Tag Archives: genres

Okay, Seriously, What Is A Superhero Movie?

A couple weeks ago I was at The Strand looking for a copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Because it’s on my personal reading list and I figured it’s as good a book as any to pick up at The Strand. Anyway, after scouring the A’s in the science fiction section, I was directed to check in general fiction. And there it was.

Which, alright, fine. I mean, it’s vaguely science fiction – though Atwood prefers describing it as speculative fiction which I’ve seen argued as being the same and/or different from general science fiction – in that it’s set in an indistinct future that’s the vague result of the progress of technology and climate issues circa the mid-80’s. But it’s no more science fiction than, say, The Dark Knight where the biggest diversions from reality are burn wounds, a futurist’s view of cellphone tech, and a loose interpretation of grappling hook physics. Though since one’s a superhero movie, one gets to be in Serious Fiction and the other, not (granted, one’s a book and the other’s a movie, but I digress).

So what is science fiction? And what’s a superhero movie? Which brings me to Logan, a movie that’s been called a great superhero movie in part because it’s so unlike every other superhero movie.

And in all honesty, Logan’s great. Really. It’s an interesting movie that meditates on its down time as much as on its brutal action sequences. It also just might be a better adaption of The Last Of Us than the Old Man Logan comics. And people are calling it a really good superhero story.

But is it a superhero story?

This is something I think about every now and then, and as superhero movies – usually meaning adaptions of DC or Marvel comics – become bigger and bigger tentpoles, the definition of it starts to be blurry.

Because Logan features very little superheroing tropes. There aren’t any fancy outfits and there’s very little romantic derring-do. It’s more drama than anything, one with a dosage of science fiction. So really, it’s more of a science fiction drama than a, quote-unquote, “superhero movie.”

It’s times like this where genre really starts to break down. Because, technically, Logan, Guardians of The Galaxy, and Iron Man are all in the same ‘genre.’ Even though Guardians is more like a Star Wars movie and Iron Man is as action adventure. But Logan is on top of those because it’s a ‘serious’ movie and un-superheroey

The thing about genre is that it creates a stratification of stories. Look at any given bookstore and all the ‘important’ books go in the fiction section, while much of the rest is classified as science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and young adult. The movies that win big awards are most always not-genre movies; saying ‘comedy’ or ‘action’ almost instantly disqualify you.

As someone who creates a lot ‘genre’ stories, this bugs me. As someone who likes a lot of ‘genre’ stories, this bugs me a lot. ‘cuz in the past decade we’ve seen superhero movies take on a host of forms, be they a thriller like The Dark Knight or a hijinky fantasy adventure like Thor. In the century-or-so since its inception, science fiction has been Star Wars and District 9; The Handmaid’s Tale and Ready Player One. We’ve seen good superhero movies, and we’ve seen Batman vs Superman. These run the gamut in their type of story, setting, and quality. Y’know, it’s starting to sound like they’re just stories.

Now, I’m complicit in this, I use the terms ‘science fiction’ and ‘superhero film’ with abandon. But when I say I like the former, I say I like the fun adventure that’s been a hallmark of Marvel Studio’s output. I love science fiction’s imagination and willingness to go to places unseen (as opposed to the onslaught of White People Problems that ‘drama’ tends to be code for [coughLaLaLandcough]). As fiction evolves and lines get blurred (is Gravity science fiction?), our old definitions of genre don’t work so well. So I will enjoy the most fictitious of science fictions and the most heroic of superhero movies, even if those movies don’t really fit the Platonic ideal as a superhero film.

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Superheroes Are For The Birds

I’ve said too many times before that awards don’t always mean quality (especially when The Lego Movie gets ignored), but that doesn’t mean I still don’t have opinions. Especially when those opinions are about Birdman.

I really enjoyed Birdman. Its shot-as-if-it’s-one-take-ness got a little obtrusive at times and bordered on being gimmicky, but its strong plotting and performances helped bring it past that. It was interesting and a great movie; can’t really argue with that.

What I can argue with is with is its point-of-view. Birdman’s about a former superhero actor who’s trying to be taken seriously as a theater actor. The dichotomy there is clear: on the one hand you’ve got superhero movies, the ultimate pulpy-popcorn blockbuster, on the other is a Broadway adaption of a Raymond Carver short story, about as high the performing arts can get. The genres are opposites, and one is clearly shown as being more artistically valued than the other.

Which makes Birdman’s relationship with the superhero genre so fascinating. It’s a movie about a genre but instead of parodying it, the film takes apart the culture surrounding the genre. There’s a question of why so many actors are in superhero films (even Jeremy Renner), but more importantly being known for a superhero film follows Michael Keaton’s Riggan around, a literal ghost of his past. Birdman could have worked differently — we could have had Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger escaping from being action heroes, for example — and the central plot and theming would remain much the same: the idea here is that if you want to make true art you have to escape from the pulp.

