wayne anymore, just Batman and Batman without the mask. Just as Superman is always Superman, even when disguised as Clark Kent.

I believe that we are nearing the zenith of the superhero genre (if indeed we haven’t passed it already) and that soon, the bubble will burst. Superheroes, like westerns, musicals and Biblical epics will become just another subgenre rarely explored in cinema.

But before that happens, let me tell you my idea for a Martian Manhunter movie…

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