Tag Archives: superheroes

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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No One Does Latitude Like Batman

What comes to mind when you think ‘Batman?’ Is it the one from Bruce Timm in the 90s? Or is it Michael Keaton’s in Tim Burton’s movie? Chris Nolan’s gritty reconstruction of the mythos? The Arkham games’ sinister representation of the Joke and Batman conflict? Adam West’s campy take? Whatever it was Snyder was doing in Dawn of Justice? Or the brooding jerk voiced by Will Arnett in The LEGO Movie? Might it even be one from the comics?

I’ve never read a Batman comic (yes, yes, I know; there are a handful on my Read This Eventually list), but I’m plenty familiar enough with the mythos from growing up with the cartoon and original movies to playing the Arkham games and enjoying the Nolan movies. What’s curious is how downright different these Batmans (Batmen?) are. The tone of all those adaptations I listed in that first paragraph skewer wildly (can you imagine Batman in The Dark Knight offering to pay for something with a Bat Card?), but they’re all still recognizably Batman. How does he have so much latitude? Is it the cowl?

The LEGO Batman Movie just came out this weekend, which, aside from being absolutely delightful, offers a completely different take on Batman, which, oddly enough, incorporates every other version of Batman. We’ve off-the-cuff references to every cinematic Batman and a few deep cuts to the cartoons and comics. But this is a Batman who’ll also throw a temper-tantrum when told by Alfred to do something besides Batmanning (so, kinda like Nolan’s). But The LEGO Batman Movie doesn’t just coast by on laughs; it tells a full blown Batman story with a degree of resolution and pathos that Dawn of Justice wishes it had. Sure, this Batman likes to play epic guitar solos, but he’s still Batman.

There’s arguably no other modern character that has as many different interpretations as Batman. Who your favorite Batman is is a much more nuanced discussion that who your favorite Spider-Man is. Batman has been done so many different ways. The thing is, and I keep coming back to this, they’re all still Batman.

Not many other contemporary characters and properties lend themselves to this so well. Iron Man and Spider-Man don’t have nearly this latitude, at least not while keeping the alter egos of Tony Stark and Peter Parker (which, given that we’re discussing Batman as Bruce Wayne, we are). Even though Star Wars does lend itself to spoofs and parody quite well, but those riffs would remain in the territory of spoof and parody or keep the scale small (like the Star Wars Tales comics). No one does it like Batman.

Unless you go back further. Like, seriously further. How many versions of Sherlock Holmes have we seen? You’ve got Basil Rathbone’s version, but then more recently Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch have both offered up different versions of the same character are both very Sherlock-y. They’re smart British people who solve crimes smartly. Disparate as they may be, these takes on Holmes, created over a century after Doyle started writing about the detective, are are still Holmes (granted, in the intervening 100+ years you can call any detective Sherlock and be done with it, but bear with me here).

That may be why we can have so many Batmen (Batmans?) running around without any one being not Batman. I may think that Battfleck shooting and branding people in BvS is terribly off-brand, but he is a perfectly valid interpretation of Batman. Because Batman is an incredibly simple character. Heck, the platonic ideal of Batman is less a character and more a concept: Bruce Wayne, haunted by the death of his parents, fights crime (dressed as a bat). It’s incredibly succinct while still remarkably deep – you can interpret that effects of his parents’ death however you want. He can be a whiney loner, super pseudo-ninja, or a brooding vengeful vigilante.

Superman comes close, but doesn’t quite have that depth to him; a superpowered alien fights crime and stops wrong heroically is too broad. Iron Man is too specific, you need Tony Stark’s guilt and need for redemption alongside the spiffy suit; take away the former and he’s not really Tony Stark as Iron Man. Spider-Man has a lot of wiggle room – one look at the recent Spider-Verse comics show just how varied you can get with the idea of Spider-Man — but Peter Parker as Spider Man does what he does out of a sense of responsibility and guilt. You can’t really interpret his reaction to Uncle Ben any other way, and you can’t give him the same call to adventure without the death of a family member.

So again, Batman has a latitude unlike anyone else. Less of a true character than an archetype, the flexibility of Batman and mythos has given rise to a variety of Batmens(?) that though wildly different all still make sense. Which means that even though The LEGO Batman Movie’s Batman is decidedly better than the one in Batman V Superman, both are still Batman. One just has a lot more life and depth to him, and is also the one made of plastic.