Adding on to this view is that pulp and genre movies are inherently lesser than ‘serious’ ones. Especially when the genre’s a popular one. In discussing the overall critical distaste for superhero films, James Gunn, director of Guardians of the Galaxy, said “What bothers me slightly is that many people assume because you make big films that you put less love, care, and thought into them then people do who make independent films or who make what are considered more serious Hollywood films” (x). Way Gunn sees it, people figure that there’s a divide between real art and making money. Birdman, as an artsy movie, was made out of love whereas Guardians, the blockbuster, was made for a quick buck. Gunn vehemently disagrees, arguing that there’s still a great deal of love for the craft and storytelling even in an expensive, pulpy movie.

It’s storytelling, then, that should be paramount to defining art. Without its strong story Birdman would just be a movie about some washup idiosyncratically shot. What makes Guardians such a great movie is its commitment to plot and characters. Storytelling, not genre, should be the ultimate test of a movie.

I think that’s why I love good pulpy movies. Sure, they may not always be serious, but a strong plot goes a long way. Superhero movies too can deal with deeper themes. Iron Man 3 looks at identity, questioning whether you’re defined by who you are or what you’ve done. The Winter Soldier discusses privacy and the relevance of old ideals in a modern world. Guardians is about not having to be particularly special to save the world and the importance of having other people. That we don’t always notice these deeper scenes is part of the beauty, the films aren’t heavy handed; rather they intertwine theme and the story. Pulpiness and a lack of seriousness doesn’t mean a lack of depth.

Point of all this to say, genres are to be used. Though a great film, Birdman perpetuates the annoying trend that real art’s gotta be angsty, that flair has no room for substance. It’s problematic, saying that one way of telling a story is better than another. Because at the end of the day, nobody wants everyone telling the same story the same way.

Writer’s note: I definitely think Birdman earned its Best Picture, but I think Richard Linklater deserved Best Director for Boyhood give how singular that movie is. But eh, who cares, it’s just a statue.

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Manners Maketh A Genre

Spy movies are old hat. Well, least the slick James Bond ones are. Movies like Goldeneye have either been deconstructed by the Bourne movies (or even by more recent Bond flicks, to an extent) or lovingly lampooned by the likes of Chuck and Archer. Now, this isn’t bad (I love Chuck and Skyfall). Spies aren’t the sort to smoothly enter in a suit with a myriad of fancy gadgets, they’re gritty people in dark, realistic worlds. If you aim for a more lighthearted approach, chances are the genre’s used as the setting for another story, be it a workplace comedy or romance. There’s been a dearth of pure spy movies.

Enter Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman. Though it may seem like a deconstruction — it plays with and pokes at a couple tropes — ultimately, it’s a reconstruction. Now, Skyfall was to an extent a reconstruction in its own right as it defended the relevance of the government-run spy agency (as opposed to, say, rogues like Jason Bourne) in a very modern world, keeping as much of the spy-gadgetry we’d allow in a grounded film. Kingsman on the other hand, decides to amp things up a couple notches.

The throwbacks to classic gadgetry are present in Kingsman: the heroes have weaponized pens, hidden shoe-blades, bullet-proof umbrella shields, and hi-tech glasses. The agents dress in tailored suits and a great deal of emphasis is put on the way one carries oneself. And, of course, this is a slick movie with good guys being awesome and an evil madman trying to take over the world. It’s a straight up spy film.

Now, it’s not all spies-on-missions. The first half of the film focuses on Eggsy training to be one of the impeccable spies. But even though he’s not actively going after the villain, it still feels spy-ish as the candidates go through increasingly harder trials with more and more flair. It’s over-the-top, sure but it’s great fun to see this kid from the wrong side of  the London’s tracks grow into a super-spy.

I think what really makes Kingsman such a wonderful ode to its genre is its tone. Classic Bond had this strong sense of romantic adventure to it and many of its imitators followed in its steps. Kingsman returns to that spirit, though it does so older and wiser. The movie knows that a jet pack’s been done to death, so the film uses a mothballed high-altitude balloon from Reagan’s SDI. Similarly, the gadgetry feels appropriately futuristic for a more modern setting (see the AR glasses mentioned above). This keeps it from feeling too old-fashioned, but a technology update alone wouldn’t push it from good to great. The movie knows it’s a spy movie, as do its characters; Eggsy and the others are almost Chuck-ish in their knowledge and meta-commentary on spy tropes. This doesn’t diminish it, rather it keeps the film feeling decidedly present while still keeping a decades old tradition alive.

