True Confession: Why I’m (Mostly) Done with Superheroes
The modern mythologies of Marvel and DC began flying and web-slinging around in my brain during a time of great personal strife in my adolescence. My father’s addiction to prescription drugs didn’t feel like an origin story when it manifested, and wouldn’t until the side-effects became routine horrors in our suburban existence. More often than not the story felt like a Lifetime Original Movie from my mother’s perspective, but it was easy to fantasize about discovering mutant powers and running away to study my abilities at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, to fight the obvious bad guys as a member of the X-Men. I’ve been thinking and writing about comic book heroes since the fourth grade, even though I’ve stopped obsessively reading them several different times in my life. So, isn’t really surprising that my first ever Pajiba post was a trade news write-up about Russell Crowe’s casting as Superman’s Kryptonian father in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel.
It’s only appropriate, then, that my final Pajiba post is essentially a response to the questionable future of this newly rebooted Superman franchise. That isn’t to say there aren’t any problems with Snyder’s take on space alien Jesus — putting himself above (not literally) others, willingness to kill to achieve his goals, and wanton destruction of human life and civilization — that can’t be ironed out and examined in a direct sequel that could restore the appropriate moral character to Clark Kent. As obvious a marketing executive’s idea as putting Batman in the Superman sequel is, the crossover could actually be an ideal way to examine those aforementioned characterization problems.
Even if Christian Bale isn’t under the mask, audiences were so recently exposed to a superhero who felt duty bound to help others at great cost to himself, an unwillingness to take even the most criminal of lives, and who went out of his way not to destroy any human infrastructure he didn’t need to destroy. (And, to be fair, Lt. Gordon was the one who actually blew up Gotham’s train in Batman Begins.) Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne is reportedly one that has been Batmanning it up for a while, which leaves open the possibility that his narrative path was similar to his predecessor’s. This is an ideal character to challenge and mentor an up-and-coming new Superman without resorting to the daddy issues that usually plague Kal-El. Batman tempering the darkness inside Superman would definitely be a reversal of the characters’ traditional dynamic.
So, there is, at least, limited potential in DC’s filmic future, just as there might be something interesting going on in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. The sheer novelty of shared movie universes over three, four, who knows how many possible franchises is enough to draw the attention of film students (or students of film) as much as it is the average comic book guy. And, yet, there is a reason I frequently stop following Batman, Iron Man, the X-Men, and the Justice League in their graphic art form, and it is almost never due to the quality in most of those stories — from either a picture or words aspect. It’s the same reason I grow weary of their live-action, CGI-enhanced big screen counterparts — the sheer quantity of books, or movies, needed to understand what the hell is going on and why we should care. It’s the sacrifice of character development over wow factor, where the surprises tend to be negated by the end of the storyline or by the time the credits roll. It’s the oncoming sitcomization of cinema.
Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy will probably wind up being the last superhero series from the Big Two comic progenitors where the director has more control than the studios in the final product. One’s subjective opinion on Nolan’s series is moot, because the translation of his vision can’t be denied. We won’t see another moment like Rachel Dawes’ twist ending in The Dark Knight, just look at Iron Man 3’s multiple teases with Pepper Potts before ultimately restoring her to pre-movie status. We won’t see another vague fate like Bruce Wayne’s at the end of The Dark Knight Rises, just look at the coy nods to Agent Coulson’s “death” in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., it’s not an ending but a forthcoming plot point. It has to be when there are more Avengers and Justice League and title-character sequels to make. In short, from here on out, no hero’s or heroine’s stories will ever end. And if they do, well, they’ll just get reborqueled before too long, especially in the case of any characters’ rights that are owned by Fox or Sony.
