Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Superhero movies

I remember in the 1990s when superhero movies weren't a thing. Batman was fading fast thanks to an unhealthy dose of Joel Schumacher, Blade was a surprising hit thanks to Wesley Snipes, Spawn just flat out bombed, and Superman was relegated to the TV series The Adventures of Lois and Clark with Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher. There had been the successful Superman movies in the late 70s and early 80s, and Tim Burton's Batman in the late 80s and early 90s, but no other major superhero had been able to make the transition to the big screen with any kind of success. It was not until the 21st century that general filmmaking ability caught up with the visual imagination needed to make the kind of spectacles necessary to the genre, and even then, X-Men was doubted when it was released in the summer of 2000, a summer that featured, among other tentpole releases, The Perfect Storm and a Shaft reboot with Samuel L. Jackson in the starring role, which should give an idea of just how different the summer movie season is now than it was fifteen years ago.

X-Men's success soon proved that even more "esoteric" comic material could have mass appeal; of course, comic nerds like me scoffed at the idea that the X-Men - easily one of the most bankable franchises in comics - could be considered inaccessible, but that was the reasoning at the time. The genre still didn't fully take hold until 2002, when Spider-Man swung his way to all kinds of records, and Hollywood didn't look back. Since 2002, superhero movies have continually set and reset all kinds of box office records, won legitimate Oscars (Heath Ledger as The Joker), and generally set the tone and pace for modern blockbuster filmmaking and marketing. With the success of The Dark Knight and Phase 1 of Marvel's master plan starting as of summer 2008, there is more saturation of the number of releases and prominence of each release in the superhero movie market now than arguably any genre in the past hundred years of cinema, save perhaps for musicals or westerns in the 1950s and 1960s.

Superhero media in 2014

Despite the boom in 2008, 2013 saw even more of an increase in the number and scope of superhero projects entering development and release, primarily as a result of the success of The Avengers in 2012 as well as Man of Steel in 2013, which revived the Superman franchise. Each major studio now has their corner on the market, based on the properties they own and how frequently they need to release new entries in each franchise to keep those rights to those properties. 2014 alone features the releases of Captain America: The Winter Soldier; X-Men: Days of Future Past; The Amazing Spider-Man 2; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; and Guardians of the Galaxy, each of which are all working toward even bigger futures for their respective universes,as well as the animated Disney feature Big Hero 6 in November. Sony is expanding their Spider-Man properties to include projects about the Sinister Six and Venom. Fox has already booked their follow-up X-Men movie, Apocalypse, for May 2016, to go along with a Fantastic Four reboot. Disney/Marvel is preparing for The Avengers: Age of Ultron in 2015 and Phase 3 beyond that, with Ant-Man already booked for release post-Avengers, along with Captain America 3 and other rumoured titles such as Doctor Strange in the works, along with some developments on the small screen.

Netflix is getting into the action, with a deal with Marvel to produce four 13-episode series about Daredevil, Iron Fist, Luke Cage, and Jessica Jones that will culminate with a Defenders mini-series. Fox TV is releasing Gotham this fall, based on the stories of the police department in the Batman universe, to go along with ABC's Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and The CW's Arrow as representatives on the small screen. NBC is bringing back their much-maligned franchise Heroes in 2015 with a mini-series entitled Heroes Reborn. Although they are left out of the Marvel properties, Warner Bros. still has the market on DC superheroes, with Batman vs. Superman coming out in the future and a Justice League movie just announced for 2018. And even The Incredibles - the original animated film from 2004 that presents one of the best takes on the superhero genre - is getting a sequel at some point. It seems that from the sheer number of different franchises in development, that the market is going to get even more glutted in the years to come.

So what?

If it seems like I am belabouring the point here to come up with a conclusion that was inherently obvious - that there are more superhero movies and they are arguably the most prominent force in North American media right now - it's because I was, to help establish the discussion I really wanted to get to, which is the "so what?" side of the equation. Yes, there are more superhero movies now than ever, and they define much of popular culture: so what?

Now, before I get into the specifics of what I think, I have to note that I know that writers with more eloquence and wider audiences than me have begun to debate the question of why superhero movies matter (or don't), so I'm not going to try to duplicate their philosophical, psychological, sociological, entomological, theological, or anthropological arguments either for or against specific heroes or the genre in general. I'm sure that there are myriad theses and papers that have been written about our current crop of superheroes and their intersections with various fields such as gender studies, religious studies, social sciences, communication studies, philosophy, psychology, and the like - I may end up writing one or more of my own such theses someday - so I'm going to focus my discussion more on the personal side of the question for now.

My personal history

I was never really a comic book geek, per se, but I was captured by the Marvel universe when I started collecting the cards when I was eight years old. I knew all of the storylines and relationships without reading the comics; I even did a Family Tree project in Grade 7 French all about the Summers family in the X-Men universe (Cyclops, Jean Grey, and their kin). I still have those collections, and they still have a dear place in my heart; I look through them occasionally, and I actually just recently completed them with a few cards from eBay. I'm not sure why I favoured Marvel over DC, except that I liked the way that the Marvel universe all worked together, whereas DC seemed a little more distant and awkward; besides, I always thought that Superman was a weaker hero anyway. But like sports (which I discovered a few years later), the world of superheroes offered innumberable opportunities for a person with a cranial capacity like me to memorize, analyze, and theorize about connections, meanings, and possibilities within their universes.

