Salon’s Matt Zoller Seitz hates superhero movies:

The comic book film has become a gravy train to nowhere. The genre cranks up directors’ box office averages and keeps offbeat actors fully employed for years at a stretch by dutifully replicating (with precious few exceptions) the least interesting, least exciting elements of its source material; spicing up otherwise rote superhero vs. supervillain storylines with “complications” and “revisions” (scare quotes intentional) that the filmmakers, for reasons of fiduciary duty, cannot properly investigate; and delivering amusing characterizations, dense stories or stunning visuals while typically failing to combine those aspects into a satisfying whole.

Contra Seitz, I disagree about the quality of superhero movies that have been coming out. In fact, I think that one of the reasons they have become such mainstays is that after twenty years they finally figured out how to make these movies. They’ve been catching up ever since. I mean, these movies are not high art. But they’re not throwaway either. For a cartoon analogy, compare He-Man to Avatar: The Last Airbender. Airbender isn’t exactly high art, but it’s obvious that between then and now studios have finally figured out how to make this stuff good. Good for what it is, anyway.

Seitz comes at this from the perspective of a movie critic and movie critics come at movies from a different perspective than the general audience. When you see so many movies, a movie’s originality takes on a whole lot more importance. Formulas become not just a negative, but actively painful. Formulaic-but-good becomes an oxymoron or sorts. I also have an appreciation for the different. It’s one of the reasons that I stopped watching superhero movies as they came out unless it was a character I really wanted to see or it was highly recommended. But that doesn’t make the movies I am not seeing bad. Nor is it, I think, damning of the genre itself.

This is the part where superhero movie fans say “If you don’t like them then don’t watch them.” The problem is that, as Ross Douthat points out, they’re affecting cinema whether you’re watching them or not.

It’s a good question, but of course once you start asking questions like that it’s a pretty short leap to wondering why we couldn’t have a movie about a Tony Stark-like figure — say, a screwball comedy about a billionaire’s romance with his omnicompetent assistant, which is basically the best thing about the “Iron Man” franchise anyway — in which he isn’t a superhero at all. And from there, it’s an even shorter leap to questions like, “what kind of movies would a clean-and-sober Robert Downey, Jr. be making if he wasn’t already signed up for ‘The Avengers’ and ‘Iron Man 3’ and the sequel to last’s year ‘Sherlock Holmes’ (which was basically a superhero flick dressed up in Victoriana)”? Or “what kind of films might Jon Favreau/Bryan Singer/Sam Raimi/Christopher Nolan have directed if they hadn’t been sucked into the superhero vortex”? Or “wouldn’t it have been nice to see a Heath Ledger/Christian Bale confrontation in which they weren’t saddled with the grim conventions of the comic-book blockbuster?” Or … well, you get the idea.

In this sense, I think that superhero movies are a sign of a larger problem. The studios are risk-averse and little without an automatic audience is getting made. Comic books have that audience. So do remakes. Further, they want a little something for everybody. Superhero movies are actually a somewhat flexible genre. They can have great romantic angles, fantasy origins, scientific origins, straight up action origins. You’ll notice that most of those appeal to a particular audience, but that’s another factor in and of itself.

The movie audience has changed. While I am skeptical of TV advertisers claiming that the young and hip demographics are the most important, I believe it when it comes to movies. As home entertainment systems get better and better, educated professionals see take themselves more and more out of the theater-going demographic. You’re left with a larger portion of your audience as young people looking for somewhere to go to, young adults with the movie for moving tickets but not surround-sound in their house, and older people that never became educated professionals. That’s not to say that smart folks over 30 have stopped seeing movies entirely, but they’re not as strong a demographic as they used to be. They are for television, though, which is why television is increasingly becoming the medium for higher art.


Category: Theater

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13 Responses to Captured By Superheroes

  1. ecco says:

    I think the small market for “art house” movies shows that Hollywood is essentially doing what it should. Most of the “art house” movies that are fairly successful aren’t really that much more serious than the tv shows you admire. So I think that audience size is really what we can take as the population that’s willing to go to the theater to watch non-superhero and simple romantic comedy movies. Given that the studios can’t make money on that small a population size, I think their strategy is largely correct. Still, I wish the world was different, but in this case I think reality is letting us down.

  2. Bob V says:

    > delivering amusing characterizations, dense stories or stunning visuals while typically failing to combine those aspects into a satisfying whole

    I’m sure *he* knows what he means, and I sometimes talk like this too while knowing what I mean, but he’s really giving false precision to his views. Basically the above is a fancy way of saying “I don’t like it.”

    That’s not to say that smart folks over 30 have stopped seeing movies entirely, but they’re not as strong a demographic as they used to be. They are for television, though, which is why television is increasingly becoming the medium for higher art.

    This is a message packed with interesting claims. I tend to agree that TV is more likely to embody high art than movies are now, but I’m not sure I buy your reasons.