Superheroes are too big to fail now, which means no more risks in front of the camera, and saving face by hiring “riskier” talent behind the scenes. It’s the same basic plan the comic companies have been executing for decades, hiring A-List writers or artists (and sometimes even both on a single book) to produce tightly controlled, board approved cyclical narratives that have to top each other year after year and can be retconned in perpetuity. Brian Michael Bendis, Warren Ellis, Grant Morrison, Gail Simone, Matt Fraction, Mark Waid, Mike Allred, J.H. Williams III, Frank Quitely, and Jim Lee are the comic book equivalent of auteurs-for-hire like Zack Snyder, Joss Whedon, Shane Black, Edgar Wright, and James Gunn. Fun and interesting stories can still happen in this corporate rubric, but there’s no denying that the reason they exist is to make money, which is understandable but frequently uninspiring.
There was a time when an auteur was hired to make a superhero film because their unique voice could speak for such absurd characters. Now, an auteur is used to capitalize on their style while hopefully saying just enough not to jeopardize producers’ overarching agenda. This doesn’t mean superhero stories inevitably suck, it just means they matter less and less with each new reset. It means that I’m much more interested in Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: Winter Soldier because I want to see if TV vets Alan Taylor (Game of Thrones) and the Russo Brothers (Community), respectively, can distinguish themselves from Marvel Studios’ house style.
People keep asking if Warner Bros./DC can “pull a Marvel” with Batman vs. Superman, but nobody seems to be asking if that’s a good thing. Which is too bad, because this isn’t only the problem of superhero cinema. Star Trek Into Darkness, which essentially turns Spock and Kirk and Khan into Batman and Robin and the Joker, also suffered from this lack of tension, resulting in lower stakes. This probably helps explain why Damon Lindelof felt the movie needed a starship to crash into San Francisco in the movie’s finale, despite logic or science, because explosions theoretically raise the stakes like nothing else. This is probably why Pacific Rim actually did manage to build tension, at least in regards to character survival rates. Guillermo Del Toro’s monster mash was most heavily influenced by Anime, which is the Japanese animation genre known for having high body counts amidst insanely unpredictable outcomes.Outside of Dragonball Z or Inu Yasha, it’s a whole method of storytelling predicated on the fulfillment that planning against the sequel can bring.
I’ve probably written more than my fair share on the topic of superheroes in my time here at Pajiba, and most of it came from a sincere place. Even when I get annoyed by the moves of the parent companies, or the worst segment of fandom, and most especially when my tongue was planted firmly in my cheek, the genre is simply my wheelhouse. Hell, the comic I write that I’ve been not-so-subtly plugging in my signature line for two years is totally inspired by love of the comics I read when I was a kid. Sometimes I envy those who can still find the that much time to stay that passionate about a set of adventures and characters that never, ever end and don’t allow for breaks, and refuse to challenge themselves too much for fear of losing whatever audiences they’ve gained. But then I’m reminded, thanks to series finales like Sunday night’s Breaking Bad, just how important closure is. Moving on to new adventures and new characters is what provides meaning and context for every adventure and character.
No genre is ever truly exhausted. There are still great superhero stories to tell out there, and I hope to tell one or two of them myself, if I’m lucky. But the shared universes, the crossovers, the financial bottom line? Those are the kind of limitations with quickly diminishing returns. Movies may or may not be able to withstand the forced continuity better than comics, simply because they’re harder and take longer to make. But the more money they make, they more “comic book movies” will be made, until even the technically non-superhero movies are doing exactly the same thing. 2013 is only the beginning. Soon, going to a movie theater will feel to aging cinephiles what going to the comic shop can feel to aging comic fans. Do you need to see Avengers 4: West Coast Avengers before season 6 of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? Does Wonder Woman come before or after Batfleck 3? How does Justice League tie into Guardians of the Galaxy, again?
Thank Godtopus there are more comic publishers than Marvel and DC, and more creative people making movies without franchise potential, too.
Rob Payne also writes the web comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter, will be tumblring a lot more now, and his wares can be purchased here. He would like to thank Dustin for giving him his first break here, to the other writers for always bringing it and making him always step up his game, and to the commenters who mostly made good points, even with they vehemently disagreed, without being real dicks about it.
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