Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Death of Supermen

I used to love comic books when I was growing up. And especially super hero comics. In Ankara during the early eighties, there simply wasn’t a wide enough variety of titles for me to choose from, which was a problem for a chubby child whose footballing talents made him the laughing stock of the local kids (it might have had something to do with my mother dressing me up as a girl until I was fourteen, but probably not).

There were a few Turkish titles making the rounds, all of them historical tomes taking place during the glory days of the Huns or the Ottomans. Most of them were reprints from the seventies, and had the feel of newspaper serials than full blown comic books. Some were pretty awesome, mind: I doubt if Spider-Man ever battled the Romans as well as an army of Chinese vampires simultaneously, but Tarkan did, and it was pretty fucking cool (Aside: Tarkan was also published in the UK at one point, and Lew Stringer has provided a scan right here).

We also had a whole bunch of European (continental) comics. Two of the most popular ones were Italian, I think, and old, too, from the late fifties/early sixties, and being reprinted again and again. Their post-war continental quaintness was offset by how dreadfully dull they both were. People here still go on about how wonderful those books are (one takes place during the American War of Independence, the other in the Wild West a century or so later) – horses for courses. Anyway, I wasn’t into them.

Nor was I into some of the more recent Italian crap like Zagor (no idea why all these characters with European origin were set in the US), or Lee Falk’s Phantom or Mandrake, both of which had healthy runs in this country (they might still be in print, but life’s too short to find out either way).

So, when I say I used to love comic books when I was growing up, what I really mean is I used to love American comics. And those bad boys were difficult to come by.

Conan The Barbarian, Spider-Man and Superman were the only three that were regularly published. My favourite was Conan, and I still think John Buscema’s and Roy Thomas’s run on The Savage Sword of Conan books during the late seventies is still one of the finest pieces of sequential art in the history of the medium. I suppose Conan is more of a pulp hero than a superhero per se, but the Marvel Comics version of the character did tilt more towards the latter. The way the stories were constructed, or characters defined, had more in common with 1970’s superhero comics than Robert E Howard’s original pulp novels (and I think fans of those books would agree).

But I was into Spider-Man and Superman almost as much as I was into Conan. They used to come out every month in black and white, pocket-sized formats, each issue containing about three or four separate stories (some of them carrying on from the previous one). But that was it. No crossovers, no eight hundred different titles to follow in order to get why Superman was fighting a plague of Martian marmosets, no sense of a larger comics universe. I look back now and realise that was a good thing, but, at the time, the lack of all that used to piss me off endlessly (and random references to, or arbitrary appearances by, other heroes were equally frustrating). By the end of the eighties, characters like The Incredible Hulk and The Silver Surfer had received their own titles, and the company that used to run them (called, imaginatively enough, Marvel Turkey) started to include one-off stories from other comics – a few X-Men stories here, a few Defenders (eh, indeed) there.

That was also around the time when original books from DC and Marvel started hitting the shelves. They were prohibitively expensive, and I managed to collect a few, but my full on immersion did not come until a few years later when we moved to Germany, and I was finally able to spend all my pocket money on crap like The Infinity Gauntlet or Quasar. By the time, I’d had my fill, and decided it was a more venerable waste of my time chasing girls and failing, instead of chasing a first edition of Superman #75 and failing, technology had finally started to catch up with what was on the pages of any given issue of the forty-seven different titles of the X-Men.

But I still have a predilection for superheroes. Especially superhero films. Thinking about The Dark Knight this summer, however, I came to the conclusion that their end is nigh. Or, at least, the end of the modern superhero genre.

Now, the modern superhero film does not have its origin in the late nineties, naturally. But, the first four Superman movies, or the first four Batman films, were still different sorts of movies from the type of comic book flicks that came in the wake of the first X-Men movie’s success. Due, mainly, to technical difficulties, or the concrete set of boundaries the studios drew between the comics and their on screen counterparts, most superheroes were treated as separate entities from the larger universe they’d inhabit within their comic books. I remember watching a Stan Lee interview in 1994 or 1995 when he was talking about how Marvel was trying to resolve the issue of rights between them and Sony, and, if successful, their director of choice would be Jim Cameron. What was interesting was the name Lee was championing for Peter Parker: none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger. Even the companies themselves treated the film incarnations of their characters as totally separate properties.

I am also not na├»ve enough to suggest that after X-Men, the films and the comics were completely congruous, all part of one complete whole, but the films have been, more often than not, set in a sort of reality that has much more in common with the comics than just costumes and special powers. Bryan Singer’s X-Men was an anomalous turning point when studios, and filmmakers, realised that sticking closely to established superhero lore, at least as closely as possible, did not have to turn a film inherently unprofitable by appealing to close knit cadre of nerds. If anything, the opposite was true.

Like Silver Surfer to Galactus (NERD!), Singer’s X-Men heralded the coming of the serious superhero movie, and almost all superhero flicks that came after it have stuck to that particular modus operandi, some more so than others. I have to qualify the seriousness I suppose, because I don’t just mean it in its literal sense but the way it alludes to a link with reality. This turned out to be a slippery slope for superhero films. Being grounded in a recognisable, or at least relatable, reality sent the superhero genre towards a dark place where its central, most important tenet - being fun, and having a sense of wonder - was ripped from it by market forces and a vociferous bunch of angry fanboys.

Bryan Singer’s X-Men was the first stop on the long road leading to the enervation of the superhero films. Relatability to reality was key in the way that film was formed – just like in the comics, the mutants worked as a metaphor pretty much any minority you can think of, and their prosecution was made all the less subtle by making the chief villain of the piece a Holocaust survivor. The problem here, of course, was that the benevolent intentions of such a construction was lost in the general movie going populace – or at least the crowd of kids the film was aimed at. In the mutants ongoing fight for recognition, the teens saw their daily tribulations against their parents, school, society – whatever was pissing them off that day.

