The Summer of the Superhero
In the past few years, as our economy plummets and political bickering creates apathy among the general population, I’ve noticed an odd phenomenon, the rise of the superhero, or comic book movie. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a 33-year old comic book reader. The summer of 2011 might be the apex of this latest swell of pop culture with the release of four major films in a three month span (Thor, X-Men: First Class, Green Lantern and Captain America). I enjoyed all of these movies to varying degrees and for different reasons, but I’m in the target audience, so that’s to be expected.
What I find more interesting to consider is how the perception of these films has changed and what it says about us as a culture. I was 11 in the summer of 1989 when Tim Burton’s Batman film with Michael Keaton was released. I loved it at the time, but it was pretty cheesy. It seemed as if the film itself was fully aware it was bullshit.
I mentioned in my review of Green Lantern earlier this month that it works as a film because it lacks campy crap which undermines the narrative and indirectly insults the audience. This idea, at least to me is the key to the current comic book film binge.
I get the idea that comic books are generally considered a form of entertainment for children and obsessive nerds. This is probably one of the reasons why a lot of early efforts (Dolph Lundgren’s Punisher, a low budget Captain America, an unreleased Fantastic Four) were so shitty. They never expected to be successful. That all changed with Bryan Singer’s X-Men in 2000. The difference? The people making the films had at least a basic respect for the original material. This idea has gotten to the point where Marvel Comics is now directly producing their own films (Iron Man 1 and 2, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America).
Why have these movies become regularly bankable blockbusters? I think it helps that we’re in a position as a country where people are looking for more escapism than usual. I know for a fact that the escapist idea works for me, considering that I spend most of my time seeking employment in a terrible market. We, as a culture, need heroes today who can do the things that we can’t do for ourselves, or at least allow us the fantasy stand-ins to be more proactive.
Comic book characters are generally meant to be archetypes. This happens, at least in part, because of the serialized nature of comics and the idea that multiple writers may take cracks at characters over their long histories. Spider-Man is a nerdy kid who gains powers and then has to struggle to integrate those powers into his life. Batman is a millionaire who watched his parents die as a kid, then becomes a symbol of fear to stop crime. II could go on and on with examples. My point is that while the characters may have fantastic lives, they all have character qualities that the masses can identify with. Thor is a jerkoff who learns humility, Green Lantern learns to control his fears. Maybe these things are generalizations, but most people accept them.
I’ve taken my fiance to every one of these movies, and she’s also enjoyed them, having never read a comic in her life. It seems that Hollywood has figured out how to make these films appeal to the masses, and not just a fringe audience.
And anyone who thinks this year’s glut is the end of it is wrong. Three more films will be made in 2012: The Amazing Spider Man, The Dark Knight Rises and the Avengers. The other reason these movies won’t die? They’re generating new stars. Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Andrew Garfield, Tobey Maguire and Robert Downey Jr. are just part of a list of people who either hav become or likely will become big stars as a result of these films. I’m sure there are more coming we don’t know about yet.
I don’t know about anybody else, but I love these movies, they’re a fulfillment of things I’ve wanted to see on the big screen since I was 10. Readers, what is your favorite superhero film, and why? If you’re not a fan, what don’t you like about them? Let’s debate!