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Superhero Stardom (A Response)

There’s a recent New York Times article I came across that laments how the rise of the superhero genre has conflated actor-stardom with character-stardom. The article itself doesn’t really chase down the points too well, but the central gist (as far as I can see) is that in the recent slate of films, characters have come to trump actors. As Wesley Morris suggests in the article, when you watch Oceans Eleven, it’s George Clooney doing all the cool stuff as Danny Ocean; but when you watch Rush, you don’t see Chris Hemsworth as James Hunt, you see Thor as James Hunt. And as more big name actors get roped into superhero films (Cate Blanchett’s gonna be in Thor: Ragnarok!), it’s more actors being roped in to playing a specific character.

Which makes Morris’ point of view seem a little weird. He implies that the fun of Ocean’s Eleven is seeing the star-studded cast play off of each other, whereas Civil War is more about watching the characters interact; the former being better. Which begs the question of whether or not you’re supposed to forget that it’s an actor playing a character and not something happening before you.

Now, the attitude here feels a lot like that kid who’s angry you got the same toys they did. For ages, the idea of a superhero has been derided. Like science fiction and fantasy it was that genre, one that no serious actor would get involved in. Heck, we even had a movie called Birdman which was all about how superhero films and all their sequels was where art went to die. Except now they are, and with it, taking on (and being known by) personae that they don’t get to create per se. Superheroes are a cultural mythology, why else are we able to discuss who’s the “better Batman?” Taking up the cowl means playing someone bigger than life. Kinda like being the next guy to play James Bond.

Hang on.

See, this is where things start to get a little weird (and Morris’ argument starts to fall down). Daniel Craig’s Bond is sharply different from Pierce Brosnan’s Bond. I mean, sure, they’re the same character, just done differently. Same with Clooney, Bale, and Affleck’s Batman. There’s still some wiggle room in really getting to build a character.

But, all the same, the more recent superhero movies are very much adaptions of the comic books; someone like Batman’s very much in the public consciousness, more so than, say, Star Lord was in 2013. It would make sense, then, that casting Chris Pratt as Peter Quill would allow for a straight shot of an adaption.

Except, again, it’s kinda not. Star Lord as he appeared in the comics was quite different from the one in Guardians of the Galaxy, more authoritative and less bumbling, though still prone to having everything blow up in his face. Much of Peter Quill in the film — and who he’s become in the comics these days — grew out of Chris Pratt’s performance and James Gunn’s script. So sure, it was based on something, but there was still a big room to build there. Heck, you can see it with all of the MCU characters.

In spending a chunk of today trying to pry apart Wesley Morris’ article I kept losing track of his point (which may be because he doesn’t back it up much). In any case, based on the title, is about the changing role of celebrity that the uptick of superhero film franchises has brought about. Which, alright, sure; but we’ve also changed from the studio system of the ‘50s. Marvel with the MCU (and, Fox with X-Men and DC with their attempts at catchup) are working on a new form of storytelling, one that sits somewhere at the nexus of film, television, comics, and those old serials from forever ago. Maybe it’s time that the nature of stardom changes, what with the steady rise of nerd culture into the mainstream. After all, the geeks shall inherit the earth.

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What Makes A Superhero Story?

Spike Lee was a guest on The Nightly Show the other day and one of the things they discussed briefly was people of color as superheroes. Lee offered up Bruce Lee as an example of an Asian superhero. Which raises an interesting question, what exactly is it that makes a superhero narrative?

Could be the narrative type. The typical superhero plot follows an outsider/everyman (so, Peter Parker, Tony Stark, Clark Kent) who has some special abilities (spider-stuff, money and brains, Krpton-ness) that is called on to use these abilities to do some heroing (save New York, save New York, save New York Metropolis). That narrative works well when you apply it to your typical Kung Fu movie. Jackie Chan’s Keung in Rumble In The Bronx is an outsider/everyman (dude from Hong Kong in New York for his uncle’s wedding) who has some special ability (Kung Fu) which he uses to do some heroing (save a small part of New York). So, sure, Kung Fu movies play into this superhero narrative.

But then, so does, say, Die Hard. It’s about an outsider/everyman (a New York cop in Los Angeles) who has some special abilities (not-giving-up and super-cop skills) and is called on to do some heroing (defeat Hans Gruber).  And Hot Rod in which an outsider/everyman (Rod Kimble, stuntman)  who has some special abilities (again, stuntman) is called on to do some heroing (do a stunt to save his step-father so he can beat him). It’s in Star Wars, it’s in Chuck. It’s, in some ways, the Hero’s Journey distilled. The obvious issue here is that it’s too broad a definition. Let’s try again.