    I would guess that contrary to your claim that TV and movies being substitutes for one another those who watch more TV also watch more movies.

    If high art exits only in TV rather than movies, it is because TV offers much richer opportunities for artists. The opportunity to build characters and plots over years are unparalleled. Once television figured out the arc, it excelled.

  3. trumwill says:

    Ecco,

    The main art house in Colosse closed a couple years ago. I happened to be in town when it did. The Saturday before its last day open, the theater was still only half full. I was expecting crowds because of people like me that wanted one last viewing there, but no. It was kind of sad.

  4. trumwill says:

    I would guess that contrary to your claim that TV and movies being substitutes for one another those who watch more TV also watch more movies.

    I’m not sure this is true. I think that the demographics of those that go out and watch movies and those that stay in are different. The former are young people with a lot of disposable income and a lack of need for babysitting. The latter are people that can’t afford to go to the theater and mostly people with kids and enough money to afford a good entertainment system at home.

    And among the latter, I think it’s still zero-sum between movies and television because there are only so many hours in the day. So people devoting time to television are devoting less time to movies and vice-versa. The exception to this would be the summertime when there’s no TV on, but even then you’ve got Netflix TV shows and an increasing summer schedule on cable.

    I do think that there is a demographic that opts out of both movies and television. But among the audiences, I think they’re segregating themselves.

    If high art exits only in TV rather than movies, it is because TV offers much richer opportunities for artists. The opportunity to build characters and plots over years are unparalleled. Once television figured out the arc, it excelled.

    I think this is a factor, too. But I think it’s part of the first. People are finding television to be more satisfying because creators can do so much more with it. And so it comes at the expense of movies. I could be projecting here, though, because that’s what has happened with me.

  5. ecco says:

    I’m thankful my local art house still exists, although I think the owners run it as almost a philanthropic venture since the profits are small. I also have a hypothesis that relates to movie versus television cost. Even though tv expenses can run really high its much cheaper to produce a pilot so you can screen many more options to find a hit than you can with movies. Given how much movies cost, it’s a miracle that any “small budget” movie makes it where it does much less have the volume of experimentation to find successful story lines.

  6. Bob V says:

    > zero-sum between movies and television because there are only so many hours in the day

    Eh. Yes, this is technically true, but even if you see every single major movie that hits your theatre, you have a whole lot of free time. And how many people make sure they watch every action, superhero, and romantic comedy that comes out? And doing that won’t even occupy every Saturday night.

    I know we are both guessing here, but I prefer my guess that even though virtually everyone in the US watches TV some watch it more than others and those who spend the most time in front of it are in fact those young people you see at the theatre. If you like one, you probably are someone who also likes the other. They ultimately do rely on your ability to sit down and relax and watch a story develop. Your zero-sum argument instead relies on the idea that they are so occupied watching movies that they lack the time to make it home and turn on the TV. I have no evidence, and I’m not particularly in tune with the younger generation, but it seems stretchy to me.

  7. trumwill says:

    I think the first and most important distinction is between People Who Go Out and People Who Don’t. I think that people who go out to movie theaters are substantially more likely to go out and do other things as well. I think that a good portion of people that watch TV are disinclined to leave the house (maybe they’re homebodies, maybe work is exhausting, maybe they’ve got kids to look after, etc). I think that’s one of the reasons Blockbuster and Hollywood Video have been hit so hard recently. People that don’t want to go out but want to watch something are far less likely to have to – even if they want to watch movies they have Netflix or Redbox on the way home). On this I feel pretty confident.

    I am less confident on the home-watching market as to whether people fall into movie and TV categories. I think they do, but I could be wrong.

  8. Bob V says:

    most important distinction is between People Who Go Out and People Who Don’t

    I’m more willing to buy this. I am curious as to what the real answer is. I’m too lazy to try to figure it out though.

  9. Maria says:

    I don’t think theatres are gonna die out any time soon. It’s an easy first or second date for unimaginative men, when obviously the home entertainment option would put many female dates off.

  10. trumwill says:

    I agree, Maria. The question is what kinds of movies will be in theaters. I think the answer is movies with the most appeal possible and movies that appeal to people most likely to go to the theaters. I don’t think that’s going to be a whole lot of movies that are going to excite Ross Douthat.

  11. Kirk says:

    Am I the only one here who sometimes keeps a Netflix movie for a month before getting around to watching it? I used to consider myself a movie buff, but hi-def tv and DVR have made movies pretty much irrelvent to me. I’d honestly rather just watch tv.

  12. Kirk says:

    As for superhero movies, I can understand the hatred. Whatever happened to originality?

  13. Maria says:

    Comment by trumwill — June 2, 2010 @ 11:35 am

    11.Am I the only one here who sometimes keeps a Netflix movie for a month before getting around to watching it?

    Guilty as charged. But I do watch their online movies more often so I don’t feel guilty about the subscription.

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