This is how you breathe new life into a genre. You take all of its flaws and preposterousness and roll with it, accepting its prior deconstruction and morphing it into something new — in other words: reconstruction. Pacific Rim created a world where Mecha made sense and where Kaiju were cool; Godzilla once more had the titular monster a force of nature while still making sense; Star Trek accepted Roddenberry’s idealism and made space opera cool again. Kingsman makes being a suave, well-dressed badass integral to being a super spy. Manners maketh man and all that.

Writing off a genre as being silly unless you take it apart bit by bit is foolish. But every now and then deconstruction needs to happen. Casino Royale had to show the ramifications of being a super spy so Skyfall could ultimately show why it’s still needed and so Kingsman could deliver its pulpy fun. It’s fun to see things deconstructed — it’s what makes The Cabin In The Woods such fun — but it’s not the only way to make an old genre new again. Look at Kingsman, Skyfall, Star Trek; you take the thing apart so you know how to put it back together better than before.

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Superhero Overdose

If you haven’t heard, DC recently announced their cinematic plans for the next six years. We’ve got a Justice League movie, a Wonder Woman movie, one with the Flash, one with Aquaman, a Green Lantern movie, and so on. It’s DC’s answer to Marvel’s Avengers. They’re looking to emulate Marvel’s formula, releasing two a year. Not only that, it looks like most of the Justice League roster from the cartoon is getting their own movie (except Martian Manhunter which is its own infuriating can of worms). Between Marvel and DC, we’re looking at four superhero movies a year — and that’s not even counting other studios with rights to Marvel characters, like Fox with X-Men and the Fantastic Four. That’s a lot of superhero movies, a lot of men in proverbial tights (and one woman, so far) running around doing superhero stuff.

Now, with so many superheroes flying around, it’s likely we’re looking to get a glut of that genre. Woohoo, there’s Age of Ultron, Ant Man, and Fantastic Four next year, but after that there’s gonna be Batman v Superman, a new Captain America, a new X-Men movie, and Suicide Squad. And then after that comes Wonder Woman, and Justice League (so far). Genres can become tired, look at how few Westerns there are as opposed to a few decades ago. With all these superhero films coming out, and with superhero movies usually following a specific pattern we could end up watching the same darn movie over and over again. If that happens, then people get tired, people stop watching these movies, and people stop making superhero movies.

Thing is, we’ve seen the superhero movie a hundred times. The hero gets powers, the hero figures out what to do with powers, the hero fights bad guys. Sequels have been playing with the follow up, but we’ve seen the super-powered-hero-fights-evil formula over and over again. Superhero movies as we know them has happened.

So how do we keep it interesting? So far the trick has been genre blending. The Dark Knight was a crime movie with Batman. It was different and it was big (though I’ve heard the argument that it wasn’t a Batman movie, but that’s another issue). More so now than ever, superhero movies have to stand out. The Avengers was a heroes-fighting-villains narrative, but did it better than anyone else and threw in some internal conflict and hints of a war movie for good measure. Unless a new movie surpasses it, doing the same thing will be repetitive.

Marvel Studios, and Joe Quesada, know this. Look at the most recent releases from Marvel. Iron Man 3 was as much Lethal Weapon-y as it was Iron Man, The Dark World was borderline pure fantasy, The Winter Soldier was a spy/espionage movie, and Guardians of the Galaxy was pure space opera. Looking ahead, Ant Man is planned to be a heist movie, which there are never enough of. Marvel’s keeping things varied. In fact, I think one of the reasons Winter Soldier and Guardians were so well received is that they were so unique. Both tapped genres relatively unheard of at the moment, and both executed them incredibly. If Marvel Studios can keep making movies that challenge the idea of a ‘superhero’ movie they’re in good shape.

So the onus is on DC to do the same thing. It’s hard to judge how they’ll do, especially given the kinda mostly alright Man of Steel, but if they can make Aquaman feel very different from The Flash and not just in subject material, then there’s hope. We don’t wanna keep watching the same movie with swapped out details.

But I cannot overstate how freaking excited I am about all of this. In the next two years I’m getting a second Avengers movie, a new Star Wars, a movie with Batman and Superman, and what’s reportedly a movie about Captain American and Iron Man. Heck, they just announced a movie featuring The Lego’s Movie glorious riff on Batman! All this is the twelve-year-old in me’s dream come true. I don’t like not liking things, it’s tiring and it’s not fun to hate everything you watch. I want these movies to happen, I want to like these movies. I just hope these movies are good.

