The Superhero Genre Debate.
many bad films (more than experts and Hollywood
executives expected for 2012) have rightly bombed, there is still a backlash,
shock and bewilderment that superhero genre films are the big attraction. This extends to even smart film critics who
don’t get it. With the Superhero genre,
each person who does not get it tends to misunderstand it for different
reasons, but it is fair to say it is the most misunderstood genre of filmmaking
since Film Noir.
odd since Noir is not a genre Hollywood
studios invented, but one filmmakers did invent (Orson Welles, followed closely
behind by John Huston, other key names like Fritz Lang and hundreds of unsung
filmmakers making independent works) and one so subversive it helped lead to
the Hollywood Witchhunts of the 1950s.
Unlike Superhero films, Noirs are respected though they were usually
considered B-movie fare mistakenly at first.
In comparison, Westerns were B-movie fare for decades before John Ford made
Stagecoach in 1939 and Superhero
films really began in the silent era as action serials as precursors to what
would soon make the pages of comic books.
strips were as serial as the serials, but sound and an upsurge of pulp magazine
production in the 1920s changed that, followed very closely by the rise of
dramatic radio network programming.
Though Superheroes are usually sited as coming from the DC or Marvel
publishing arms, many companies were responsible for the genre (including
Fawcett which gave us now DC-owned Shazam! (aka Captain Marvel) who was
monstrously popular in his time and Quality, who gave us Plastic Man, also now
well-read, articulate and cinematically literate New York Times duo of A.O.
Scott (whose recent review of the megahit Marvel
Avengers movie had co-star Samuel L. Jackson calling for his resignation) and
Manohla Dargis co-wrote an article called “Super-Dreams of an Alternate World Order”
which you (if you have access to the great newspaper’s site) can access at the
the first page link:
general argument and gist of the article is that the genre (which we can say
finally cemented itself on TV after some key serials with Batman (two),
Superman (two), The Green Hornet (two, and he is a descendant of The Lone
Ranger), The Shadow, Captain America and the especially classic Adventures Of
Captain Marvel with the huge hit 1950s Superman
and 1960s Batman TV series) is that
the new cycle of films are only happening because billion-dollar companies want
them to happen, that they are all suddenly serious films (despite the failures
to the contrary of Green Lantern, Jonah Hex and Green Hornet (the last an intended comedy) though some reboots are
getting a little darker and more serious) and that they are still white
heterosexual male power fantasy narratives despite some female heroes (is that
comment on Scarlett Johansson in the Marvel
Avengers actually sexist on their part?) and African American heroes
(Jackson in the same film was referred to as a cheerleader more or less) and
that endless toy tie-ins are a big financial incentive and plus.
That is a
convenient set of arguments, but I think they are both oversimplifying and
tailoring what they see to fit neatly (too neatly) for their own good just to
make their arguments valid. If anything,
something much more interesting is actually happening and just about everyone
seems to be missing it.
enough about the genre to write a big book, so I will try to stick to basic
points. I can start by continuing my
explanation of the rise of the genre.
the success in print, in filmed serials, sometimes on radio and in the earliest
(and some of the most valuable if you have them) toys and collectibles, the
next thing that happened to allow Superheroes to have their own genre was the
advent of color on film. The George
Reeves Superman did start in black
and white, but it soon became (in part because the makers could cut episodes
into artificial movies and put them out in theaters for people to see color,
which was ten years away for analog TV) the first regularly filmed color TV
show even though hardly anyone had a color TV.
This was even before NBC owners RCA started making Bonanza that way because they were about to introduce color TV.
a filmed superhero tale could look like a four-color comic book and even feel
like one. For the genre, this was very
important, even when it was under political assault and had its ups and
downs. Like Rock Music, many thought it
would be a fad that would go away and many somehow remarkably still act this
way, but Superheroes and Rock have some strong common denominators and they
include American ideas (whether myth or not) of freedom, justice, progress and
a better future because one is pro-active in going for such a future. Thus, Superhero genre books were attacked as
Rock Music would soon be.
comedy affair, the Adam West Batman
series was an event because the comics were good, there were so many great
characters to work with (more than Superman)
and that is why it became a pop culture phenomenon and some of the most
talented actors and stars in Hollywood who would have never worked in such a field otherwise were suddenly
tripping over each other to be on the show.