And this interpretation of the film’s central theme paved the way for pretty much all other comic book films to come in the following decade. Angst, melodrama and pomposity, coupled with the tendency permeating through all blockbusters to be longer, and more excessively violent, eventually transformed the superhero film into a mish mash of half-baked ideas.

The most recent example of this was The Dark Knight, about which I write in more detail in my previous post. The obvious problem is that Batman is a terrible character to begin with. When asked why the Batman in his two films never really made mention of the childhood tragedy that befell his parents, Joel Schumacher said: “I thought he should have got over it by now.” And that is actually a more realistic approach to the character than the supposed realism of the modern Batman mythos. It also offers deeper insight. The realism championed by The Dark Knight, and many a modern superhero flick, is not so much realism but a gray, emo world of banality and bathos, all pandering to the annoying thirteen years old of this world, in age, or in mentality.

(Updated: 23/12/2008): It must be pointed out this is not purely a creative issue since movies like the dreadful Fantastic Four were financial successes despite their awfulness. It boils down to money. People will pour money into a superhero picture no matter how bad it is if it has something (or someone) that appeals to them.

A few astute readers, and Troy in the comments section, have identified this piece as a bit of a cop-out, one friend arguing that "it takes a punk ass look at things, refusing to blame the real reason these movies have gotten so dark and 'realistic.'" And they are kind of right, since most of the blame should go to comic book readers. In a typically arts-major maneuver, comic books started attempting to grasp for respectability when none was required nor expected. They suddenly became overarching "graphic novels." Some are good, like Watchmen and The Crow. Many are not, such as most of Frank Miller's work.

Hollywood, by virtue of looking at what these graphic novels depict, is playing what the people like. And it should be mentioned that only a lack of interest from paying customers will derail the superhero movie train. It's all about money. People love money. That's why they call it money.

Anyway, I can’t name a single straight superhero story since X-Men. There are only so many different ways to approach the characters in order to make them interesting, and the well seems to have been run dry. But let’s take a look at the different ways Hollywood has been approaching superhero stories. Now these “issues” are prevalent in the actual comics themselves, too, but they are never the primary reason for the stories unlike in the films:

The Superhero Movie as Coming of Age Metaphor

The dean of this illustrious school is, of course, Spider-Man. And here I suppose I have to cut the first Spider-Man movie some slack because, in the comics too, the character’s origin was as unsubtle a metaphor as they come. But the comics, as did Peter Parker, outgrew this phase.
The Spider-Man comics, the first fifteen – twenty years, had, what now appears to be, a formulaic set up, even though, at the time, it was revolutionary. The day-to-day tribulations of the eponymous hero’s alter ego were shadowed by the latter’s punch-ups with his super-powered enemies. It was a refreshing approach, but, as the character grew and developed, it got old. Thankfully, the comics moved the fuck on. The films, alas, haven’t (so far). They reached their apex with the second entry, and their nadir with the third.

As a sub-genre, like all the others I shall presently get to, this is a cul-de-sac. Creatively, it’s a vicious circle treading the same ground ad infinitum. Its sole purpose, apart from allowing me to mix metaphors like a whirling dervish moonlighting as a bartender, is to make teenagers (of all ages) feel content. There will always be a market for it. Then again, there’s always a market for crap like the Jonas Brothers, too. Market potential and quality are mutually exclusive.

The Superhero Movie as Issue Metaphor

This sub-genre also has its roots in the comics. The X-Men books, originating as they did in the mid-sixties, were all-too-obvious allegories to the civil rights movement. The films, too, used the mutant cause as a metaphorical tool to link their risible core with world affairs (as did Superman IV, but let’s ignore that for the time being).

The problem is this approach has also hit a major creative roadblock. The X-Men films or The Dark Night are thematically so amorphous that they can be construed as winks at pretty much anything the viewer wants them to be. Gay rights, War on Terror, Iraq… You name the issue, the films can be stretched to cover it. This was also the case with Apocalypto or 300, too: Postmodern and metatextual commentary so blatant, yet so insipid that any critical charge can be countered by a defensive shrug. “It’s only a movie.” Well, yes. But it is also incredibly cowardly to take a stand against an issue, and then dismiss it when the stand being made is asked to be accounted for. Superhero movies these days are all too happy to make blanket statements about this issue or the other. That’s not the problem. The problem is the lack of a cohesive core.

I am interested to see how the sequel to Iron Man is going to deal with Stark’s alcoholism, for example, without actually dealing with his alcoholism.

The Funny Superhero Movie

This approach has a few faces (like Man-a-Faces from the old He-Man cartoons). It can be a spoof, like Mystery Men (great). It can be a meta-comedy like Hancock (not). Or it can be a serious superhero movie masquerading as a comedy masquerading as a serious superhero movie like Iron Man (I loved Iron Man, by the way). I am not decrying their existence, and a funny superhero film like The Incredibles can be much better than a super-serious one. But, either way, everything that needed to be done has already been done. I am sure there will be some hilarious superhero films in the years to come just as there will be some kick-ass “serious” ones. The fact remains, however, that the approach has aged.

The Revisionist Superhero Movie:

Great example: Batman Begins.
Terrible Example: The Dark Knight.

There are of course other avenues in which a superhero film has been approached lately. The Superhero movie as an exercise in style or the superhero movie as just another blockbuster, for example (Fox has been treating its superhero properties with the same sort of disdain Hollywood used to do in the eighties).
But the genre is done. At least creatively.

Until, at least, the world is ready for a straight Superman flick. Or Watchmen ends up deconstructing the super-serious comic book movie the way the source material deconstructed superheroes.