In Defense of Superhero CinemaPosted: July 17, 2014
It’s pretty clear by now that superheroes are a major part of our current pop culture landscape, due in no small part to the steady (but relatively limited) supply of superhero-based blockbusters available each year. So of course there is a ton of backlash from more aesthete moviegoers against not just the perceived predominance of the genre but also the genre itself. Making it worse, even well-respected filmmakers have piled on the superhero-bashing wagon, with the most recent being William Friedkin. Once again, mainstream cinema is under fire folks, and that’s where my big mouth and righteous indignation comes in.
Where Friedkin’s comments go wrong is that he’s essentially using superhero movies as a shorthand for the loud obnoxious Hollywood blockbuster that pales in dramatic comparison to adult TV dramas.* This is a frustrating perspective for me because I would posit that superhero movies have a higher rate of success than many other blockbuster subgenres when it comes to character depth and story structure. The Marvel Studios movies are almost uniformly successful in this way, as are the last few X-men films and Nolan’s Batfilms (which also attempted to bring some thoughtful political/thematic nuance to the genre, to debateable success). That’s not even including the non-franchise films like The Incredibles, Watchmen, or Chronicle, all of which were generally well-received and demonstrate plenty of thematic depth of their own.
The fact that Friedkin chose this whole genre over, say, the Transformers series as a reference point for trashy studio popcorn films is emblematic and unfortunate. To me it feels a bit like he’s just picking the most popular and talked-about thing and calling it trashy just because it’s the most popular and talked-about thing, not because it’s the cause of the actual problem. Never mind that movies such as The Dark Knight or Iron Man 3 have at least as much narrative depth as, say, Jade or The Hunted. Oh, what’s that, you say I shouldn’t hold a couple of bad films up as indicative of a larger filmography? Yeah I guess I can see how that would be obnoxious and dismissive. But I digress…
This also harkens back to similar comments a couple of years ago by David Cronenberg that really pissed me off. Back in 2012, Cronenberg actually took his snobbery a step further: rather than just dismiss superhero films as shallow or trashy, he actually suggested that the concept and genre of superheroes could never be the basis for real artistic expression. What really drives me nuts (still!) about this is that Cronenberg- the guy who helped revolutionize horror films, another maligned and dismissed genre- could be so cavalier about the artistic possibilities of superhero films. Let’s not even mention the fact that there are many superhero stories in comic books, written by the likes of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, that bring a great deal of thematic depth and emotional impact to the genre, and that it’s only a matter of time before the film world follows suit. But to write off a whole genre as shallow and juvenile- or to use one particularly small set of films as an example of the height of Hollywood excess- is close-minded and stupid, and the last thing I would want to hear from the pioneering likes of Friedkin and Cronenberg.
I think we need to consider that any genre is capable of conveying complex emotion and heady themes, that any story is capable of being art, and that the flaws of the studio system should not be ascribed to any particular type of movie (or be used to wholesale dismiss any movie that costs more than $20 million). But that’s probably too much to ask, so I’ll be over here fuming at people who should know better while I count down to Guardians of the Galaxy (or for that matter, Age of Ultron… look at that sucker up there!)
*This is complete bullshit, because by and large when people talk about this, they are invariably talking about CABLE television, which is roughly equivalent to INDEPENDENT film, where no one is decrying a lack of good storytelling anyway. Network television is just as likely to be lowest-common-denominator and shallow as studio film (as CSI veteran Friedkin should know firsthand), but it’s more noticeable in film because studio product gets way more marketing and wider distribution. The reason why cable TV has broken through to the mainstream while indie film is drowned out is simple: anyone can get cable, but not everyone can live in New York or LA. This is also the biggest argument for digital film distribution as opposed to traditional theatrical release, something that filmmakers of Friedkin’s ilk often decry as well. Finally, for all the complaining about how repetitive studio films are, there’s plenty of copycatting on television too; how many Male-Antihero-Doing-Morally-Questionable-Things dramas can we possibly have at once anyway? And bringing this back to the original topic, the major trend on television this fall: SUPERHEROES, go figure.