As everybody knows, Birdman won the Best Picture Oscar for 2014…a film that has a tangential connection to super-hero films….whereas both Captain America II: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of The Galaxy—box office blockbusters—were ignored.
In my opinion, Birdman was a lugubriously paced, self-indulgent and altogether unengaging movie about NOTHING…the total opposite of Cap2 and Guardians.
In January, film critic Kevin Maher wrote an article for Esquire complaining bitterly about the flood of movies derived or adapted from comic books, as if they were drowning all the intelligent and literate films out there…presumably instant classics like Blended and Horrible Bosses 2.
As it is, the tone of his whiny screed reminds me of a line from Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night: “I suspect that the review above was written by a pansy full of brandy Alexanders.”
Read it for yourself then come back.
Here’s the way I feel about it…
Bad comic-book derived films are no more an affront to the sensibilities than bad comedies or bad dramas. Asking why the American public needs six Spider-Man movies in the last 12 years is like asking why the American public needs three Hangover movies in the last five. There’s no answer except the most obvious one. People want to see ‘em.
There are quite a few movies based on comic book properties I’ve not just disliked, I’ve outright despised—Kickass, Sin City, Batman and Robin come immediately to mind…but there are a lot more movies NOT based on comic book properties I’ve despised just as much—and I’m not talking about beloved bad movie classics like Plan 9 From Outer Space, either. I mean the overwrought, big-budget highly acclaimed extravaganzas, such as Les Miserables and The Aviator.
Just to go on record—in case somebody is keeping one—my absolute favorite film of all time is Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo…so it’s not like I’m hard-wired to prefer movies featuring people parading around in tights over any other type.
However, I submit that the best of the comic book-derived films–like the last six years worth of Marvel Studios movies produced by Disney–are so far and away superior to pointless claptrap like Birdman, the comparison is almost laughable.
The two Captain America movies, the Iron Man trilogy and even the pair of Thor films manage to feel like they are actually about something…even if it’s only the suggestion we’re all part of a larger universe and there are things which may be more important than our day-to-day needs.
The first Avengers film in particular stressed a major recurring theme of the Marvel Age of Comics—that heroic people have ordinary concerns and more importantly, ordinary people can be heroic.
On that note—what a lot critics of comic book movies don’t comprehend is that a substantial percentage of the ticket-buying audience grew up reading about all of these characters…and in a lot instances, they did more than just read about them, they cared about them and felt that Tony Stark, Peter Parker, Steve Rogers, Thor, et. al were friends.
The movies produced by Disney are ingeniously structured to bridge the gap between people who have never picked up a Marvel comic in their lives and satisfy those of us who may’ve spent way too many hours of our childhoods collecting ‘em and poring over ‘em.
The characters are recognizable to us—unlike the most recent cinematic reimaginings of Batman and Superman, we know that The Avengers are presented as the same characters whose adventures we read about growing up.
The recognition factor is one of the pleasures of watching these films, despite the changes in the transition between the printed page and a movie script. Cap is still Cap, The Hulk is still the Hulk and Thor is still Thor…and Loki as portrayed by Tom Huddleston is even more viciously lovable in the movies than he was on the printed page.
So, in some ways when we go to these movies, it feels like we’re visiting old friends or –in my own case–recapturing some of the few happy memories I have of childhood.
Also—by anybody’s standards, these are technically brilliant pieces of work. The production values are fantastically high, the acting is top-notch, and Joss Whedon’s script for The Avengers is probably going to be the Gold Standard by which all other super-hero movie screenplays will be measured against.
Moreover, almost all of the Marvel Studios films are grounded in a form of an enhanced reality…and like the old comic books, they’re filled with humor and humanity, sprinkled throughout with little gems of true charm.
Even as a kid I knew that super-hero movies couldn’t be made believable until special effects technology caught up with the concepts. The first two Christopher Reeve Superman films were encouraging, but it was patently obvious there was still a long way to go.
Now that hurdle has finally been leaped. The special effects supplement and compliment the story without anything too obviously fake dragging the audience out of their suspension of disbelief.
So, I find it significant that if a movie adapted from a comic—whether it’s super-hero or not—doesn’t perform well, the critics crow in gleeful unison about the imminent death of comic book movies…but they don’t apply that attitude across the board. They don’t think that the failure of say, Jupiter Ascending, spells doom for future entries in the Star Wars or Star Trek franchises.
Yeah…right. Like that will happen never.
Accept it–comic book movies in general and ones based on super-heroes in particular are now mainstream genres. They’re no longer the opiate of fringe-dwelling nerds nor are they going away…because from here on out, there will always be a growing audience for them.
Unlike the current comics with incredibly twisted continuities appealing to a tiny readership of mainly middle-aged collectors, the movies are geared to keep a general audience coming back and growing, using the James Bond franchise as a template.
Granted, sometimes I really don’t know how I feel about super-heroes…although I own The Justice Machine –the first super-team published in the independent comics era, well over 30 years ago–the whole set-up of super-suits and super-powers occasionally strikes me as intolerably silly…on other days it doesn’t.
I dunno…maybe it’s just a side-effect of getting older, like hair sprouting in your ear canals
But still, even the most snobbish, pretentious film critic has to agree the output of Marvel Studios is always of high quality but like anything else, there will be hits and misses along the way.
I’m sure the Kevin Maheras out there have their fingers and toes crossed, praying the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron will be a box-office catastrophe…which doesn’t seem likely.
Still…if the Kevins continue to delude themselves into thinking that the super-hero movie genre is on life support…that really is SuperCaliFragiNonsense.