Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Superhero Flame War

I like films.  Enormously.  I don't really care what the subject of the film is, so long as it is done in a way that causes me to think, engages me emotionally and presents situations and characters that remain believable and rational.  I don't need to like the characters, such as a film like Nightcrawler, where I actively despised the character.  I don't need to identify with the characters, such as Temple Grandin, to whom I cannot relate at all.  The characters do not have to be recognizable; I don't have to have a previous association with them; I'm perfectly capable of meeting and falling in love with the characters upon my very first encounter, such as I felt in the film Hanna.  I can also find a movie brilliant even when I absolutely detest the actors, such as I felt when watching The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, with Ben Stiller.  Animated films can be brilliant and deserving of high praise, like The Croods or Wreck-It Ralph.  At the same time, I can also enjoy disturbing films, such as Suburbicon.  I don't care if a film is foreign, like the Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo [more properly,  "Men Who Hate Women"] or the Quebecois Decline of the American Empire.  I rarely like a horror film, but I can usually respect something obscure, like the Japanese Audition.  I know of no genre that I can't name a film from that deserves to be seen several times.

Which is why I don't understand the knee-jerk hatred that has gathered around superhero films.

Superhero films are a genre.  Just as musicals were in the 1940s, horror films were in the 1950s, westerns in the 1960s, cop movies in the 1970s, slasher films in the 1980s and crippled-person films in the 1990s.  If the reader thinks there are "a lot" of superhero films around now, believe me, this is nothing compared to how much time was given to making films about gunslingers.  As a kid, there were at least ten hour-long dramas on television based on some western theme, and any given week featured one to three new western films.  This kind of innundation would be incomprehensible to a present audience.

Because I like film, I try to watch mostly everything that looks like it might be directed well or present those things I started with: intelligent dialogue, a meaningful conundrum, purposeful storytelling.  If I could leave it up to my personal opinion about these things, I would probably be happier.  Unfortunately, I can't.  I'm far, far too concerned with what others think ... and this leads me down the path of what other people think about films.  It's part of the meta-experience that pulls at me.

If you are like me, you have spent too much time watching opinionated people discussing what is right or wrong with either Marvel or DC films.  In this time, with the particular genre ruling the film-making experience at this time, the debate is never-ending.  Well, fear not.  I'm not going to write a post about what is what with this versus that.  Though believe me, I've tried.  I trashed those efforts.  There is an answer ... but I'm convinced that any attempt to isolate the answer would be a wasted effort.  I am coming to believe that the subjectivity of the audience has reached such a fever-pitch that all deconstruction of film culture is presently moot.

I can be convinced by argument to try a movie; and I can find that my convictions about a film can be changed, once I see the film.  I have a long list of films that I've liked, that I absolutely believed that I would never watch, or that I would absolutely hate.  The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is an excellent example.  As I said, I hate Ben Stiller.  Worse, I adored the original short story by James Thurber as a child, and I have long been a fan of the original movie from 1947, with Danny Kaye.  The idea that something by Ben-fucking-Stiller could be made, pissing on those memories, virtually guaranteed that I would never, ever, watch that goddamned film.

Then something sparked my interest.  I can't even remember what it was.  Some reference to the film on something I caught on a youtube video, suggesting it wasn't a remake.  Then a copy of the film came across my radar when I was still a provider-employee for video-on-demand; I was provided a free opportunity to watch it through the system and ... alone ... I watched it.

I can identify when my mind was changed about the film.  It was this shot right here:

This is less than a minute into the visual film.

As I've tried to explain, I have watched a lot of movies.  I know perfectly well that millions of people saw this shot at the beginning and got nothing whatsoever from it ... but there are several things in this shot that convinced me, viscerally, that I was not watching another fucking Zoolander.  And, as usually happens, it wasn't until the third or fourth time watching the film (been about eight times now) that I could identify why this shot jerked me out of my expectation and brought me around to watching the film with an open mind.

To begin with, the colors are muted.  I realize many people feel that muted colors are now some horrible evil in cinema; for me, the shadows across the building, the starkness of the details, the deliberate attempt to show an environment that isn't soothing or simple (there's a lot of jumble in this picture) is a refreshing sign that the film is going to be about something real.  This is helped by the very small touch of the film credit: New Line Cinema felt that it was appropriate for their efforts to be displayed in a moderate, nuanced manner.  When a film company does that, it says to me, "We care more about this film than we do about ourselves."  That is a rare sentiment and always welcome.