Maybe the hero can’t do any vague heroing, but has to save the world. Superman saves Metropolis, but he also stops Lex or Zod from going on to rule more. But then, Spider-Man doesn’t protect much more than New York (if that) and Daredevil’s range of protection is a single neighborhood in Manhattan. But no one would argue that those aren’t superhero movies.

Does it have to be a villain, then? Most superhero movies have a villain who’s a dark mirror of the hero: Zod is evil Superman, Ivan Vanko is evil Tony Stark, Joker is evil/crazy Batman, Red Skull is racist/facist/Nazi Captain America. This framework rules out movies like Hot Rod (no evil stuntman) and Die Hard (no evil super-cop) and, conveniently, brings the Kung-Fu flick back in. What’s a good martial arts film without an evil martial artist for the hero to fight? But we also lose out on any Superman movies with Lex Luthor or Guardians of the Galaxy, where that foil isn’t quite at play. Many of the X-Men movies are also very much without the evil inverse of the hero beyond the Magneto/Professor X dynamic.

Maybe Spike Lee was referring to Bruce Lee in The Green Hornet, where he played the hero’s sidekick, Kato. That lets us define the superhero movie as one about people who wear masks (or disguises) to fight crime. Even though in the Marvel movies, Iron Man and Captain America aren’t secret identities, they do still wear outfits to save the world. But it breaks down with Guardians or Thor where there isn’t too much in the way of special outfits, least not more than Aragorn and Han Solo have special outfits.

If we are willing to throw Kung Fu films out the window, because at this point the interest is to just find an encompassing description of just superhero films rather than one that overlaps the two neatly, we can use the trusted it’s-based-on-a-comic thing. That gives us all of the DC and Marvel movies — good, but then we have to include Kingsman and 300 while throwing out The Incredibles. We can’t say superpowers, because then if Bruce Wayne gets to be a superhero, doesn’t Gorden Gekko get to too? Y’know, I’m almost beginning to think that the term ‘superhero story’ really doesn’t work all that well as a means for describing a movie.

Doesn’t mean don’t need an Asian superhero though (c’mon Marvel, make Iron Fist Asian!).

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This is why we can’t have nice things, JEB!

I don’t really talk about politics on this blog…ever. Well, aside from, y’know, the historical or entries on diversity or women in fiction. But every now and then something shows up that’s nonpartisan enough but still related enough to what I usually write about for a good discussion.

An interview with Jeb Bush (Or JEB) has been making the rounds lately, wherein he’s asked who his favorite superhero is. This alone is worth noting because we’re at the point in where a presidential candidate can be asked about superheroes. Yes, this is a part of nerd culture becoming mainstream, but it’s also a reflection of superheroes forming a new mythology. They can be discussed as a cultural touchstone no matter who you are. Point is to say that the fact that he was even asked this question is remarkable in and of itself. Superheroes have become a new pantheron, to some extent; though decidedly fictional, they are a sort of example of humanity in all its forms  (which, y’know, is all the more the reason to have a more diverse lineup, but I digress). There’s probably a whole other paper in that idea, but not here.

Anyway, after mentioning that watching Marvel movies makes him wish that he owned the company — which I’m not even gonna touch here — he decides that Batman may be his favorite, albeit a dark choice. But he’s aware of Supergirl being a thing, courtesy of the new advertising blitz, and thinks she’s hot.

Okay. He could have answered the question one of a dozen very neutral, safe ways; but he chooses to bring Supergirl up… because she’s hot? Dude, no. It’s fun that this is the sort of question we can ask a presidential candidate, but at the same time, but why does one of the more serious presidential candidates think it’s okay to talk about her looks as a defining factor? Even if a question like this takes center stage, a female hero still gets the short end of the stick. Yes, she got mentioned — that’s great! But she gets mentioned only to be reduced down to a pretty face. He could have mentioned that she could fly — that’s in the marketing too! — but nope, she’s hot and that’s key.

“But Josh,” you say, “you’re making way too big a deal out of this, it’s just one guy’s opinion!” Well, straw man, remember what I said earlier about superheroes being a new mythology? It goes with it then, that the perception of them is a reflection of culture as a whole. And Jeb’s comments reflect a culture that still judges a woman by her appearance rather than her abilities.

Which is really frustrating, because there’s a steady cultural shift away from female superheroes defining characteristic being their looks and related attributes. Carol Danvers got a new outfit and is firmly regarded as Earth’s Mightiest Avenger. I can’t speak for the show (having not seen it), but it looks like Supergirl is doing something similar, for starters by giving her a costume that’s more practical than titillating. Going beyond the world of comics, Fury Road mad us like Furiosa because she was badass and capable, not because she was ‘hot.’ Furiosa, more so than Carol Danvers or Supergirl, has been recognized for this in a big way.