 

Also, I’m making a movie! Help me get it funded!

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Genre Blending

Remember when superhero movies were just becoming a thing? They usually fell into the same pattern: someone gets powers and saves the world. Fairly straight forward, right? Sure, there were different approaches to the idea: X-Men drew on themes of discrimination and Spider-Man was about a hero trying to balance life and superheroing. The Dark Knight, Watchmen, and The Incredibles deconstructed several tropes associated with the genre, and Iron Man and The Incredibles reconstructed a deal of them (yep, The Incredibles did both). But at the end of the day, all of them were, for the most part, variations on a theme.

Then Thor rolled around. While, yes, it was still about a superhero saving the world, the film and character were approached like a fantasy film in the vein of The Lord of the Rings rather than an out-and-out ‘superhero film.’ The result was a movie that felt very different from, say, Iron Man. Suddenly the superhero genre had expanded. Thor wasn’t just about a normal guy getting powers; it was about a fantastical superhuman progressing through the hero’s journey in a blend of fantasy and reality.

A few months later Captain America: The First Avenger came out, transplanting a superhero movie into a period piece (like The Incredibles!). Unlike The Incredibles, though, The First Avenger fully embraced its time period: World War II. Just as Thor crossed into fantasy, this film blended the a war movie with superhero tropes. Yes, The First Avenger still has all the hallmarks of the superhero film, but it’s hardly a strict superhero movie. We have a superhero who’s more like a commando (or is it the other way round?). Similarly, X-Men: First Class (also released in the Summer of 2011) took place in the ‘60s, keeping its discrimination subtext and mixing it with Cold War imagery.

Which brings me to The Winter Soldier, the trailer of which just dropped (if you haven’t seen it, go now!). The new Captain America movie seems to be, like The First Avenger before it, dispensing with a lot of ‘classic’ superhero tropes. If anything, The Winter Soldier is shaping up to be more like a political thriller in the vein of Patriot Games or The Bourne Identity rather than Iron Man. Yes, it’s still a movie about Captain America and there is an evil looking villain; but Blade Runner has androids and it’s not Star Wars. It’s not solely a film of one genre.

As a genre, superhero movies, like science fiction and fantasy before it, are rapidly becoming far more diverse with their subject matter. The Avengers drew some aspects from war movies, Man Of Steel focused its central theme not on Superman vs Zod but on the question of Superman’s identity. Of course, this doesn’t always go so well; Green Lantern tried to create a space opera and, well, failed miserably. So what did Green Lantern do wrong? Does space opera simply not work with superheroes? No, Green Lantern was a reminder that blending genres isn’t enough: you always need a good story.

Fun thing is, this trend shows no sign of stopping. Upcoming Thor: The Dark World is still a fantasy (directed by some Game of Thrones alum, no less), Guardians of the Galaxy is looking to be Marvel’s attempt at a space opera, and Ant-Man is gonna be an Edgar Wright film. Why is this so important? Folks, we’re watching a genre develop.

 

Short post? Yes. Why? I’m working on a short film this weekend. I’m busy. Heck, I hardly have time to go out and watch movies.

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Science Fiction, Parables, and Gravity

Yes, I’m still on my science fiction apologetics kick. As I’ve established over and over again, as a genre, science fiction can say a lot that normal fiction can’t, or say it in ways it can’t. Gravity is a fine example of this. Because like it or not, Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece is science fiction. If Super 8 and Moon are science fiction, then so is Gravity.

Super 8, like E.T. before it, is fundamentally a movie about growing up and moving on. Moon isn’t about Sam Rockwell mining Helium-3 so much as it questions ideas about what it means to be human. Pacific Rim is as much about togetherness as it is about canceling apocalypses. Similarly, Gravity is a movie about faith,the will to live and what exactly being alive means. All these movies use the trappings of science fiction as the backdrop for their stories and to tell stories that could not be told otherwise.

Pacific Rim communicates its refusal to settle for the world we’re given though Jaegers and Kaiju. We’re presented personifications of fear and devastation and then told a story where those beasts can be stood up to and defeated. The movie’s centered around this idea, with other themes wound into it. It’s the clear-cut line of all of humanity against the invaders that allow it to be conveyed so clearly and yet so artfully. It plain works.

Moon uses its lunar setting to heighten the feeling of isolation that permeates the film. It also uses its twenty-minutes-into-the-future time period to address its central issue in a unique way. Duncan Jones’ film gives physicality to the question of identity and humanity; rather than having characters discuss it they’re forced to confront it. We, as an audience, don’t choke on the philosophizing, instead it’s presented to us through the story. Through the use of science fiction, storytellers are able to smoothly communicate themes and ideas that, in another setting, could feel heavy handed or just plain out of place. Gravity does this magnificently.