The other reason I was drawn to superhero stories was the number of cartoons in the 1990s that told their stories each week. My favourites were Batman: The Animated Series and X-Men: The Animated Series, as both of those shows treated their subjects seriously and were very intelligent for their time; I'm not sure why I didn't really get into the Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, or Iron Man series that aired at the same time, but I have watched some of them since and enjoyed them. The other shows I really enjoyed were the ones that lampooned the whole superhero motif, whether by parody, satire, or just sheer buffoonery: Freakzoid!; Earthworm Jim; and The Tick. They made me laugh, but they also did a great job of subverting the expectations of the genre while honouring them.

It's probably no surprise that my favourite superheroes today are the ones that were my favourites then: Batman and X-Men. I think it's because of the depth of the characters and their stories. Batman and his enemies are fascinating psychological studies, and the X-Men have variety and depth to their many stories, as well as the sense of alienation with which I often identified as a kid. There was always a sense of realism to those stories as well, unlike many of the other storylines. I know it sound ridiculous to call Batman and X-Men "realistic", but there was always a foundational grounded-ness to their respective universes that others - say Superman - did not seem to have. Now, sure, the X-Men travelled into outer space and fought in inter-dimensional wars and flew to the Savage Land, but they always returned to the "real" world. Even now, the success of the current crop of superhero movies is largely due to those two franchises and their ability to make the entire genre seem to be in the realm of the possible.

For some reason, I still feel the need to see almost every superhero (and comic book) movie that is released, regardless of whether I think it will be good (or if I know it will not). I do manage to avoid a few - the Ghost Rider and Daredevil debacles come to mind - but not all: after all, I have watched Green Lantern, both Fantastic Four movies, and both movies that have "Wolverine" in the title. But it feels like there is something to having seen them - some level of cultural awareness that is necessary - even after they have left the immediate cultural consciousness. I still, almost a year after its release, have not seen Man of Steel, but I still feel the need to see it at some point. I have not watched Thor: The Dark World or Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but I still feel the need to see each of them to see how they develop the overall narrative of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). There's part of me - the same part that was initially drawn to the world of superheroes - that enjoys being able to interact with all of the entries in the genre, as well as with others around me (least of which the students whose cultural language is shaped by these movies. Superheroes are arguably the lingua franca of North American society right now, and I like speaking the language, especially because it's kind of awesomely nerdy.

My personal favourites

Despite the fact that I watch the majority of superhero movies that come out, there are actually very few that I have seen more than once; it seems that there is little to gain from the experience of rewatching them, save for a few movies that exceed the expectations of the genre.Once I have an idea of what they are trying to do, I can discuss them and speak the language that they use, so unless they are exceptional creations, I accomplish what I need to with watching them once. With that said, there are a few superhero movies that stand out for me as truly exceptional in the way that they work within and beyond the genre, so I figured I would end my discussion by giving a recap of my personal favourites. It's probably no surprise that my two favourite superhero movies are original creations, designed for and shaped by the medium of cinema, rather than existing heroes who are translated to the screen.

Honourable mention: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze - I couldn't quite give this a spot in my top 5, but I felt the need to mention it. This was one of the movies that I watched over and over again as a kid, and it has everything: ninjas, mutants, snappy one-liners ("Man, I love being a turtle!" and "I made another funny! Ha ha ha ha ha!"), an early 90s soundtrack, and Vanilla Ice. It's kitschy, cheesy, and a lot of fun.

5. Spider-Man 2 - Sam Raimi's original sequel has stood the test of time over the past decade. It's a little long, but it's easily the best Spider-Man movie by a long shot. It's a deep character study for both Peter Parker and Otto Octavius (the amazing Alfred Molina), and some of the best superhero action sequences. It just makes Spider-Man 3 all the sadder an experience.

4. The Avengers -  Joss Whedon set the template for all future superhero movies with his monster of a movie. He took a bunch of disparate heroes, some very esoteric plot points, a villain from another dimension, and even the Hulk and made them all work together in a great package. Plus, Shawarma.

3. The Dark Knight - I really enjoyed Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises, but this is the linchpin of The Dark Knight trilogy for me and easily the best of the three Nolan Batman movies. From Ledger's manic Joker to the exhilirating action sequences, this is easily one of  the best experiences I have ever had in theatres.

2. Unbreakable - M. Night Shyamalan's tale of a real-life superhero was one of the earlier superhero stories, and it remains one of the best. It's gritty, dark, and realistic, and Willis and Jackson play off one another perfectly.

1. The Incredibles - Brad Bird's Oscar-winning animated story about a family of superheroes is still my fave a decade later. It has action that is, well, incredible, and its jokes still make me laugh. I'm really excited about what they might do with the sequel.

How about you? What impact have superhero movies made on your life? Or do they matter to you at all? I would love to hear your stories.

1 comment:

  1. I definitely meant ontological, not entomological. Although Ant-Man might qualify...



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