There was no Dark Knight yet and only some Superhero comics were dark to
begin with. As a result, the show
brought a classiness and respectability (albeit in a semi-comedy variant of how
we know Batman now) that permanently set the stage for Superhero production to
be A-level product.
were still many problems with translating the genre to film, though some animated
series that followed in the wake of Batman (including the 1967 Spider-Man series, some less-expensive
other Marvel series (Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, Sub Mariner) with great theme songs
that cut out artwork straight from the comics and brought them to life
(including then-groundbreaking art from one of the all-time visual giants of
the artform, Jack Kirby) and Filmation Studios launching their whole legendary
company on Superman, followed by Superboy, Batman, Aquaman, Justice League, Teen Titans, Green Lantern,
The Flash and a few other DC
commercial success of those cartoons, led by an unstoppable combination of
children, adults with heart and members of the counterculture moments who saw
these characters as subversive and vital as any pop culture (including artists
like Lichtenstein and Warhol) permanently cemented Superheroes in pop culture
worldwide for good, even though no one took them seriously except for some
laughs and to make money.
continued the trend with the even more massive success of Superfriends!, a show DC made with another animation studio, Hanna
Barbera. Though child-safe to a fault,
its 1973 debut stunned the industry with its high ratings in the middle of the
Golden Age of Big Three Network Saturday Morning Cartoon programming and the
show ran for over a dozen years, not coincidentally ending when the genre was
being “rolled back” in the early part of the Reagan 1980s for being a threat to
finally found a live action success with Kenneth Johnson’s take on The Incredible Hulk, but would not
duplicate that success with actors for 20 years, while DC saw Batman become one of the most
successfully syndicated TV shows of all time in reruns along with the older Superman still doing business and after
a failed short film attempt in the late 1960s and odd TV movie with the
beautiful Cathy Lee Crosby in 1974, the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman was a smash hit (around the time Johnson’s Bionic Woman was a hit) and the first
round of the building of the genre was complete. The Superhero world had strong, smart
progressive women before the feminist movement ever happened, with Wonder
Woman, Batgirl and others reflecting future progress out of the suffrage
movement that led to the 18th Amendment in 1920 allowing women to
took was Richard Donner’s hit Superman –
The Movie in 1978 and the genre was suddenly full fledged and had come full
circle from its simple origins. Though
each film got worse and bad films and TV projects mostly followed, the genre
was established, left for dead by major studios, not taken seriously and was
Frank Miller gave us the classic graphic novel comic book The Dark Knight Returns in 1986 and the return of the repressed
began. Hollywood tried to Reaganize the movement
with the 1989 Tim Burton Batman with
its right-of-center ideology atypical of the genre, but it was a hit and
because of an unprecedented promotional campaign by Warner Bros., more a
darling of great marketing than great filmmaking. That is why the follow-up films were not as
commercially successful and Burton’s
idea of weird-for-dark instead of being dark threw off the audience enough that
he was replaced by Joel Schumacher for the somewhat underrated Batman Returns and then horrid Batman & Robin, killing the series.
films that brought on the current cycle of films include Russell Mulcahy’s The Shadow (1996, a basis for
Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins)
and Marvel finally after decades of trying, found Stephen Norrington’s Blade (1998) bringing Marvel into the
feature film genre fold. The successes
that follow stem from those films and they are not necessarily based on some
kind of corporate white nationalism that Dargis and Scott are arguing. That was not the case with Bryan Singer’s two X-Men films, doesn’t necessarily
fit any of the four Spider-Man films
(Peter Parker is hardly in any position of power, save when he wears that
uniform) and the films that work that people are paying to see has to do with a
genre that is usually anti-racist, anti-sexist and about the underdog, so their
arguments in this respect are limited.
say that calling the DC characters “born of the Depression” has some validity,
but why do they not note non-DC characters like Captain Marvel, The Shadow (who
arrived around the time of the crash), Green Hornet, The Lone Ranger and even
Popeye and Plastic Man. Many of the
Marvel characters were born in the 1960s as they noted, but that does not
include The Human Torch, Sub Mariner or Captain America who were form that
first wave, so I just think their ideas are not soundly argued, spelled out or
based on all the facts.
so much more to the genre, but we’ll save that for another time. Now that the Marvel Avengers has had record
box office, watch how the terrific new Amazing
Spider-Man (in 3D yet, and 3D that works) and Dark Knight Rises is going to be more than just about the money.
again return to this territory soon.