If there is an issue with the discussion and critique of superhero films just now, it is that plainly the reviewers care far, far more about themselves, their pretensions, they're sense of personal nostalgia and their need for pandering than they do about the films.  I am not "tired" of superhero films ... but I am tired of critics who seem to think that the media footprint of the character prior to the film matters.

Take the DC vs. Marvel conundrum ~ without, thank you, falling into that swamp.  Clearly, the Marvel films have been more successful.  That cannot be debated.  Individual films are commonly compared against one another, cherry-picked according to the pundit's personal agenda, but the overall success of Marvel's efforts in the last 10 years exists in an entirely different ballpark from DC's over the same period.  The internet is not wrong when they note that something has clearly happened here, and that it deserves study and interpretation.

However, that study needs to divorce itself from arguments like, "Are DC characters the equivalent of Marvel characters" or "Are the characters depicted by the movie studio accurate to what the characters were in the comics"?  These are meaningless, subjective, useless discussions that in no way move the needle towards understanding why what Marvel is doing works very well and why what DC/Warner is doing works ... not as well.

Warner is making movies that make both a cultural imprint and, mostly, money.  Warner is not failing.  It is not doing as well as Marvel, obviously; but in and of itself, if Marvel didn't exist, Warner's record would not be all that different from any company making movies about a particular genre over a ten-year period.  Movies succeed.  Movies fail.  What has to be remembered is that most movies find an audience; it takes a truly bad film not to do that.

I want here to go into a digression where I talk about the true obscurity of films that simply drift off everyone's radar, though the film might have, at one time, been considered a critical success.  I can pick any number of films from the 1970s, made in my lifetime, that have utterly disappeared from any discourse about film that I've seen in the last twenty years.  Julia, for example; or McCabe and Mrs. Miller.  Films that once people went to again and again when discussing something about film-making or storytelling.  Films that are never mentioned now; that make even a filmophile look archaic and out of touch with the world when mentioned [for the record, I categorically dislike both films, in every regard as films, chosen for that reason].  Films disappear because, despite the efforts of critics to make them popular, simply fail to be popular.  For a reason.

It generally isn't possible to say which films will drift out of social consciousness and which won't, with the passage of time.  I am increasingly of the opinion that the Oscars ought to be awarded to a collected group of nominees from twenty years ago, celebrating the films of 1997, not 2017; because at least there's a chance we might agree on something that has survived the test of time for at least twenty years.  How many of us, for example, really believe that The Shape of Water will be relevant in 2037?  How relevant is The Artist, from six years ago, now?  Heard anyone mention it lately?

DC/Warner films are finding an audience.  They're not finding as large of an audience as Marvel, however ... and there are reasons for that.  It is clear that the executives of Warner lack vision.  The Marvel films were started by a group that were expressly assembled to create one kind of movie.  Warner makes all kinds of movies, and so their motivations in movie making, as a studio, are different.  The particular elements of a celebrated character such as Batman are not substantially different to their bottom line as the celebrated characters of Paddington the Bear [Paddington 2], Rick Deckard [Bladerunner 2049], the events at Dunkirk, King Kong [Kong: Skull Island] or any of the other characters behind films that were made in 2017 (all of these were).  Warner Bros. cares that Justice League does well at the box office, but as a studio it does not care more about the film than it does about itself.

And that is the critical element.  Marvel's reputation mattered when Iron Man was made.  It's reputation continues to matter.  But "DC" was never a studio.  It was a group of products owned by a studio, whose reputation will survive as many profitable critical disasters as Warner is prepared to make.

It became clear, very early on in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, that this was a vanity project made by Ben Stiller (of all people), that was never expected to make serious money.  The movie was being made because the maker had a message, believed in it, and was prepared to see the message through, at great expense, whatever the consequences.  The film is quirky in parts; occasionally turns a joke that drops with a heavy thud; and is absolutely not trying to pander.  It breaks a lot of rules, about character, pacing, presentation and theme.  And it doesn't care.

It is easy to see, in numerous instances, that Marvel is doing something similar.  The questionable morality underlying the incredibly popular Black Widow character; the maladroit rudeness of Dr. Strange; the hokey un-American indifference of Captain America to by-the-book legalities; the callous selfishness of Tony Stark; these are all issues pounded upon by self-informed critics who fail to recognize the substantial basis for these characters: their likeability is irrelevant.  They don't exist to be liked.  They're not written for the sake of being popular.  They're being created according to the personal whims of a set of writers who have been encouraged to go their own way.

