What the defensive fans fail or refuse to grasp is that they have won the argument. Far from being an underdog genre defended by a scrappy band of cultural renegades, the superhero spectacle represents a staggering concentration of commercial, corporate power. The ideology supporting this power is a familiar kind of disingenuous populism. The studios are just giving the people what they want! Foolproof evidence can be found in the box office returns: a billion dollars! Who can argue with that? Nobody really does. Superhero movies are taken seriously, reviewed respectfully and enjoyed by plenty of Edmund Wilson types.
O.k., maybe it was an argument more than a war but A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis once again, as they’ve seemingly done over and over recently when super hero movies com out, decry the “hegemony of the superhero” as Avenger’s $600 million box office sits comfortably in our rear view mirror and we’re looking down the dark and uncertain tunnels of “Amazing Spider-Man” and “The Dark Knight Rises.” Basically their premise is “superheroes have won.”
It’s actually a fun article to watch them dance around and show how hip they are to the superhero popularity. Dargis demonstrates this by relating the audiences love of superheroes to the longing for an American mythology:
On one level the allure of comic book movies is obvious, because, among other attractions, they tap into deeply rooted national myths, including that of American Eden (Superman’s Smallville); the Western hero (who’s separate from the world and also its savior); and American exceptionalism (that this country is different from all others because of its mission to make “the world safe for democracy,” as Woodrow Wilson and, I believe, Iron Man, both put it). Both Depression babies, Superman and Batman, were initially hard-boiled types, and it’s worth remembering that the DC in DC Comics was for Detective Comics. Since then the suits have largely remained the same even as the figures wearing them have changed with their times. Every age has the superhero it wants, needs or deserves.
After that, Scott shows that he’s one of us by talking about the history of comics. Dargis and Scott actually get a bit about what superheroes are about, maybe even more than a lot of the writers and artists of those comic books today do.
It’s funny to read movie critics in 2012 decrying the dominance of super heroes in their medium-of-choice, something that fans of comic books have been struggling with for decades. There’s actually nothing wrong with the way Dargis and Scott dissect the current state of super hero movies but it all sounds so familiar, like almost any of Gary Groth’s Comic Journal rants from the late eighties or most of the nineties, only we not just talking about comics any more.
Whether we’re talking about the comic shop circa 2002 or the movie multiplex circa 2012, super hero stories have become their own powerful genres, capturing mass popularity in their respective fields and crowding out unique voices that don’t conform to their brightly colored philosophies. Responding to Dargis and Scott’s piece, Jim Emerson wrote:
Comic-books were once a juvenile pastime, a lowbrow and more-or-less underground form of pulp publishing. That disreputability has long been a big part of their attraction, and essential to what I’ve always love about horror and science-fiction. Now, so-called “comic-book movies” are most definitely above-ground, mainstream, big business. They represent the establishment, the status quo. You can argue that has diminished them, or has magnified their influence, but if you’re dealing with the place of movies in modern culture, they can’t be entirely ignored or dismissed.
While Emerson’s piece goes on to talk more about critical thinking and the idea that movies are “critic proof” and the inability of some to actually have productive conversations about comic books movies as capital A Art, we’re seeing the same discussions on movie blogs that we’ve seen on comic blogs and magazines for years.
I almost want to say “Welcome to our world, Manohla, A.O. and Jim.” Personally when it comes to comic movies (and the comic books more and more these days,) I find myself nodding in agreement with these writers. Comic book movies are our popcorn films now, full of bright colors, costumes and characters but where is our Watchmen of comic films? The Watchmen movie wasn’t even able to be that. Thanks to Marvel’s cookie cutter formula to film making and DC’s inability to figure out their characters on the page or on the screen, we have a super hero movie scene that resembles their comic counterparts around Marvel’s Secret War comic book. It’s a lot of flash and bang. But not that super hero movie franchises have to be rebooted faster than comic book franchises, we’re at a point where it’s not the stories or the characters that matter in the movies. It’s the costumes and the action and that sounds all too familiar to me.
Of course, in a couple of weeks, I could be chanting “I trust Gotham City. I trust Christopher Nolan.”