The New York Times’s AO Scott doesn’t seem to particularly care for superhero movies and think that they’ve reached their peak:

Still, I have a hunch, and perhaps a hope, that “Iron Man,” “Hancock” and “Dark Knight” together represent a peak, by which I mean not only a previously unattained level of quality and interest, but also the beginning of a decline. In their very different ways, these films discover the limits built into the superhero genre as it currently exists.

But to paraphrase something the Joker says to Batman, “The Dark Knight” has rules, and they are the conventions that no movie of this kind can escape. The climax must be a fight with the villain, during which the symbiosis of good guy and bad guy, implicit throughout, must be articulated. The end must point forward to a sequel, and an aura of moral consequence must be sustained even as the killings, explosions and chases multiply. The allegorical stakes in a superhero are raised — it’s not just good guys fighting bad guys, but Righteousness against Evil, Order against Chaos — precisely to authorize a more intense level of violence. Of course every movie genre is governed by conventions, and every decent genre movie explores the zones of freedom within those iron parameters. Thus “Iron Man” loosens the reins of its plot to give Mr. Downey room to explore the kinks and idiosyncrasies of Tony Stark, the playboy billionaire engineering genius who finally grows up and builds himself a metal suit. And “Hancock” takes the conceit of a dissipated, semi-competent hero — more menace than protector — and turns it into the occasion for some sharp satirical riffing on race, celebrity and the supposedly universal likability of its star, Will Smith.

I don’t actually disagree with Scott’s main point, that we may be at the high point of superhero movies, though I have to quibble on a few things. One of the things that I thought both of the Batman movies did quite well was buck the “Big Fight At The End” trend, at least somewhat. The big showdown at the end was actually shorter and less wham-bam-boom than earlier fights in the movie. The pivotal moment in the movie wasn’t even a fight scene and didn’t involve The Joker. The ways that it bucked this trend was actually the source of some complaints from people that thought that the Two-Face subplot sidetracked the movie when they should have focused on Batman vs. The Joker (such a focus would certainly have brought TDK closer to superhero/action movie conventions.

The other thing to point out is that many of the conventions that he refers to aren’t superhero conventions so much as action movie conventions. It’s probably quite true that Scott and his ilk are likely to give a Steven Segal movie with the same plot an eye-roll, but the issue with the certain conventions that he sees (as they appear to me at any rate) are the idea that superhero movies are generally bundled in form and function (though not aesthetics) with action movies. One could create a movie with The Question or the original Sandman that’s essentially a detective story. Or a movie about a guy that used to date a superhero. The latter movie, of course, has been made, but it’s considered a comedy and not a superhero movie. So it strikes me as a bit of a dodge to say “superhero movies only follow these conventions” when a superhero movie is defined primarily by it following said conventions.

He’s nonetheless on to something, though. The superhero movies that he sees and reviews fit a particular category which up to this point defines most of the superhero movies made but doesn’t necessarily: Superheroes based on existing properties. The Dark Knight wasn’t limited by the fact that it was a superhero movie, it was limited by the fact that it was a Batman movie. the extensive history of the character is of course a long, wide well from which to draw great material, but it also limits the movie somewhat. You have a set cast of characters, a protagonist that you can’t kill and that generally has to act a certain way. It’s what the higher-ups at Warner Bros. demand and it’s also based on what the audience is expecting.

They could, of course, play around with these expectations. Tim Burton’s Batman was a murderer. You could have Superman put on a dark costume and become all gritty. I half expect the upcoming Captain America movie to be used as a platform with which to indict the US (as the comic book came in Steve Rogers’ last days). As such you could avoid a lot of the conventions… but then you get a whole new series of complaints about how they betrayed the character. They could do it and maybe it would make a good movie, but it wouldn’t make a movie that people that aren’t professional critics would like. So while I think that Scott is right about the limitations of the genre, I think that it’s about as useful as wondering why cartoon rabbits don’t typically kill one another.