No cosplayer strutting around in a Black Widow catsuit (and at a game-con, that describes literally hundreds of women) fully embraces the character from identifying with the character.  That's supposed to be the Holy Grail of character creation, we are told: that an every-man or every-woman will be liked, because the audience will identify with that person.  It turns out, the audience really doesn't give a shit.  No one in the audience really imagines that they are like the character of Andy Dufresne from Shawshank Redemption; dour, bookish, in love with opera ... but they like the idea of him.  They like the idea that escape from prison is possible.  The audience likes ideas.  Characters exist to perform the idea.  On their own, most characters are awful.

Millions of man-boys love the idea of Batman; they love the idea of having so much money they can act however they wish; they like the idea of being able to beat up people, but being so righteous that they never kill anyone; they like the idea of being super-strong and never needing anyone, fulfilling their ultimate loner fantasies.  But none of those man-boys want to spend ten years reading books and taking courses to become the person of considerable intellect that Batman has to be; they don't actually want to live everyday in pain from the repeated fractured bones that Batman has sustained; they're not really comfortable with the alone part, which they don't actually have to experience in the film, because after a few minutes, something happens to Batman.  But they like the idea.  The idea of it is cool.

Unfortunately, the characters of Batman and Superman have become exhaustively explored and remade into marble monoliths ... the idea has stultified into a fetish.  The problem with a fetish is that, like the perfect girl in the perfect lingerie on the perfect bed in the perfect house, if it is done just a little bit wrong, it ruins the moment.  All she has do to is snort when she laughs and the boner goes away.

Warner understands that; and because it understands that, it can't afford to create too much product for too much money for an audience that no longer cares what story Batman or Superman are doing, as long as their boner isn't ruined.  There's no wiggle room.  There's no opportunity to give the product to a bunch of writers and say, "Do whatever feels right."  The chance to do that was already given twice.  It's too late now.

Marvel has the terrific benefit of blue skies.  Black Panther?  The Winter Soldier?  Thor?  Blue skies.  Whether they work or not, as characters, as movies, there's no marble plinth on their backs.  We can hate what Tony Stark stands for, we can scoff at Hawkeye's relevance, we can question the fundamental morality of Nick Fury ... but we can do so without a half-century of makes and re-makes.  Even the fanboys who love the comics, who hammer the anvil for the sake of the comics, can't manifest in large enough numbers to subvert the unrestrained willingness of a community of writers and filmmakers who are prepared to create characters who are free to exist as whatever they happen to be, pandering be damned.

More superhero films?  Sure.  Bring them on.  As long as they're good.  I enjoyed the 2017 Marvel films.  I have no doubt I'll enjoy the 2018 Marvel films.  It takes less than ten hours out of the year to watch them; I don't find that particularly irksome.  Not nearly as irksome as I would find watching anything that was nominated for an Oscar this year.


Drain said...

I don't think I'm even being polemic when I say this year's crop of oscar nominees was a veritable grab-bag of turds.

As you already know I'm no fan of SH films, though your deconstruction was a pleasurable read. But how does the blue skies argument intersect with DC titles like Wonder Woman or Suicide Squad?

I'd post my chips on the strength disparity between intelectual properties, but that doesn't seem to tell the whole story either (going by the success of such leftfielders as Guardians of the Galaxy or Deadpool).

I'm right with you on Walter Mitty (surprisingly passable) and Nightcrawler (loved it).

Alexis Smolensk said...

I think the stronger argument I'm making, vis a vis Wonder Woman or Suicide Squad, is the degree to which the creators care about the characters, vs. the desire to make a film to make money.

Some will argue that the film-makers cared a great deal for Wonder Woman; but that really wasn't evident on the screen. Considerable elements of the film (CGI, geographical sense, military organization, history, mythology) were rushed or given the flat-out heave-ho in the "Did Not Do the Research" sense. Hand-waving on a hundred points was constant and consistent; the film reeked of "Don't Care, Get it Done."

I find most of the film criticism on the net is far too worried about "character" and "nostalgia." Frankly, I think everything about Wonder Woman the Comic was broken by the 20th century cultural re-identification of women. The very excellent film last year, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, made this very clear. And incidentally, if you read this post from last year, you'll find me mocking that film, saying, "This is just going to be bad." Actually, it was pretty damn good. If you compare how much the makers of the second film cared about Wonder Woman to the makers of the blockbuster, an open-minded reader might understand what I mean by "caring about the material."

Suicide Squad was, well ... more of the same. Warner Bros. churning out product, not art.