Paul Counter responds to Paul Lynch‘s insistence that superhero movies are no longer films for our times featured in Film Ireland‘s ‘Sounding Off‘ section – the place for debate and discussion on the topics that you find most compelling.
Last month’s Film Ireland carried a cover showcasing the Death of a Superhero, and a back page proclaiming it. After years of horrible box-office domination the superheroes were finally about to succumb to their kryptonite – in these complex times, cinema audiences would demand more from their heroes and superheroes would simply be outgrown.
The aspiring scriptwriter in me is yelling just to nod and look intelligent. It really is. I’d love to work with some of the people on this forum in the future. Why am I sticking my head above the parapet and defending these awful films?
The comic book fan won’t lie down though. The main reason he can’t sit still is not to convince you superhero films are high art, or even better than half good. There have been many superhero films so bad they should be wiped from existence. It’s because super hero films really aren’t about to die. They are obviously making a fortune. And it’s because having spent many years with the guilty secret of admiring men in tights who can summon thunder, I’d like to understand why now so many other people pay for a cinema ticket to do so. And it’s because if we’re serious about making films in Ireland with a real commercial appeal, as James Hickey says, then we should try to honestly assess why these films make huge, huge money each summer rather than exaggerating rumours of their demise.
The thrust of Paul Lynch’s argument is, I think, that superhero films have been in existence for 70 years, and their format of good versus evil must evolve to reflect more complex times today or else it will lose its audience. Whether we might wish it so or not, as a statement of fact this is utterly wrong.
The modern CGi-enabled superhero blockbuster has been with us for around a decade and as a spectacle is a completely different beast to what went before. Five of the highest ten grossing superhero films have been released in the last four years. More and more are being greenlit for development by studios desperate for the sure-fire return they bring (listing the number of sequels and reboots slated for release would exhaust you, reader). Rather than needing to evolve, this vast success is stunting growth, leading to a formulaic and limited approach to recycling the same kind of story.
With their easily translatable character arc, obvious external change, internal dilemmas and protagonists, the superhero origin story could have come straight from one of Syd Field’s workshops. With their huge brand recognition (since those ’40s films there have been millions of comic books and hundreds of cartoons) and universal values these films are of course that dreaded thing, the perfect summer blockbuster. Indeed superheroes and Hollywood have become such a match made in heaven that Disney recently bought Marvel, one of the two major comic book companies.
Suggesting that that simple story structure and a clear moral delineation are exclusive to superhero tales or have had their day is equally wrong. This is true of most films throughout history and will remain so until we become so cynical that good and evil are concepts a generation doesn’t even encounter in childhood.
So are superhero films kids films dressed as adult films? Of course. Challenging the films to grow up is paradoxical when the route of their success is that they allow the audience to do exactly the opposite. Today’s audience grew up with these characters as kids. At the root of their appeal are individuals who choose to wear spandex, can do impossible things, live in mansions and drive flying cars. This is essentially a childish fantasy, much like becoming a Teletubby or appearing on Wanderly Wagon. Unlike a guest slot on the Wagon, however, harnessing the living power of the sun and driving a flying car still appeals to me immensely. It stops becoming so appealing however if I have to park my flying car outside the White House to advise Obama on a responsible foreign policy, or spend a six months helping a recovering drug addict through a painful rehab. Other films do this very well, that simply is not the function of the superhero film.
Perhaps the time will come when the genre must subvert that expectation, as Paul observes the Western chose to do with the morally confused ‘70s upon it. It should be remembered though that the most successful film of the seventies was Star Wars. Westerns had simply been overtaken by better special effects and spaceships.
The most interesting aspect of all this is the one he has back to front. The complex times we live in don’t damage black and white escapism: they encourage it. With property out of reach to first-time buyers this generation stays at home longer. Grown men play on playstations. We get married later, and get drunk more. We exist in a state of extended kidulthood, an absence of responsibility that just wasn’t there in the ‘70s, so the audience has changed.
But could superhero films grow up? There is the material to support this such as The Authority and The Ultimates (which reimagines the Avengers as alcoholics/schizophrenics /wife beaters), but this isn’t the version getting made (Watchmen excepted). The problem is, I suspect, because the audience like to be quite clear what they are getting when they purchase a cinema ticket – probably one of the few experiences where we deliberately purchase the goods without inspecting them – and for a superhero film they expect mindless escapism.
Can we get better superhero films? My definition of a better superhero film would be different to my definition of a better piece of cinema, so it depends. They are films that arrive at the cinema with a history already behind them. Where a film captures the essence of the source material from page to screen, entertains an audience and generates enough revenue for a sequel to be made it has probably done its job. It’s not meant to be anything more.
Are comic films going to be left behind then in an evolutionary cinema race in which they are unable to adapt? No. They currently have no need to adapt, and the material is there if, and when, they do.
The more likely reason for their extinction is the finite number of characters that automatically command a large audience. With Spider-Man already on his fourth film this summer, three Nolan Batfilms and five X-Men films already completed, people will tire of seeing the same characters and studios will be unwilling to invest in lesser known properties.
Until that happens, for those that have no history with comic books, and no desire to reconnect with that inner child, I suggest the best course of action is simply to avoid watching them. I doubt they damage credible cinema, or take any audience share from more meritorious films, indeed with cinemas teetering on the edge of economic viability these cash cows probably effectively subsidise much of the more creative endeavour out there.
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