The movie to watch for has had previews running on The Dark Knight nation-wide, The Watchmen. I don’t say that people should watch for because it’s necessarily going to be a great movie. It could be terrible, I don’t know. What The Watchmen may represent, though, is a superhero movie that bucks the conventions that Scott dislikes. There will be no sequel. They may put a big fight scene at the end, though the source material doesn’t call for it and it may be hard to do that with one of the combatants (and none of the others) having the powers of a god. Characters will probably die.

What’s important about this movie isn’t just whether it’s good or whether critics like it (though for the movie to be useful it does need to be good), but whether people go and see it. I personally think that it’s going to bomb and while I’m excited that Warner Bros put all of this money into it I think that it was a pretty big mistake. If the movie is good and the people don’t flock to see it, it’ll be a pretty sure indicator that fans like their superhero stories to follow the big superhero action conventions. But if the movie does well it could demonstrate that audiences are prepared to watch superhero movies that people have never heard of that test the limits of the genre as it currently exists.

Iron Man demonstrated that audiences don’t need a first-rate hero to be willing to watch a good movie. Will The Watchmen demonstrate that they don’t need the conventions? My guess remains that audiences will look at it and say “That’s not the kind of superhero story I want to see”, but we’ll see.

If it works out, though, there will probably be a spate of movies that Scott may like (unless his problem can simply be reduced to the costumes and the irreality of it all). They may make a movie based on The Authority, a superhero team that staged a coup against the US Government. Maybe Powers, a comic book about a cop that investigates superhero murders. Possibly Marshal Law, a guy that hunts rogue heroes. There could well be superheroes created solely for the silver screen in order to deconstruct the genre.

Rather than being at the end, as Scott thinks we are, we could be at the beginning. Time will tell.

Category: Theater

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3 Responses to The Fall of the Superhero?

  1. Barry says:

    I think people like superheroes for a lot of different reasons. I know a good friend of mine and I have had running arguments for years on which is the better superhero: Superman or Spiderman. He loves Spidey and thinks Spiderman 2 is the greatest superhero movie of all time – I’m firmly in the Superman camp and think the same of the first Christopher Reeve Superman movie. The relative merits of the movies don’t really matter (although they are vastly different in tone, style and time period) but have to do with how we grew up reading comics, our personal lives as children, our friends, peer groups, angsts, idiosynchracies, etc. I grew up liking the larger-than-life, All-American super guy, while he liked the troubled teenager webslinger. Just depends on the person.

    And there are plenty of people out there who feel the same way about Batman, the X-Men, Captain America, the Watchmen, all for different reasons. The people who identify with groups or teams liked X-Men best. The ones with more troubled childhoods probably liked Batman or the Watchmen best.

    These identities we form as kids shape our tastes as adults. It seems more and more kids these days are growing up with that troubled childhood (latchkey, abandoned, spoiled, ignored, you named it) and identify with the Bat – hence the popularity of The Dark Knight and relative (to an extent) failure of the new reboot of the Superman franchise to captivate America.

    It’s Batman’s time, because we’re living in a Gotham kind of world. Unfortunately, we’ve left Metropolis behind….

  2. trumwill says:

    Yeah, I think you’re right that a lot of people like a lot of different things about superheroes. I’ve never been a big Superman person. The character is important and I think his presence contributes a lot to the DC Universe… but I don’t enjoy reading about him (or watching movies about him). Not so much because of the lack of grit as because he’s sooooo powerful. I thought Lois & Clark was pretty good, though, while I watched it.

    Interesting that you should say that about the X-Men. I always thought it was a good pitch for kids that were “different” and didn’t have any friends… sort of “wouldn’t it be cool if you found a lot of people different like you?” sort of thing.

  3. Barry says:

    I was never one of those “different” kids and never quite understood where they came from. Which is probably why I was always much more of a DC fan than Marvel (and my Spidey-loving friend was not) because our lives were different growing up. The Marvel characters were more likely to be outcasts – lonely teenager, mutants, wanted big green guy, etc – than the universally renowned Supers, Batman, Flash, GL, etc.

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