In the movie/TV world characters are idealized, and this means prettified, but while handsome male characters can still be interesting, the pretty women are often there just to be pretty. While kick ass grungy women are awesome, to really even out the gender imbalance we need to allow for attractive women to be interesting and valued for qualities beyond their looks. Because it’s not fair when a male character needs no justification, but a female one does — and it’s her looks.

In any case, we, as a culture, from presidential candidates on down, have gotta stop defining women — in fiction or not — by how attractive the are. In the meantime, we should at least talk a lot more about how hot the new Batman is. But especially the new Aquaman.

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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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The New Western

The superhero genre – since it’s become a genre unto itself and not a subset of science-fiction or action – is really taking off, in case you haven’t noticed. Between Marvel Studios putting out two movies a year, DC’s big plans to do big things, and the companies Marvel sold characters to over the years trying to make good on their investments. It’s big.

Some articles I’ve read online have likened the superhero genre to the western. It sounds a touch farfetched at first; the western’s about cowboys and lawless towns, superhero flicks are about people in costumes and their derring-do.

But the western is also in some ways a morality play. You’ve got the good cowboy and the bad one, the white hat and black hat. Good versus evil. Same with the superhero genre. Dark and brooding as Batman is, he’s fighting for good. The X-Men want acceptance and coexistence, as opposed to the Brotherhood’s want to dominate. Robert McKee’s description of the western; “a mythical golden age for allegories of good versus evil,” works equally well for the superhero.

The western was immensely popular for a period of time, with some of the earliest movies ever made showing shades of the genre. These films, particularly the ones most remembered (which I’ve found out are considered revisionist westerns, as they deconstructed a lot of tropes of the westerns that came before), feature elements that can be reliably found across the board. You’ve got the desolate town on the edge of civilization and the duel at high noon, for example. There’re the themes of lawfulness and lawlessness and doing wrong to do the right thing. Conventions are expected.

Likewise, the superhero genre, now reliably bringing in millions of dollars at the box-office, is arguably the closest thing we’ve got to a sure thing. Until recently, the structure and set up of superhero movies were reliably similar to one another. You had the hero getting powers, the hero figuring out what to do with his (because face it, just about every lead in a superhero film has been male) newfound powers, rises to the mantle of his responsibility, then goes to fight the villain who’s often a byproduct of his own call to heroism. Usually, if we’re watching a superhero movie, be it Batman Begins or Iron Man, we know what we’re getting into – and we’re watching it for that.

There’s the argument that the western afforded greater flexibility. Simpler sets and lower budgets meant just about anyone could take a stab at it. With a great range of voices involved, the western offered diverse takes on the themes of the genre which allowed it to grow into the esteem it holds today. The western could be about someone audiences had never heard about and would still be engrossing.

But superhero movies need massive budgets for intricate special effects and they need the comic book source to do well. They’re tied to studios and the money they afford, strangling out creativity and voices in favor of rolling in the dough. Hence the formula.

…right?

See, here’s where I think the superhero genre’s moved forwards, maybe even more so than the western. And I’m not talking about the smaller, independent ones like Chronicle; I mean Marvel’s tentpoles and the like. Over the past few years, we’ve seen superhero films going past what we’re expecting from them. The Winter Soldier was more like a spy thriller than your usual superhero set up; The Dark Knight was a crime movie; and Thor has heavy shades of fantasy. They remain expensive, but the movies show thematic and stylistic variance.

Guardians of the Galaxy may be most emblematic of superhero movies going forwards. For starters, Star-Lord and the others were hardly household names when the film was announced. The majority of the film’s audience wasn’t going to the movie because of the recognition of the name. Then Guardians hardly followed the typical superhero plot, eschewing it instead for the space opera. So here’s a superhero movie that feels very much unlike a superhero movie, yet still is one. Why?

At its core, Guardians has that central theme of a superhero film: good versus evil, where the hero has to overcome their flaws to defeat the villain. At the end of the day, that’s the kernel of the genre. Unlike the western, however, superhero films have a lot more flexibility setting-wise with how to explore it.

So here we are, on the verge of several, several new superhero movies over the next few years, with a big concern being that we’re gonna grow tired of them really soon. But give the genres similarly to the western, the western’s staying power in its heyday, and the comparative flexibility of the superhero film; I’m thinking we’ll be alright.

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