Sorry snobs, superhero films are here to stay

Friday, February 2, 2018 
It’s an inextricable part of being a part of “geek culture” or simply being a fan of comic books and superheroes in general. You must constantly contend with the horde of detractors who look down their nose at the genre as being the stuff of juvenile nonsense, or else as being “all the same.” Dear snobs: I have a bone to pick with you people, and I’m tired of all your callous denunciation and condescending dismissal. Since you’re throwing so much shade, I figured I might as well shine a light on just why superhero movies are so good, and so important.

I recently found myself fuming when actress Jodie Foster condemned superhero films, but then again, that’s rather par for the course with these sorts of Hollywood stuffed shirts, who think their Oscar-winning dramas and indie films are inherently superior to anything fantasy or sci-fi – you know, all that silly, cartoonish drivel. Anyway, she claimed that superhero movies have turned Hollywood into “a theme park,” and said it is an example of studios “making bad content in order to appeal to the masses and shareholders. It’s ruining the viewing habits of the American population. I don’t want to make $200 million movies about superheroes.” Well, good for you! You don’t have to like the genre, or the format, or the shift in pop culture that has resulted from the wave of comic book-inspired, shared universe films, but to bash it and call it “bad content” is simply ignorant.

Then again, the prejudice is nothing new. Sci-fi got its fair share of hate decades prior, and has only recently been treated with newfound respect. Fantasy still hasn’t gotten there yet, and must still contend with insults (“oh, isn’t that all that silly knights and dragons stuff?”), though Game of Thrones is helping to finally bring the genre into mainstream consciousness, where hopefully, it will get the credit it is owed. But comic books, despite “appealing to the masses” still fill a particular niche within spectulative fiction, and much the same with their film adaptations. For every superfan looking forward to the next Thor film or the Wonder Woman sequel, there’s the sneering forty-year-old who thinks each superhero movie is indistinguishable from the next, or the indie film-worshipping hipster who sniffily remarks that he’s “grown out of all that comic book stuff, thank you very much.”

Now, it’s true that quite often, the masses will flock to a thing simply because it is popular or “the thing to do.” Success alone is not enough to merit the artistic integrity of a thing. A true analysis of its content, on the other hand, will almost always indicate whether a film has such value, and that’s why – pretentious as they are – critics are so important to have. For those who have never seen a superhero film, for example, a well-written review of one could give that person an informed opinion, which will help him or her decide on whether they want to get into this “comic book stuff.” Now, about that ‘content’ part. So much of what dominates the modern box office is a classic case of “all form and no content.” Sure, there’s plenty of CGI. Guns are blazing, cars are revving, things are blowing up, but where’s the story? Is there anything intellectual going on? In many of today’s major Hollywood movies, the answer is a resounding “no.” But one of the reasons I simply cannot abide the misinformed criticisms made by actresses like Foster is because superhero movies hardly ever suffer from this problem. Sure, there’s a lot of focus on form, but that ‘content’ part is just as present. And if you really understand the appeal of comics, you know that it sort of has to be.

Comic book fans know that everything from ongoing sagas to multi-title crossovers are generally built upon plenty of story, with some exceptions (I’m looking at you, Secret Wars). Because movies are adapting this sort of material, they kind of have to follow suit, even if that leaves big studio execs nervous (“My god, an actual plot?! How will the short attention-spanned millennials sit through two hours of this? How will we make money?”). Take a look at the first Iron Man film, or The Dark Knight, or Watchmen. It’s literally all about the story; in fact, if you’re not following along closely, you’ll miss key plot points and likely be quite confused. These films are inherently intellectual, and that’s why their association with modern geek culture is pretty much on point.

The advent of superhero films is also exciting, because they have achieved what most fantasy has not yet been able to on the big screen. They have inspired and exhilarated audiences, giving us stories, action, laughs, and everything from gods to green monsters to aliens to sorcerers. Because of the cross-genre diversity present in many titles by Marvel and DC Comics, these shared film universes are allowed to be mishmashes of damn near everything under the sun. Want a space opera with retro music and ridiculous laughs? Check out Guardians of the Galaxy. Want a war drama mixed with action and a little fantasy? Captain America or Wonder Woman should satisfy that need. How about a political thriller? Captain America: The Winter Soldier. A straight-up epic fantasy? Thor: Ragnarok. A fun, fast-paced, heist movie? Ant-Man. A sci-fi ensemble film that explores artificial intelligence? Avengers: Age of Ultron. It’s almost wrong to merely call them “superhero films,” because they’re so much more than that.

And let’s talk about shared universes. Let me point out that this is something that Hollywood had long ago (in a way), and sort of let fall by the wayside until Marvel brought it back. Specifically, take a look at the old Universal Studios monster films. Remember Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, or House of Dracula? Characters from previous films crossed over. Hell, they even combined it with the old Abbott and Costello comedies, with stuff like Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy. I actually used to watch those as a kid. The Godzilla films are another example of a shared universe. It also existed on TV – check out shows like Hercules and Xena; the latter was a spinoff of the former, and the two consistently crossed over with one another. There were even plans for further spinoffs and crossovers that never came to fruition.

Not only is the shared universe not a new concept, it’s also an example of doing something fun and exciting with movies. As filmmakers know, movies are about doing something different – different formats, genres, styles, etc. How about found-footage? Pioneered by films like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, the horror subgenre never would have gotten off the ground if people had simply dismissed it as somehow “ruining movies.” Other takes on films, like the buddy cop thing, or cyberpunk, or the spaghetti western, were all new at one point, and were given the chance to flourish. I see no reason why the superhero or comic book-based genre should be any exception.

Take an honest look at most of the well-reviewed superhero films out there. No, really. Leave your pomposity at home and bring only your sense of imagination. As you watch, you should not only examine the film for its quality, but you should also try and gauge your actual natural enjoyment of it. If you do like it, don’t try and deny it or find an excuse to dismiss your enthusiasm. Do that, and the cold, snobby cynics win the day. No, we must beat back the tide of pretentious insults by showing the world of superhero films for what it is – something wonderful, exciting, and powerful.

I’m a self-professed comic book reader, superhero movie fan, and yes, most certainly, a geek. For people like us, it’s a great time to be alive. I look forward to catching each new episode of Arrow, and to seeing Avengers: Infinity War when it hits theaters. I hope to see more female-led superhero films, like a Black Widow or Harley Quinn movie. I want to see more sagas and crossover events from the comics adapted to the big screen. I look forward to seeing Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange meet Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, and Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man meet Zoe Saldana’s Gamora.

There’s nothing wrong with the pure enjoyment offered by these cinematic universes, and it is absolutely not ruining Hollywood. You know what is harming the film industry? Capitalism. Greed. Pursuit of sequel-making and franchise development in place of a good script and solid acting. The presentation of loud, all form and no content shoot-em-up affairs instead of challenging, fantastical stories. But most superhero films are not part of this dilemma (yet), and we must give credit where credit is due. A few days from now I’ll be catching the latest episode of The Flash. And nothing any detractor can ever say will stop me from watching it – and enjoying it.

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