Gravity could be called Life of Pi in space without a tiger. Like Yann Martel’s novel, Gravity centers itself around people trying to survive where people aren’t supposed to survive. Also like the book, it examines the meaning of life, insofar as what’s the point of being alive? Gravity explores this theme through its two astronauts drifting in space, dying to survive. Where better to ponder God then miles above the atmosphere? Where else to examine humanity’s need for connection than in the isolation of space? By setting Gravity in space as opposed to in the middle of the ocean, a desert, or vacant island, Cuarón can hone his film to what he wants to address and mask it beautifully in a sublime story about survival. There’s little preachifying, instead its message is communicated through the story and characters.

Science fiction, like fantasy, can be a parable. Within its lack of limits we’re able to personify evil itself or present a helplessness beyond the scope of anything we know. Within it lies the capability to eloquently communicate a message unique to itself. Does all science fiction explore the depth its afforded? No. But then does all non-genre fiction?

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Why Science Fiction

Science Fiction is a setting (not a genre) that frequently gets written off and ignored because it’s deemed inept to deal with more serious topics. But science fiction has leave to deal with heavy subjects in a way ‘regular’ fiction only wishes it could. Science fiction – good science fiction – has and will always be about people.

The world will change, but people will always stay the same. People will always want to control, people will always want more, people will always want love, people will always yearn for adventure, and people will always want to find home. It doesn’t matter if it’s the 17th, 21st, or 26th century: people don’t change. The best science fiction examines humanity – consciously or not – in ways that other fiction can not.

Ender’s Game can easily be looked at as just another story about mankind repelling alien invaders. We’ve got the buggers/formics poised to destroy humanity and the only hope lies in the kid named Ender Wiggen. But it goes beyond that: it looks at the idea of empathy (and the lack of it) as a tool and a weapon. It is Ender’s immense capacity for empathy that makes him an excellent leader and brilliant tactician, but it’s his ability to withhold it that makes him a brutal opponent. His empathy endears Bean, Alai, Petra and others to him, his brutality puts a very permanent end to his victimization. It’s this ability of his that allows him to understand his utterly alien enemy and defeat them, but ultimately come to love them. Because he understood them he could love them with all his innocence.

Ordinary fiction would spend too much time trying to explain how and justifying why child soldiers were being trained the way the International Fleet trains Ender and friends. The concept of an enemy so completely unknown, so plain inhuman would feel terribly contrived in conventional fiction. In Ender’s Game we go with it because it’s the setting. We get the innocence of a child and truly alien enemy. Why? Science fiction.

Everyone dreams. Everyone wants to escape. Inception gives us a world where we can escape into our dreams. Yes, there are practical uses for this (typically of the espionage and thieving variety), but what would we really do with this technology? Would we would run from the world and its problems into our dreams, into dreams where everything is how and as we want? Christopher Nolan examines the concept of being able to escape in this fashion and the questions of reality that ensue. If our dreams are better than life would we not chose to stay in that world? What would reality mean then? What would we do?

In Inception we see people running from reality and trying to create their own. It’s what we do in our daydreams and it’s what we do when we go to the movies. But in the world of this movie it’s something they can do on a whim. Some people hide in them, some people will use them, and some simply remain unaware. It’s on the humanity within the story that science fiction thrives. We see people act and can’t help but to wonder whether we, like Cobb’s wife, would just want to live in our imaginary world.

Finally; Serenity. The idea presented in Joss Whedon’s film is the question of control. Of course, we’ve heard stories about totalitarian governments clamping down on freedom and forcing them to behave. But it’s in this setting that the Alliance has not only the will but the ability to truly control their population. If free will and the capacity to make choice is taken out of the human equation what then remains?

Science fiction allows us to explore the idea in a world where it’s possible. Because we’ve agreed to believe that the technology exists we can see the implications. Serenity asks what would people would do if they found a world without choice. Five hundred years in the future we will still aim to misbehave: especially if misbehaving is the right thing to do. Set against a backdrop of spaceships and planets is the story of an artificial family just trying to live their lives and find some semblance of home.

So why science fiction? The setting lets us create worlds where the impossible is just a part of life. This impossible factor lets us ask what people would then do. District 9 asked the question of aliens and segregation, Alien created a unique horror film, Jurassic Park demonstrated the fallacies of playing god. Sure, the setting can be seen as just a vehicle for a parable, but it’s a world where imagination runs wild.

Good science fiction is about the people in the world. It’s a simple concept: the world will change but people will stay the same.

Plus, science fiction is just so friggin’ fun.

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